May 12, 2016

Buildings at the service of the people

A building that tells you what it needs sounds very futuristic, but in reality this vision of the future is closer than you might think. These smart buildings of the future offer enormous advantages for users and managers of office buildings. However, before this can happen, an essential step must be taken in the area of data integration.

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Sensors and smart devices are important components of a smart building, and organizations can use these to collect a wealth of data. They can see how many people are using the office at a given moment, which workstations are used most, and what the peak times are in regard to energy consumption—and that’s just a small sample of the possibilities. A sensor can also provide insight into humidity development or even measure something as small as coffee machine use. Building managers can then take action based on the concrete data collected.

Benefits for the buildings’ users

Smart buildings yield considerable returns in the area of efficiency and cost savings, but the focus must above all be on the benefits for the buildings’ users. By creating a work environment that is as comfortable as possible, an organization can get more out of its employees. Happy employees perform better, which benefits productivity. Moreover, a smart building can contribute to the safety and health (CO2 and humidity control) of its users.

I came upon a nice example (shown above) during my visit to CeBIT. Toshiba has “smart” elevators in their office, and it has equipped them with embedded software that is linked to their cloud environment. Thanks to a camera, they are able to measure how many people are waiting for the elevator at a given time and adjust the elevator movement algorithm accordingly based on the data. The result is improved traffic flow during peak times, which eliminates lots of frustration among employees. Thanks to the acquired data, Toshiba is also able to compare failure patterns and use this information to reduce the chance that something will break by employing predictive maintenance.

Cost savings is an additional benefit of acquiring data like this. For example, by linking maintenance and cleaning to a building’s actual use, you can better decide the increase or decrease the frequency to clean space based on its actual use. You can also limit the CO2 emissions by conducting an analysis of the energy consumption. The combination of happy employees and sustainability is, in turn, great for the organization’s appeal, which results in better acquisition of sought-after talent and helps you retain that talent as well.

The advantages are numerous, but when is a building truly “smart?” An important initial step towards a smart building is setting up a central location (possibly in the cloud) where all the building’s data is collected and processed into concrete assignments. If the sensors see that maintenance is necessary, a technician will be informed about this automatically. However, in order to achieve full integration, all applications must speak the same language. Currently, almost all of them have a different type of interface. Integration is akin to building the Tower of Babel in this case. 

That is why for the time being I, just like my colleague Erik Jaspers, prefer to talk about not “smart” but rather quantified buildings. The difference is in the integration of applications. And while we work towards full integration, we can make some big leaps forward by translating the data collected by the sensors into actions in the workplace. That’s good for our wallet, but above all good for the users.