As the world continues to urbanize and climate change worsens, increased scrutiny is being focused on cities and how they can adapt to changing conditions. One of the focuses of this increased attention is on the buildings that pack the urban landscape. The road to smart cities, according to many experts, begins with smart buildings. For example, Sanjeevv Bhatia, CEO of Netix, observes, “Smart buildings are the units which aggregate into smart cities, and each such individual asset — as well as the entire cluster — depends on connectivity, for optimization.” Efficiency and optimization are essential as more people rely on diminishing resources to thrive. Bhatia adds, “Smart cities are emerging as a fundamental evolution in urban infrastructure, which will optimize services and amenities, to enhance the lives of all citizens. By building these technologically advanced cities, city planners can have a positive impact on the entire range of inconveniences and inefficiencies that are currently plaguing our big cities. Solving for problems such as traffic flow, emergency responses, air quality and energy usage, produces universal positives for all stakeholders, and this is exactly the kind of optimal urban experience that smart cities promise to manifest.”
The word “promise” is the telltale sign that, to date, smart cities initiatives have had limited impact. Thomas Seiler, CEO at u-blox, explains, “So far, as ABI Research reports, top-down coordinated smart city projects have only been partly successful in their mission. Yes, they’ve been quite good at deploying smart street lights and opening doors to things like car and bike-sharing schemes. But when it comes to broader integrated projects, such as transforming a city’s healthcare offering or upgrading its power distribution infrastructure, complexity and cost quickly become barriers.” Bhatia believes the foundation of success lies with connected buildings. “Connected buildings,” he writes, “which are empowered by the deployment of cloud and Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, will be the key reason that smart cities succeed.”
Konkana Khaund, a Consulting Director at Frost & Sullivan, observes, “A rise in urbanization, resulting in over 50 per cent of the world’s population living in urban areas, is one of the key drivers for smarter cities.” She adds, “This radical shift toward urbanization is resulting in our cities increasingly becoming a critical part of the economy. The economic contributions that result from various activities, which, in some cases far exceed the economic output of entire countries, highlight the growing importance of the city.” Analysts also point out that cities will play a critical role in addressing climate change. As Khaund points out, the key to making urban life and the global environment better is smarter cities. And smarter cities begin with smarter buildings. However, Khaund believes, “Smart buildings [are] the underutilized enabler of a smart city.”
She notes, “The impact of the Internet of Things, big data, and data analytics is resulting in novel opportunities in building operations, automation, and building energy management. These trends are changing how buildings function; buildings are progressing from a state where they were functioning more in isolation as a piece of real estate, to increasingly becoming a key part of that connected world within the urban setting of a city.” She also believes, “Smart buildings … resonate very well with residents. Smart buildings can be utilized as a dynamic termination node in which sensor-aided intelligence can be embedded. With this, a city can monitor and manage various essential services in real time, including crime management, crowd control, dispatch of essential services, and weather-related advisory. Smart buildings can be the conduit for channeling smart data and information about the city so its citizens can take action.”
Tom Bell, a Marketing Specialist at IRISYS, insists, “We are reaching a new age when it comes to building construction. No longer is it simply enough for offices to provide a space for us to come sit down at one set desk and work. Today, thanks to the evolution of technology, it’s possible for a building to not only deliver all the services that occupants need, but for this to be done whilst making the building as efficient as possible, minimizing costs, and increasing energy savings over the life of the building. This is a balance that will be key to businesses going forward. The age of the smart building is here.” Bell defines a smart building as “one that uses technology to enable efficient and economical use of resources, while creating a safe and comfortable environment for occupants. Smart buildings may use a wide range of existing technologies and are designed or retrofitted in a way that allows for the integration of future technological developments. Internet of Things sensors, building management systems, artificial intelligence (AI), and augmented reality are amongst some of the mechanisms and robotics that may be used in a smart building to control and optimize its performance.” He suggests four principal ways these technologies can be used to make a building smart. They are:
1. For automation. “The most fundamental feature of a smart building is that the core systems within it are linked. Connecting smart technology, such as real-time IoT occupancy sensors and building management systems together, means you can share information that can be used to automate various processes, including, but not limited to, heating, ventilation, lighting, air conditioning, and security. This is what makes a building ‘smart’ — the ability of the systems within it to talk to one another.”
2. To integrate with different building systems. “Sharing and integrating data between building systems enables the value of the combined smart building to be greater than the sum of its parts. For example, integrating IoT occupancy sensor data into a desk or room booking system means that you can enable efficient management processes and provide a smart environment for your employees with assets that know when they are free, booked or occupied.”
3. For space optimization. “Buildings and real estate are often the second-highest cost for a business (behind wages and employees), so ensuring that the space you have available is used optimally is essential. Here sensors are an integral part of smart buildings and play an important role in collecting data to inform decisions about where to allocate resources. So, for example, occupancy sensors may be integrated into the building to provide information that will help you understand whether your facilities have the right types of spaces to meet your staff’s requirements. Occupancy analytics can help you identify: Whether you have the right size or amount of meeting rooms; which communal areas are the most popular or unpopular; and whether the working spaces provided are sufficient.”
4. For preventative maintenance. “Using AI can help you identify if an asset needs maintenance, because it can learn abnormal usage patterns and alert you when detected. By collecting accurate data from devices such as people sensors, you can get a more realistic picture of how often a facility within your building is used, enabling you to take a more proactive approach to managing wear and tear, cleaning and restocking, helping to prolong the life of equipment, furnishings and appliances.”
Of course, people don’t just work in cities, they live there as well. Which is why smart homes also have roles to play.
One of the challenges currently facing many countries, including China, is trying to keep up with power demands. Seiler notes that many cities are increasingly pushing for more solar energy solutions to provide them with power. He writes, “As more and more [smart buildings] are going solar, power utilities are being forced to devise new schemes to manage the highly variable renewable energy produced. And while they are at the root of the challenge, smart homes — and smart buildings in general — will also be key in providing a solution, combining energy storage, electric vehicle charging, smart appliances and demand-response management using smart thermostats.”
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the popularity of hybrid and home-based work has increased. Sarah Hollenbeck, a Senior Content Marketing Specialist at siegemedia, believes one of the consequences of people spending more time in their homes is that homes will become smarter. In an email to me, she wrote, “As the pandemic shifts priorities, you can expect to see more smart pantries to help stock up on necessities and smart humidity sensors to reduce virus transmission indoors.” She also pointed me to the following infographic about COVID-19 could end up making homes smarter.
Bhatia concludes, “Connected buildings are perhaps the singular implementation of a digital upgrade that can produce the most positive impact on all the fundamental elements around which our societies are organized.” While that may be true, there is a Godzilla-sized monster ready to stomp through the connections of smart buildings and homes: cybersecurity. Connected systems can be hacked, altered, and held for ransomware. As a result, every effort must be made harden smart building connections prevent hacks that could endanger both lives and property. We need smart systems to address many of the problems plaguing cities as well as broader challenges, like climate change. In our efforts to make things smart, we must also make them safe and secure.
 Sanjeevv Bhatia, “Why connected buildings are essential for smart cities?” Construction Week, 30 July 2020.
 Thomas Seiler, “Why smart cities need smart buildings,” Smart Cities World, 5 July 2019.
 Konkana Khaund, “Smart buildings creating smarter cities,” Smart Cities World, 30 January 2018.
 Tom Bell, “What is a Smart Building?” True Occupancy Blog, 5 July 2021.