Smart secrets: stitching together the ecosystems of the future

What does ‘smart’ really mean? And how can we learn from the industry’s past mistakes? WORKTECH’s Smart Buildings 2019 conference pulled together key players to share their secrets

The smart movement has snowballed in the past decade, but all the hype around the subject has failed to developed a clear definition of what smart really means. One person’s digital utopia is another’s robot Armageddon. WORKTECH’s annual Smart Buildings 19 conference, held in UBS’s Broadgate building in London on 8 May, aimed to iron out the realities of smart capabilities and how key players should work in a holistic ecosystem to offer one common purpose: creating better experiences for people.

The smart ecosystem

A panel comprising of Matt Webster of British Land, Dan Byles of Living PlanIT and Richard Reid of Arup discussed using one uniform data set to form a coherent smart ecosystem. This approach ensures that everyone has access to the data within the ecosystem and can use it to provide valuable mutually beneficial partnerships, particularly between landlords and tenants. The recurring issue, however, is setting clear boundaries on who owns the data and who is responsible sharing of data.

‘One person’s digital utopia is another’s robot Armageddon…’

Tomi Teikko of IT software provider Tieto believes the missing link in the smart ecosystem is people, who are often missing from digital solutions despite being the most efficient components in the feedback loop. Teikko explains that there are three phases in the IoT process: sense (the data source), think (the analysis) and act (data-based decision making). He argued that humans are the best sensors, database and predictive maintenance tools in the workplace because they provide proactive feedback by actively changing their settings. They also provide reactive feedback based on previous experiences, and, in the future, they will be able to give biometric feedback using technology to measure how a person is feeling in a space.

It is the biometric data which will benefit the smart infrastructure of the future, but first we have to overcome the thorny issue of data privacy.

Automation anxiety

Kevin McCullagh, founder of product strategy specialist Plan, argued against the dystopian view that augmented intelligence is a threat and instead praised its capabilities as an enabler of work. He suggested that our overestimation of smart capabilities is fuelling a global automation anxiety. This anxiety is misjudged because, in reality, jobs are being reshaped, not replaced. Automation is forecast to boost productivity by three times as much in the next 40 years and can lead to more rewarding and meaningful work.

As humans, we have a tendency to overestimate the power of machines and underestimate our own power. All we have to do is look to production lines in large car manufacturing companies. The promise of Toyota’s 100 per cent automated production line in the 1980s fell short; just 8 per cent of its production line is automated today.

‘Humans put unwarranted trust in machines…’

McCullagh explained that ‘we know more than we know’. Humans and machines both have their strengths which must be recognised and exploited. While human strengths include empathy, judgement, creativity and leadership, machines are better at data processing tasks such as rule following, analysis, accuracy and repetition. By recognising these different strengths, humans and machines can interlace to make work more productive and ultimately more human.

Sustainable smart

The digital world can be fickle and fast-paced, making designing for longevity a constant challenge. Richard Garrett of smart lighting expert Signify suggested that smart infrastructure should be implemented at the beginning of the design process to create a holistic user experience. According to Gallup research, 48 per cent of employees will actively seek new challenges when they are disengaged. This means it is more important than ever to create spaces which attract people and create a sense of belonging.

Derek Clements-Croome of the University of Reading supports the sustainability narrative, despite recognising that it can often be the more expensive route. He told the conference that sustainable design adds value and we can create smart buildings that aren’t necessarily driven by technology but instead leverage natural materials and natural energy. Globally, he explained, we are striving for carbon neutral buildings, but why not go one step further and create carbon positive buildings where hydrogen can be produced? Clements-Croome drew upon examples from Taipei to Hamburg to illustrate his point that smart is not mutually exclusive to nature.

Julian Barker of British Land suggested that smart systems allow a proactive approach to sustainability because tech is only way we can monitor carbon and energy use in buildings. He used the conference host UBS Broadgate as a case study to demonstrate how boundaries can be broken by using permeability, sustainability and biophilia to create space that is more human-centric; and  Implementing digital into the infrastructure is key to understanding how space is used.

Investment in smart

In the past decade the smart industry has boomed. This is particularly noticeable with the influx of 482 new start-ups founded within the past 10 years, 202 of which are IoT platforms and 180 proptech companies. Not only this, but we have seen venture capital funding for these start-ups rise from US $273 million in 2012 to US $2,420 million USD in 2018, making a total US $6.8 billion investment in the industry since 2012, according to data from Daphne Tomlinson of smart building research company Memoori.

Perhaps most significantly, there has been a rise in corporate venture capital showing confidence in the market. Large corporates such as Siemens have invested in partnerships with start-ups such as Comfy, Enlighted and J2 Innovations to fuel their smart building initiatives. This is seeing a growth in established players working collaboratively with smaller, innovative players to create an integrated ecosystem.

Where smart goes wrong

While the number of entrants to the smart market are multiplying fast, Matthew Marson of WSP said this means more accountability is needed for the claims that are made on behalf of smart capabilities. He recalled five lessons that the industry should learn. The first is ‘be cool, not creepy’ – design services should fit a purpose or solve a problem, so don’t just build a platform because you can. Second, ‘keep quiet’ – customers do not want to be bombarded with notifications, data updates and alerts. The platform should offer a service, not pester the user. Third, ‘trust’ – people are increasingly sceptical of how their data is being used so digital services need to be trustworthy. Fourth, ‘look beyond the glitter’ – just because it looks dazzling on the outside doesn’t mean it is a practical purchase for your company. Lastly, Marson encourages people to ‘still dream’ – there is a tremendous amount of potential in smart solutions which can combat a number of workplace pain points. This is what the industry should strive for.

Find presentations and photography from the Smart Buildings 19 event here
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