Smart Buildings

The Digital Building Lives In An Analog World

“The world we live in is analog. We are analog. Any inputs we can perceive are analog. For example, sounds are analog signals; they are continuous time and continuous value. Our ears listen to analog signals and we speak with analog signals. Images, pictures, and video are all analog at the source and our eyes are analog sensors. Measuring our heartbeat, tracking our activity, all requires processing analog sensor information,” says Peter Kinget, Professor of Electrical Engineering at Columbia University.

Buildings are analog. These physical structures face real-world challenges like heating, cooling, and ventilation, like broken elevators and blocked toilets, and a collection of analog occupants going about their days. Our analog world is defined by the infinite possibilities of color, smell, speech, or human behavior that seem impossible to quantify, but that’s what we are trying to do with our smart buildings. Through sensors and computers that convert analog signals into digital code we give everything a value and use that value to drive decision-making throughout the facility.

“Computers are digital. Information is represented with discrete time and amplitude quantized signals using digital bits. Such representation lends itself to efficient processing and long-term storage of signals and information. But information and signals come from the physical world and need to move back into the physical world for us to perceive them. No matter how “digital” our electronic devices get, they always require interfaces that translate signals from the physical world into the digital world of electronics,” continued Kinget in an article for Circuit Cellar.

Buildings essentially house defined spaces that are protected from the chaos of the real world, and this protection allows us to control many aspects of those indoor environments. Once it was enough to have shelter from the cold or rain but now, with the emergence of smart buildings, we have taken that indoor control to an unprecedented new level by digitizing almost everything. Digitization allows us to better quantify many aspects of the environment, giving us the tools and the certainty to create new system efficiencies and improve human performance. 

“Since the early twentieth century when the father of modern air conditioning Willis Carrier invented air washers to cool air and control humidity in printing press warehouses, building engineers have struggled to keep occupants comfortable. Facility managers have relied on building control systems to optimize this conditioned environment,” reads a whitepaper from BuildingIQ. “Over time these systems have progressed from analog to pneumatic to direct digital control giving managers better and better control. The result is that today’s modern office building is analogous to a living and breathing organism with connected systems monitoring its environment.”

As we progress towards smarter and smarter commercial buildings, the human experience within those buildings also becomes more digital & less analog. Human health and comfort has become a factor of temperature, hue, decibels, and parts per million; people are counted, identified, tracked, and their behavior predicted; even the seemingly random innovation-inspiring water-cooler moments now have a digital formula. However, the world is still analog and, therefore, digital technologies have their limits, unable to fully compute the infinite nature of the analog world and analog building occupants.

20-years-ago MP3s revolutionized music, making audio files more portable and accessible than ever before. However, in the last 10-years, annual vinyl record player sales have grown from 2.5m to 27.5m, a 27.1% CAGR, demonstrating a clear human need for the real qualities of analog. Listening to music on vinyl is clearly more inconvenient, requiring us to flip/change the record each time, records that are heavy and take up space, even the player itself is large and delicate. People are willing to give up convenience for a more real experience, and often the inconvenience is what helps us appreciate real experiences, in music or in buildings.

“In a digital age in which everything is available everywhere all the time, where every experience can be delivered electronically and every technology of communication has been puréed into the same universal flow of infinitely reproducible 0s and 1s, the hottest growth is in the market for things: finite, imperfect, irreducibly physical. Rather like human beings,” suggests Andrew Coyne, in an article for Canada’s National Post. “New technologies, it turns out, do not always replace the old. They can sometimes co-exist, as the limitations of the old technology are rediscovered as its virtues.”

Today, the word ‘digital’ is intrinsically linked to ‘disruption’ but, despite trends in recent decades, the compass of technology development does not always point toward digital. Everything started analog, even computation and data, the digital realm only emerged as a way for us to more easily quantify and manage that analog world. So, as technology continues to advance, logically it should start to act more and more analog until we can’t tell the difference. The greatest foreseeable peak of digital technology today is probably realistic and immersive virtual reality, which is essentially striving to recreate the analog ‘real world’ in digital form.

By translating the real world into standardized bits and bytes, we build a measurable and controllable digital foundation. However, the ultimate goal of digital technology has always been to replicate the continuously flowing, naturally infinite, and effectively real, analog experience. Analog is more real than digital, so our digital development must embrace and learn from analog technology by digitally augmenting analog devices, rather than replacing them, or striving to imitate analog operation where possible to create a more real indoor experience.

Digital video surveillance should strive for a high frame rate to ensure the nuances of the analog world aren’t missed, and it must train AI video analytics to understand the infinite context of the analog world. We must prioritize sunlight over artificial lighting wherever possible, and utilize sun-mimicking human-centric lighting when the real thing is not available. Sometimes ventilation should just be an open window, allowing whatever the real world brings to flow into our overly controlled environments. Plants, art, pets, and flexible office design all bring a sense of the seamless chaos of analog life, a sense of our real natural habitat where we can be most healthy, comfortable, and productive.

“Humanity is a biological species, living in a biological environment because like all species, we are exquisitely adapted in everything: from our behavior to our genetics, to our physiology, to that particular environment in which we live,” wrote notable biologist Edward O. Wilson in his 1986 book ‘Biophilia’. “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.”

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