The beginning of 2020 seems like a long time ago. While COVID-19 was already starting to make an impact in China and neighboring countries, for the rest of the world it was just another January. In the smart building industry, we were talking about Amazon, Apple, and Google asserting their dominance over the smart home with an open standard, and highlighting the need to introduce the concept of embodied carbon to stop prematurely demolishing our buildings. In the smart city space, we were discussing BIM/GIS digital twins and the potential of biomorphic urbanism. And, in the workplace, somewhat ironically, we were talking about how we could develop the office environment to cater to an aging workforce. It was the beginning of a new decade but it was just another year.
“With office densification rates increasing across the world, combined with evidence of poor space utilization and the expectations of occupants for more human and productive environments, the need for workspace management platforms to provide better insight into the repurposing of current workplaces has never been so urgent,” explained our Q1 report on occupancy analytics and location-based services. Little did we know that occupancy analytics would soon shift from emerging productivity technology to become critical to survival for any commercial building hoping to maintain optimum performance in the unprecedented year ahead.
Despite some supply chain constrictions from Chinese lockdowns, everything was relatively normal in The West until mid-March when the pandemic took hold in Europe and North America. The closure of commercial buildings was one of the first public signs that this was no ordinary virus, and when we announced the beginning of the world’s biggest remote working experiment, few would have expected that situation to be the same in December. As March progressed it became clear that our smart buildings were utterly unprepared to deal with the crisis. Our smart technologies were no match for the scale of the outbreaks, remote working opened the door for rampant cyberattacks, while western privacy policies became a handicap in the fight against the pandemic.
“As March of 2020 progressed, it became increasingly obvious, that the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 would go on to pose major challenges to all aspects of how we live and work in societies across the globe. The Built Environment will play a huge part in how we rise to meet these challenges,” stated our Q2 report on the IoT in smart commercial buildings. “Fundamental changes to user interactions between buildings and the rest of society will need to be supported by new technology solutions, that help maintain hygiene, facilitate social distancing, and maintain building user trust and confidence in their places of work.”
In April and May, as the immensity of the crisis became clearer, we began to imagine what our “pandemic-smart buildings” could look like and how our smart technology could help. Companies were proposing futuristic robot cleaners that could zap the virus with UV light and envisioned a shift to virtual reality lifestyles. While promising in the long-term, these technologies had limited scope for 2020, instead, we would have to get back to the basics of cleaning and physical security to bring occupants back into our commercial buildings.
As spring became summer in the north, we truly began to understand that things would never go back to where they were before COVID, and the new normal was full of old problems. As coronavirus cases subsided, we were given the space to see the impact the pandemic was having on the environment, setting us back in a battle we were already losing. Low occupancy was not reducing energy consumption as we had hoped, buildings don’t have a “standby mode” that would have given us huge green benefits during lockdowns. As forest fires raged in California, we were reminded of the dire climate change situations we face and how a post-COVID recession could set us back further.
As temperatures dropped in autumn, the traditional flu season brought the worst out of COVID-19, as cases and deaths rose to their highest levels since the start of the pandemic. Second waves drowned hope of a return to the office, making summer workplace investment seem wasteful but the business world was much better prepared this time around. Companies enacted their new work-from-home policies, offering better technologies for workers that were more comfortable in their home offices. Flexibility became the name of the game for our future workplaces, as new solutions such as “hub & spoke offices” emerged to mixed reviews and physical security technology stepped up to the plate.
“The pandemic has created demand for new solutions to help control the spread of the virus. Physical security products have risen to the challenge, helping to implement social distancing protocols through existing access and video systems with AI-powered analytics. Thermal cameras have also been deployed to measure people’s temperature,” we explained in our Q4 physical security report.
2020 has forced a “hard reset” on the world, reversing some trends and accelerating others. Online shopping was already taking over gradually but 2020 has put it in the driver’s seat going forward. Remote work was a growing trend but now hybrid workplaces appear to be an inevitable reality, while office densification trends have reversed for the foreseeable future. Privacy is now in direct confrontation with progress as COVID-19 blurs the line between workplace safety and employee monitoring.
It is not all bad news for commercial buildings, however. By forcing us to adapt, the pandemic will make our buildings smarter and by focusing on health, our workplaces will become more human-centric. Funding for smart buildings has continued unabated as the industry strives for solutions to the crisis, and data remains at the heart of every answer. The struggles of today have inspired the digital tools of tomorrow as the world finds new ways to strive for the same progressive goals. Our society will prevail by finding a better way to live and our smart buildings will be at the heart of that bright future.