What is the ultimate goal of smart technology? Is it to maximize productivity in workplaces? Is it to achieve net-zero energy performance? Is it to accurately predict human behavior? Is it to create digital urban utopias? Or, is it simply to make life better for users? There may be no right answer but all of these suggestions are probably part of that future zenith for the intelligent, connected, sensory technology we now collectively label ‘smart’. Understanding that distant smart apex allows us to appreciate how early we are in the story of our smartening society, and encourages industry to spare some resources to lay strong foundations for long-term growth while also seizing short-term opportunities.
Today, commercial buildings lead the line in terms of smart technology adoption, cities are not too far behind as infrastructure and public services get smarter, while special mention should go to the automotive industry offering an increasingly smart onboard experience. The smart home, meanwhile, is a fundamental step in tying the smart lives of future smart citizens together, but lags far behind its current technological promises, leaving adoption low and chaotic. None of these smart environments are anywhere near as smart as they could be, and collectively do not represent significant progress on our path to a future smart society.
“Whatever we hoped the smart home would become, it has not. Devices are still dependent on phones, third-party integrations, individual partnerships, and companies choosing which devices they will support. Products are too expensive, users are confused, and security is an abysmal mess,” states IoT commentator, Stacey Higginbotham. “As a result, people are cautious about connected homes or, in some cases, actively turning away from them.”
The same could be said for commercial buildings — devices still have control issues, third-party integrations, individual partnerships, and companies choosing which devices they will support. Commercial smart building products and services are prohibitively expensive too, cybersecurity is also a mess, and there remains a lot of resistance towards the technology. These are not the strong foundations the industry needs in order to fulfill the potential of smart technology, and while this chaotic fragmentation may be part of the process, so is collectively realizing the problem and doing something about it.
“Failure to coordinate within buildings is paralleled by a broader failure to coordinate between builders, and between different building cultures. The lack of uniform standards among developers, among nations, even among cities in the same nation, makes it necessary to reinvent the wheel over and over, both in the construction process and afterwards,” says Coen van Oostrom, founder and CEO at EDGE, OVG Real Estate. “If both bureaucracies and business leaders would adhere to general performance guidelines, networked digital platforms could make it possible, not just for individual businesses, but for entire business districts to reach optimal efficiency.”
"What all this truly points to is the next frontier for smart buildings: the home. If we in the development community can show what’s possible in the workplace, we will have taken one giant step towards persuading people everywhere to expect more from their living places, to demand houses that are healthy for them and healthy for the environment,” van Oostrom continued in an article for the World Economic Forum’s Davos Agenda. “That is the transformation we ultimately must see, and that is where all our efforts must now be focused."
Workplaces are just the first step in a long path towards a smart utopia. Workplaces can be the ‘gateway smart environment’, allowing a large part of society to get comfortable with, and see the benefits of, smart technology. From that point of user acceptance, we can really begin to drive the adoption of smart home and city technology, smart grids and industry 4.0. However, so far, we can’t even get workplaces right.
“The rising intelligence of equipment and devices, and the new processes required to leverage their data, challenge existing supplier operating models and protocols. Equipment suppliers, contractors and engineering firms are purely transactional and walk away following the completion of projects. Building industry OEMs have bundled equipment, software, and services contracts for major customers in a largely unchanged model since the early days of BAS/BMS,” reads a Harbor Research study. “Steadfastly clinging to the status quo is not exactly a recipe for success in a rapidly evolving market where digitization is redrawing the competitive landscape.”
Huge value is restrained by interoperability as siloes reign. Aging client-server architectures persist, limiting applications and upgradability. Until OEMs and service providers offer solutions that can operate on the same networks or cooperate with existing data architectures, we will never have true smart building ecosystems. The cybersecurity problem is not going away, in fact, it’s getting worse. And, as long as potential customers don’t appreciate the full value of smart technology, they will not adopt it in large numbers. Unless we address these foundational issues, smart technology may never reach its potential, or it’ll take too long.
Climate change, and the huge role inefficient buildings play in global warming, puts the smart buildings industry on a clock. The entire planet is literally waiting for the smart buildings industry to address its fragmentation issues so it can help tackle the 40% of carbon emissions produced by our building stock. There has never been a better reason to develop agreeable open standards, architectures, and ontologies for anything, yet the building industry continues to create new siloes, holding back smart homes, cities and citizens. An open smart building industry lays the foundation for the endless potential of smart technology.
“Forging collaborative innovation communities means managing uncertainty. In the buildings arena this will both inform and express strategy. Built to pursue multiple aims simultaneously, a dynamic network of connected products, developers, users and stakeholders will drive new information values which, in turn, create new influences in the marketplace,” reads the Harbor Research study. “To achieve success, companies will need to recognize the opportunities offered by these collaborative relationships. Power in these new structures will fall to those who best understand how to use information and influence to get and keep key positions. More and more, business success will be about appreciating shared destinies.”