Considering Smart & Intelligent Buildings and Spaces

I recently had the opportunity to present Vanti’s thoughts on Smart & Intelligent Buildings during UK Construction Week 2015 at the NEC in Birmingham. We used the show as an opportunity to consolidate our research to date, engage in conversations with construction industry professionals and attempt to help answer the question ‘What really makes a Smart or Intelligent space?’

We started with the premise that by having ‘Smart’ spaces, we must inherently have ‘Dumb’ spaces too. This led us to consider retrofit projects we’ve been involved with where we’ve tried to introduce the latest technology for people but have been limited or hampered by existing legacy infrastructure.

We then considered the move towards Intelligent Buildings and the focus on self-optimising spaces that are underpinned by principals such as sustainability, waste minimisation, reductions in pollution and the wellbeing of its occupants. Although definitions differ and the considerations of intelligent buildings are very broad, we believe that many of the outcomes being discussed will be both underpinned by technology and have at least some reliance on artificial intelligence techniques (narrowband or specialist to begin with, broadening to more general intelligence as the technology matures).

Our thinking and research led us to create the following spectrum (click to enlarge):

Between Dumb and Smart we see buildings reliant on non-standard or proprietary physical infrastructure. Newer buildings suffer less with this issue due to the now wide-spread adoption of structured cabling. However, attempting to retrofit smart or intelligent technology in to these buildings or spaces is likely to have a higher upfront cost due to the physical nature of the infrastructure that needs to be brought up to standard.

The switch to ‘Smart’ occurs where we start moving away from strict rules-based behaviour such as a dumb thermostat triggering the heating to come on, regardless of whether anyone is actually present in the space that it’s warming up. The stage of ‘basic system integration’ is where we see the sum of the whole smart system creating outcomes greater than that of the individual components.

As a technology integrator we believe we’re currently at the stage of ‘Automagic’, that is to say we’re able to create experiences for people using spaces whereby they are largely unaware of the technology systems they’re interacting with but they are able to change the state of the space around them by using consistent user interfaces, usually via touch panels or mobile devices.

But unfortunately, Automagic is as far as we can get along this spectrum until the construction and technology industries start working more closely together. In order to advance further towards better insight and reporting, having technology adapt to the way people work, introducing preference learning and eventually moving towards self-optimisation, there needs to be an acknowledgement that technical architecture and technical architects are required at the design stage of these buildings and spaces.

The reason these skills are essential is to ensure that in the deployment of smart and intelligent technologies there is:

  • System interoperability – a ‘one size fits all’ approach to designing and implementing these complex, interrelated systems is impossible. Instead, multiple best of breed technologies will need to be engineered to work together and most importantly, be able to be changed over time (technology will need to be refreshed at least 4-5 times in a building lifecycle of 25 years).
  • Data ownership – master data needs to be defined and that data needs to be made available in a robust and resilient way
  • Security – with multiple vendors likely to be involved in complex component system deployments in their own right, solid security practices need to be designed and enforced across all in-building technology
  • Testing – component testing is essential but use cases and stress tests need to be properly designed not only to ensure that failure modes have been considered but also to make sure there is adequate capacity in place to support real-world, simultaneous use of systems throughout the space or building.

Our work is now focused on how we enable truly converged infrastructure at both physical and software layers. There’s a lot to do but we’re excited to be a part of the journey towards Smart & Intelligent buildings and spaces.

We’re keen to talk more about this, especially with potential partners in the construction industry. Do get in touch to arrange a coffee and a chat.