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“Successful digital transformation is like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. It’s still the same organism, but it now has superpowers,” says George Westerman, a research scientist at the MIT Center for Digital Business. When digital transformation is done wrong, however, “all you have is a really fast caterpillar,” he points out, “and it’s hard to keep up with your competitors if you’re crawling ahead while they can fly.”

The transformation of a building into a smart building can also be seen like the caterpillar’s metamorphosis into a butterfly. Like an old, dumb building, the caterpillar has all the basic functions for life. The butterfly on the other hand, like a smart building, has advanced features that allow the creature to soar to new heights, capture more desirable targets, and dominate their environment. Poor integration of smart technologies, however, only creates a dumb building with smart features – like a butterfly that can’t fly.

In the race for more advanced technologies and smarter buildings, integration is often overlooked, meaning much of the investment into smart buildings is going to waste. Fixing the integration problem is fast becoming a key challenge for the smart building sector to overcome according to many experts.

One of the most overlooked elements of smart building integration is the user, according to Ian Dempster, senior director of Product Innovation, Optimum Energy. “Sometimes new technology is not well-received and adopted by the workforce or does not have the expected impact. I have seen systems implemented with the latest technology and then get ignored or disconnected because the people using it were not consulted or trained in the new technology,” he said.

For many smart building features user consultation in the design and implementation of the technologies is critical to the success of the system. What’s the point of a smart meeting room scheduler if people ignore it and manually search for a free space like they have always done, for example. Only by increasing user engagement, can these types of systems reach their true potential. However, it is not just the user that could be more engaged, the buyers themselves must better understand what they are purchasing.

Understanding the technology better is key according to Jean-Simon Venne, CTO and co-founder of Montreal-based, autonomous AI HVAC technology firm BrainBox AI, who highlights that many building owners still don’t understand the real differences between automation and artificial intelligence. He often finds himself explaining these concepts so building owners and managers not only understand what they are buying but also to give them the knowledge to integrate and utilise the technology to its fullest.

“Imagine a child who learns how to walk on solid ground and, one day, visits the beach where there is sand. After a while, the child will be able to adapt their steps and learn how to walk on the sand. An artificial intelligence agent would be able to develop a similar approach to learning, while an automated intelligence system will keep ‘falling,’ because ‘sandy beach’ is not included as one of its predefined inputs,” said Venne. “With the introduction of AI technologies to the built environment, building technicians will no longer have to focus on mundane tasks, as AI will take care of that for them.”

In order to integrate and make the best use of the technology, building owners and managers must understand the capabilities of the technology but also the needs and capabilities of the occupants. As the workforce gets more comfortable with digital technologies, most notably with the influx of younger tech-savvy generations, the user’s demands from smart buildings will evolve.

“The buildings industry is on the cusp of a revolution, as technologies like 5G, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and natural language processing alter the way we control and connect smart buildings,” said Robert Hemmerdinger, chief sales and marketing officer at Delta Controls.

“HVAC contractors and technicians should be aware that tenant sophistication is increasing,” Hemmerdinger continued. “Tenants want more control over their environments. Granular room control will become the norm across the industry. One of the biggest hurdles to this will be finding the proper balance of technology and control to incorporate the preferences of all occupants within a space.”

Building technology contractors are a critical part of facing the integration challenge, not only in helping buyers get the right technologies but also helping them deploy those technologies for greatest impact. “In the years ahead, contractors may have a direct line into their clients’ building management system,” says Hemmerdinger, suggesting as-as-serivice business models for maintenaince, optimization and integration. While installing wings on a caterpillar, contractors also have a responsibility to teach it to fly.