Technology has come a long way in the past decade. The huge leaps forward in wireless communications in particular have paved the way for what we’ve come to know as ‘Smart’ spaces, with wifi, 4G, Bluetooth, and RFID enabling processes that we’d have written off as sci-fi not too long ago. The implication of this advancement is that tech is now almost omnipresent – what were called Smartphones are now just regular phones, we’re all almost constantly connected to the internet, and we increasingly use systems and devices to make our lives run more smoothly.
As Master Systems Integrators, Vanti bring Smart to life by creating incredible buildings and spaces that make their users and occupants happier and more productive, and help the owners and occupiers achieve their business goals. However, it’s not always straightforward – as Smart technology is a field still very much in its infancy, there are a number of assumptions people make and limitations companies like us encounter.
The consumerisation of technology has led to people asking questions like “why can’t I get an iPhone type experience for my home or workplace?” or “is my data as secure as I think it is?” so we’ve taken a look at some of the current assumptions and limitations around Smart.
Smart solves problems
As technology, penetration, and awareness of Smart increases, so will the assumption that Smart can solve most problems. This is already something that’s happening every day, as Smart technology is often the first port of call for tackling issues that make buildings inefficient or cause everyday niggles. Let’s look at how this translates into the home and workplace now and in the near future:
- Now: “my house is cold when I get home” is solved with “I can use an app to turn my heating on when I’m about to leave work”
- In the future: your devices will work together to work out when you’re heading home and do the job for you
- Now: “repairs are expensive and hard to identify” is solved with “I am notified of system faults in real time”
- In the future: machine learning can identify impending faults before they occur and issue a warning, resulting in no system downtime
A recent report by JLL entitled ‘Workspace, Reworked’ stated that “sensors and smart systems will enter the workplace at a rapid rate. These systems will not only improve the operational efficiency of buildings, but also generate huge volumes of data on workplaces and the people who use them.”
However, it’s important that we focus on the important issues rather than just installing sensors everywhere without thought. “Just because we generate loads of data from sensors doesn’t make it good or useful,” says Mike Brooman, Vanti CEO. “We should start by identifying problems that we want to solve and then putting the technology in place that generates the metrics we need.”
Smart saves money and energy
One of the greatest things about Smart buildings is their ability to run as efficiently as possible by doing things like sensing when people are in a room and turning off lights and heating when they vacate it. It can be assumed that the more we move towards Intelligent buildings – which will be even more advanced than Smart – the more money and energy will be saved as wastage is minimised.
However it’s also worth considering where exactly these savings can be made. The cost implications in GBP per square foot of utilities and energy is £3, property is £30, and people is £3,000. The industry as a whole has spent ages talking about how we save energy (£3) or optimise space (£30), whereas we believe the real wins are where we can get bigger returns from the £3,000/sqft being spent on people. Vanti are therefore actively working to find ways of using technology to get stuff out of people’s way or help them do what they need to more effectively.
At present, Smart needs a fair amount of human input, but in future, machine learning and AI will take over many of the routine ‘thinking’ processes, saving further money by potentially taking over the tasks that people are currently hired to carry out. Whilst this would undoubtedly have a social impact as people become redundant, more high-skilled jobs would become available in Smart industries, and new roles would be created to handle data analysis, maintenance, and more.
Smart will change the way we live and work
As we’ve already mentioned, Smart has changed the way we do things – using your phone to control the heating, for example. Whilst some Smart technologies are good for little more than novelty, it can be safely assumed that the most successful developments will have a significant impact on how we carry out tasks.
On this topic, people often assume that Smart will primarily affect people on a relatively low level (e.g. lighting and temperature), but real gains will be larger scale (e.g. data, sustainability, and productivity). “While many of the use cases for smart buildings focus on relatively mundane tasks, like controlling lighting systems and regulating building access, real gains can be made in sustainability, operation cost and the productivity of staff” (JLL, ‘Workspace, Reworked’).
In addition to changing our everyday lives, Smart will push technology forward; as more companies fight to create products in this emerging market, they will create higher-level or consolidated products to take on some of the functions that are currently inefficiently carried out by humans. In less than a decade’s time, our homes and workplaces could be completely unrecognisable from the spaces we inhabit today.
Smart isn’t always possible
Something we encounter fairly regularly in our role as Master Systems Integrators for Smart buildings is the limitations of existing space. Fully Smart buildings often require an entire overhaul of the space’s systems and architecture, which can’t always be done/is prohibitively expensive in some old ‘Dumb’ buildings. In addition to this, Smart can be limited by the existing tech – the ‘holy grail’ solution that would really bring a space to life might not yet exist, or if it does, may not fall within the budget of the project.
Smart is still quite unknown
A recurring issue for us is that where the tech does exist, a lot of people aren’t yet aware of it. Technology is being developed at an astounding rate, with the tech sector growing faster than the UK economy; the results of this are not always communicated beyond the industry, and as a result, many stakeholders in projects that could be Smart simply don’t know that these options are available.
Part of our role involves educating people at every stage of the building development process about what currently exists or will exist in the near future so we can make sure projects utilise the tech most appropriate to the requirements of the users. In the future, fully Intelligent buildings will be completely integrated – this is a rarity at present, because it’s such a new concept that not all systems can support the required level of integration.
Smart requires a steep learning curve
Following on from the above point regarding education, Smart assumes everyone has a basic understanding of tech, with a base level of computer literacy. Whilst it’s true that many individuals in developed countries are incredibly familiar with tech and are happy to use it wherever they encounter it, this isn’t the case for anyone – some members of the population may not have even a basic understanding of computers. This presents a difficulty when many Smart tools are operated by touch-screen interfaces or mobile devices, so it’s important for developers to consider potential accessibility issues and requirements during the design phase.
And it’s not just the end users that may limit Smart through a lack of knowledge – as we’ve just mentioned, developers and contractors may also need bringing up to speed. Smart requires contractors working together, not independently – this is a change from the status quo, and it may take time for everyone to get on the same page. As JLL put it in their report ‘Workspace, Reworked’, “The companies that benefit from the disruption set to take place will be those with a clear view of the technological and organisation drivers of change.”
Smart poses more risks
With integrated systems all communicating with one another, a Smart building is only as secure as its weakest link. The system therefore needs to be secure by design, rather than as an afterthought. As Master System Integrators, we consider security to be one of the most important elements of the systems we deal with, ensuring not only that there are no weak links in the chain, but also that there are proactive maintenance procedures and regular backups to ensure everything is recoverable if the worst were to happen. However, that’s just us – as more companies begin to play a role in the Smart space, it’s entirely possible to envisage a scenario in which a less careful systems integrator or developer fails to spot a weakness that could be exploited with incredibly serious consequences.
AN OBLIGATION TO EDUCATE
Smart is still in its infancy and will undoubtedly be a lot more ubiquitous in future, but it’s important to realise that it’s not quite a magic bullet just yet. Every company involved at this relatively early stage has a duty to educate those around them about Smart – not just the good parts, but the risks and limitations as well. By doing this and by working together we can create a solid industry that benefits everyone touched by it, not just those involved in it.