To create a truly smart building, we need to redefine what we mean by ‘smart’, says Jamie Cameron, director of digital solutions at Johnson Controls UK & Ireland
There are numerous buildings across the country that have been categorised as ‘smart’ but, in reality, there are no truly smart buildings in the UK. While it’s true there are buildings that make use of intelligent tech, flashy technologies do not constitute calling something smart. Most buildings are failing to make the most of the technology available to validate the ‘smart’ label.
It’s possible that there aren’t any buildings in the UK that can really call themselves smart, most haven’t even scratched the surface of the word. Owing to the widespread benefits of connected, smart buildings, building developers in London are able to charge a 5 per cent ‘digital premium’ on their spaces. We live in an increasingly ‘smart’ world, but how can we keep calling things smart when we’re not actually delivering?
Expectations have also changed dramatically as a result of the pandemic. Over the past year, we’ve been able to control our environment from the comfort of our own homes. Now, building decision-makers need to convince occupants to come out from the comfort of their home working arrangements and move back into the office. It’s a fighting battle where our buildings need to feel like home in order to win.
Becoming truly smart
Of course, there are buildings with intelligent technologies fitted into them, but the reality is that they’re not being used effectively enough to create a genuinely smart building – one that thinks, responds, and adapts to its occupants’ needs. This disconnect is the result of implementing smart technologies as point solutions. The sum of all these individual parts does not constitute a smart building. To create a truly smart building that can command even more than a 5% digital premium, we need to redefine what we mean by ‘smart’.
We know that smart buildings bring benefits:
- Two-thirds of business leaders recognise that poor connectivity is detrimental to both work-life balance and mental health; and
- 81 per cent of companies believe that a well-connected office leads to a better performing business.
But ‘well-performing’ is starting to mean something new, with environmental, social and governance (ESG) concerns now inherently linked to corporate success. To this end, companies are being tasked with the seemingly impossible objective of becoming carbon net-zero. That’s where smart buildings – truly smart ones – come in.
Technologies that we see as smart, like facial recognition on entry, automatic lighting, and app-based temperature control are often seen as ‘enough’ – they wow visitors and do improve employee experience. And ‘smart’ doesn’t need to be confined within the building itself: sensors can be used to gauge the average time people leave the building and provide transport updates, such as transport delays or traffic jams, to optimise employees’ experience even after they leave the building itself.
But none of these technologies, smart as they are, are worth the investment if they don’t actually improve how a building is run, or its impact on people, places and the planet.
The real challenge goes far beyond opening doors and turning lights on and off. It’s about tapping into the building to ensure everyone in it can be productive, healthy, and happy, while leveraging every piece of data the building holds to save costs, bring energy usage down, and help achieve ESG goals. That is the moment when a building becomes smart.
Unlocking the potential of ‘smart’
Right now, the data from each of these point solutions is siloed and disconnected. This is preventing building managers, developers and owners from seeing the bigger picture, limiting them to small, incremental changes that don’t help realise the full potential of their investment in smart.
What’s more, many buildings house multiple tenants, with various needs that are subject to flux at any time. This will become truer than ever as businesses return to offices on a more flexible basis this year. For some tenants, regular heating will be less essential. Others may require less space or see cleaning requirements become more intensive. For others, the opposite may be true. That said, some things will remain consistent: the need to drive down energy usage, move towards carbon net-zero, and provide an impressive and comfortable experience for occupants. All of this is harder to achieve when a building’s data is sitting in silos, underused and unable to provide a 360-degree view of what a building can really offer.
To reach this potential, we have to get deep below the surface level of smart technologies to unlock the insights they generate. This happens when we connect smart technology systems together to create an ecosystem/platform for smart solutions, looking at the bigger picture. The data and insights this creates can then be analysed to make vast improvements across a building, and even the whole enterprise.
To make this a reality, the data needs to be connected and easily accessible in the cloud. Then decision makers can analyse the data in its entirety and identify areas of improvement. They can focus this analysis on processes such as maintenance, energy savings and sustainable development – wherever needs attention at that time. Then, they can pinpoint the smart technologies that can make these adjustments autonomously and improve the experience that tenants receive. From these foundations, building and office decision makers can create something which is truly smart.
Realising truly smart buildings
The good news is that many buildings already have the technology in place to realise an authentically smart building. This means the costs involved are not nearly as dramatic as many may think. The trick is to ensure the data from devices is connected and provides a holistic view for those who need it. From there, decision-makers can review the information and take actions for improvements, whether it's an ad hoc request for temperature or security controls, or taking longer-term steps to deliver on ESG ambitions and achieve net-zero emissions.
Only once we start seeing the potential of genuinely smart buildings will we be able to understand just how smart the UK can be. The potential for truly smart buildings is endless – much higher than the 5% digital premium we’ve seen with faux-smart buildings. The benefits will soon come to fruition, and those who act soon will reap the rewards.