Define Smart

The word ‘smart’ has been increasingly used in recent years, generally to act as a more user friendly and accessible way of presenting the Internet of Things to the general public. But being used as a catch all term for a huge range of goods and services has led to some confusion, so let’s clear that up…

The idea of the ‘smart home’ is now a fairly familiar concept, with Google data demonstrating a steady rise in activity for the term since 2013, and marketing campaigns from companies such as Hive, Nest, and Philips bringing the language into the consciousness of consumers.

However, there is a great deal of vagueness and uncertainty over what ‘smart’ actually means, and this is especially the case in the much wider field of smart buildings.

The general consensus

There’s currently no dictionary definition of a smart building, though we seem to be moving towards a shared understanding that for a building to be considered ‘smart’, it should use technology to deliver useful, consistent, user focused experiences as well as space and energy efficiencies. We can contrast this with ‘connected’ and ‘intelligent’ buildings, as we’ll discuss shortly.

Whilst a smart home has a generally understood and agreed upon definition of being a residential space in which devices are connected via a central hub – think Google Home or Amazon Alexa – and easily controlled and automated, this becomes a more complicated matter when we scale up to smart offices and other larger smart buildings – hotels, universities, apartment blocks etc.

“For a building to be considered ‘smart’, it should use technology to deliver useful, consistent, user-focused experiences as well as space and energy efficiencies.”

Mike Brooman, Vanti CEO

Why this isn’t enough

In part, this lack of clarity is due to the fact that these spaces tend to involve a wider number and variety of systems, many of which aren’t utilised in residential environments, and the sheer size of these spaces require much more heavy-duty setups than a simple home would. For example, where a standard house will only have a handful of clearly-defined rooms, with a few different types of devices in each, a commercial building can include several floors containing numerous rooms and hundreds or thousands of devices and sensors.

As well as the sheer complexity of the systems that exist in smart buildings, it’s important to note that these spaces must support much higher occupancy and usage levels than residential environments. Building operators will also have to consider how system failures or breaches such as power outages and cyber-attacks affect a space’s users, where mere seconds of downtime could critically affect a business’ operations.

This inevitably leads to a far more complicated system that supports redundancy, uninterrupted power supplies, and high levels of security – not factors that the average consumer usually considers when trying to make their home ‘smart’.

With this in mind, it’s easy to see how simply putting a selection of devices onto the same wireless network isn’t going to cut the mustard on a commercial scale, and certainly won’t provide anywhere near the same experience as a smart home would.

Are you smart, or connected?

In reality there is a stark difference between ‘smart’ technology integration and simply being ‘connected’. The two words have been used relatively interchangeably due to the lack of standardised terminology.

Connected

Connected buildings tend to feature technologies that have been plugged together, often for the benefit of owners and operators instead of the occupants – think lights that automatically turn off after 60 seconds when movement hasn’t been sensed, to save power, thus plunging people into darkness and resulting in the inevitable arm waving and star jumps to restore functionality.

Smart

In contrast, smart buildings are centred around the needs of the users, with consultants and Main Technology Contractors frequently being involved in the design stage of a project by seeking to understand exactly who will be using the building and what they’ll be doing in it. The day-to-day ‘user journeys’ for these different groups will often be mapped out with any pain points established, allowing the design team to understand where technology can help to alleviate issues – or even better, enhance people’s experience.

Smart buildings take a more integrated approach by looking at the big picture – what people are trying to achieve within the building – and working downwards so that each individual device and system is considered. This results in more useful outcomes, such as personalising a user’s experience so that they can be more productive, or managing room temperatures more holistically by responding to the position of the sun and the weather that day rather than simply turning off the heating simply because the 1st of April has arrived.

The level of integration is often a key point of difference between connected and smart buildings.

Intelligent buildings

At the other end of the scale we have ‘intelligent’ buildings, something we are increasingly able to achieve by integrating technology that’s able to do even more to support occupants.

Again, the exact definition of intelligent buildings has not been agreed upon, but many tend to see the use of machine learning and artificial intelligence as the line between smart and intelligent.

Ria Blagburn, Vanti

Intelligent buildings will use machine learning and AI to proactively support occupants by learning from these inputs and making decisions that will benefit users. This continuous cycle of learning, responding to feedback, and optimising will theoretically make intelligent buildings capable of looking after themselves as well as their occupants.

We hope that you’ve learnt something new here, we’re on a mission to clear up the distinction between the rapidly growing spaces that we work in. If you’d like to learn more about this, or you’d like to see how we can intelligently integrate technology in your space, we’d love to hear from you.

This article was written by use of our contribution to the Smart Buildings eBook, which was released earlier this year for Facilities Show 2019.

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