Worktech

From computers with a roof to creative spaces for change

WORKTECH's inaugural Smart Buildings 2017 conference charts the rise of connected work environments that don’t just save money but also foster innovation and wellbeing

In the 20-plus years since British author Philip Kerr wrote the best-selling 1995 science fiction novel Gridiron, in which a highly technical office tower becomes self-aware and ends up trying to kill everyone, much has been made of the dystopian side-effects of smart building technologies as well as the utopian promise.

The Gridiron, home of the fictional Yu Corporation, was able to clean itself, used holograms as greeters in the reception and digitised everyone’s voice on entry, to allow them to use voice-activated services in the building such as lifts and doors. It also started to autonomously write its own computer programme, with disastrous consequences.

However today’s experts are a lot more sanguine about being able to control smart building technology before it starts to control us. More than 100 professionals debated the issues with 20 speakers and panellists in London in May at the first-ever Smart Buildings conference, an offshoot of the WORKTECH event series organised in partnership with British Land.

Cognitive buildings

The tone was set by Mike Gedye, Executive Director at CBRE, who quoted Steve Jobs of Apple: ‘You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back to the technology – not the other way.’ Gedye outlined a future in which the chief imperative for smart buildings will be not to ‘drive costs down’ but to ‘better collaborate’. His vision of ‘cognitive buildings’ that make your connections for you was a beguiling one, and plenty of other speakers offered positive glimpses of gleaming new infrastructures just around the corner.

Robert Scopes and David Sie of Deloitte presented the next chapter of The Edge in Amsterdam – the current poster boy of the smart building movement – as not just a ‘computer with a roof’ but as a place of imagination and creativity with the potential to transform companies, recruit millennials and bust the silos of human resources, IT and facilities management.

Sander Schutte of Dutch company Mapiq showed how an effective smart building ecosystem might operate.  Closing speaker Matthew Claudel of MIT and a lively panel debate on disrupting real estate chaired by Vanessa Butz of District Technologies reminded us of how start-up culture and smart buildings might collide to create some genuinely innovative and unexpected solutions.

Even the London conference venue itself, the British Land development at 4 Kingdom Street, Paddington Central, was suggestive of big new things.

Negotiating the barriers

But, for all the warm glow of progress, there are also big barriers ahead – not least in how you analyse and manage all the data that the next generation of smart buildings will generate.

In short, data flows can be difficult. Philip Kite of Ramboll raised the thorny issue of how you interface landlord data with tenant data. A new report, Smart Buildings and the Future of Work, jointly presented by Pradyumna Pandit of Schneider Electric and Owen King of UnWork, raised the spectre of ransomware attacks on smart buildings and argued for cyber security to become a core competency.

Kingdom Street architect Alex Wraight of Allies & Morrison wrestled with the dilemma, first raised by Stewart Brand in his seminal book How Buildings Learn, of how you reconcile fast-moving technologies with buildings built to last at least 50 years. And a panel of experts from British Land discussed new research by the company showing that although 96 per cent of workplace decision-makers in London have heard about smart buildings, less than a quarter are knowledgeable about how they work or what they mean.

Making up ground

Clearly there is a lot of ground to make up in the smart building sector and as the British Land team ruefully observed: ‘We’re not going to get everything right every time’. But some comfort can be drawn from the potential benefits outlined at the conference in terms of improving wellbeing, enhancing employee experience and addressing the talent agenda.

Prime movers in the field are also well aware that today’s office stock won’t simply disappear, so the retrofit market will be an important area as smart technologies get inserted into dumb buildings. If words like ‘experience’ and ‘ecosystem’ were what you might have expected to hear at a conference like this, words like ‘retrofit’ and ‘velcro’ were not.

But, yes, alongside the handsomest array of the smart tech dashboards and controls, there was a vision of sensors simply stuck on the wall with a stickie.  A whole lot less threatening than a murderous Gridiron building with a brain.

Speaker interviews

In these exclusive interviews with WORKTECH Academy, Doug Lowrie, global workplace product manager at Microsoft, and Pradyumna Pandit, vice president at Schneider Electric, discuss the barriers to smart buildings.

Here, Microsoft’s Doug Lowrie emphasises that the relationship between the landlords and occupiers as the main barrier to developing smart buildings.

Schneider Electric’s Pradyumna Pandit discusses how workforce productivity and efficiency can be achieved by smart buildings, and the possibility of retrofit with minimal disruptions to the workplace.