“While interest in smart building technology had been primarily driven by the need to save energy and money, today, as we look to return to a trusted workplace, the data from that same converged, interconnected IT/OT network can be used to bring people back to an in-person workspace in safe, socially distant, and compliant ways,” says Jeremy Witikko, CTO and Global Director of Smart Buildings at Cisco. “Born out of necessity, as building technology has evolved, different systems handling different aspects of your building have likely been added without much interconnection.”
Our building technology has always evolved to meet the needs of the tenants and occupants. Traditionally, this has been a mixture of cost-saving, comfort, and productivity, but after the events of the last year, the needs of these stakeholders have changed significantly. In addition to the traditional needs, tenants now require a virus-safe building to encourage workers to return, and the worker occupants need to trust that technology to alleviate fear. The office building has been forced to evolve rapidly to meet the novel demands of the pandemic, but most have found that traditional building technology can be adapted to this new purpose.
“The workplace of the future is going to be centered around people and how they connect to each other and interact with their environment. The good news is many companies have already figured out how to create a “trusted workplace”, and much of what they need already in place,” continues Witikko in a Cisco blog post. “Sensors and devices that have been used to better manage lighting and HVAC systems can be repurposed for occupancy and density monitoring, air quality testing, contact tracing, and in-room presence.”
As the pandemic has progressed facility managers have found that the hardware and infrastructure they require to adapt their workspaces for this prolonged crisis and its aftermath already exists. However, the wide range of software applied to these disparate systems means that communication between different devices is limited, thereby limiting the potential applications of the building as a whole. Interoperability has always been a limitation for the emerging smart buildings market but now that smart building systems are seen as an ideal solution for safely returning workers to the office, the big companies in the industry have greater motivation to solve the problem of data siloes.
“While managing multiple systems from different vendors can be an operations headache, these different systems create another problem – siloed data sources – meaning devices and sensors in different systems can’t talk to each other… But they want to!” states Witikko. “By layering in the right software and connecting the right devices, data from your building can be extracted to provide the very insights necessary to make their workplaces safe, and to make them trusted..”
As we learn more about the pandemic and envision ways to emerge from the crisis, tech vendors around the world are seizing the opportunity to help facility managers and IT staff coordinate the return to the workplace. On May 4th, Cisco announced that its Catalyst 9000 switches will now integrate Cisco DNA Spaces with an onboard IoT Gateway. This integration of their DNA Spaces dashboard with their IoT Gateway and access points could allow for the interconnection of hundreds of different types of endpoints, thereby opening the door to a host of return-to-work applications as well as a range of other use cases that were held back by interoperability issues.
“As a customer, you can give authorization to DNA spaces to be able to take data from control hub and feed it into your existing DNA spaces data, and then expand that up with their collaboration of ecosystem partners. And this data can very easily be attached to their API to provide additional value,” Richard Bayes, Collaboration Product Manager at Cisco, told Memoori during an in-depth webinar late last year. “So, this is what we're currently working on at the moment. In terms of timelines, it is aimed for the early part of next year, in terms of some of that more scalable integration.”
This latest announcement is a big part of the tech development that Bayes revealed to the live webinar audience late last year. This move toward increased integration is a trend we have seen across the industry as the pandemic progressed and the potential of the IoT as a virus-control technology became evident. Prior to COVID-19, integration was a key talking point but many of the applications it promised raised serious privacy concerns that held back system development. Now, as the need for safe working environments increases, the pandemic has become the driver for this long-anticipated integration of building systems and devices.
“Cisco’s latest move is especially prescient because the return to work is going to increase the need for IoT. The change here is that these IoT systems will be managed by IT folks instead of OT. There are now many more ways to connect network devices to things and that’s a real trend, and safe work is going to be a catalyst for that,” said Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at ZK Research.
“Cameras can be used for more than just security by offering visibility into how workspaces are being used. The Cisco Meraki MV smart camera line has advanced capabilities to provide customers with real-time and historical data on office, meeting room, and desk occupancy,” explained Witikko. “They also feature machine-learning analytics to detect fire alarms and sirens for alerting and faster incident response, all without recording or storing audio.”
Smart buildings want to sense and understand everything within their walls but technological development and technological resistance have formed a barrier to such progress. For good and for bad, the COVID-19 pandemic has fueled the drivers and weakened the barriers to the integration of various systems. This crisis trend could bring us closer to the all-knowing smart buildings that the industry has been moving slowly towards, by the time the pandemic is truly over, these technologies could be too established and too beneficial to remove.