Internet of Things: impact on building users and managers

Making the connection

9 October 2015

Claudia Conway talks to Udaya Shankar about the Internet of Things and its impact on building users and managers

The Internet of Things (IoT) consists of 'intelligent networks' of interconnected digital devices that can provide manifold benefits through the masses of data that can be exchanged and analysed. CISCO estimates that by 2020, 50 billion data devices will be connected to one another.

In the real estate environment, this generally translates into sensors tracking space use, temperature, energy consumption or security and used in conjunction with building management software to pull together and analyse the data they provide. This data may also feed into building information modelling (BIM) software, not only in new constructions but also older buildings where BIM has been applied.

Getting started

Where should building managers start in creating a connected building? Udaya Shankar, Vice President and Head of Internet of Things at Xchanging, suggests the first stage is to ask what business problems are you trying to solve and associated process changes you might want to deploy. Return on investment is key, so prioritising your business needs will attain the best value for money.

On a simple level, devices can start to replace manual interventions, such as control of lights or thermostats

For example, water and effluents could be a central issue on an industrial site. The wrong effluents could destroy a water treatment plant, resulting in weeks of shutdown and also reputational damage for a business – so gathering data in this area could be a priority. If you are not sure of the main issue, then monitoring and benchmarking what goes in and comes out of your building, from energy to people, will tell you what is essential and help you to understand the practice around these in your setting, whether good or bad.

On a simple level, devices can start to replace manual interventions, such as control of lights or thermostats. Shankar recommends putting money into back-end services first, focusing after that on value-adding 'nice to haves' that will further improve working conditions and the bottom line.

Joining the dots

In order for the IoT to function, a huge array of devices and systems need to be able to talk to one another, making interoperability the central challenge for mass viability. Shankar believes that all the technology exists for the IoT – "it just needs to be configured the most commercially viable way".

He feels that currently many tech firms are offering businesses a service he would call an 'internet thing', but because it is not open to other systems and devices, it is not the Internet of Things. Providers need to be open to sharing systems to maximise benefits to the market. Organisations should avoid products that are effectively limited in scope and communicability, because these will not be adaptable to an increasingly open world of communication.

Sources of demand

Currently, retailers are especially keen to reduce their energy use through sensors, whether because of business initiatives such as Marks and Spencer’s Plan A, or the opportunities for huge cost savings.

Easier auditing is another reason that businesses are attracted to the IoT – it allows them to see and compare how whole estates perform. Information can be input directly to an electronic format making auditing faster and more affordable.

Five impacts

Shankar finds it surprising that buildings are still being constructed without a smart infrastructure to take advantage of technology that is now widely available. He sees five key areas where IoT will have an impact in the built environment:

  1. Hyperefficiency: connected buildings will allow for efficient management of activities and automated service delivery.
  2. New business models: a more flexible approach is already being taken to office use, including temporary or short term space. Rather than renting for weeks or months, technology is allowing businesses to lease or occupy a desk by the hour.
  3. Safety and security: controlled access to buildings and provision of security at a wider range of hours, as often required by international businesses.
  4. Customer expectation management: building users and managers will increasingly expect greater access to data and control over their workspace.
  5. Asset management: optimisation of built assets – "If you can audit what goes in and out and manage what is used within, i.e. water, energy, space and people, you can drive a whole list of efficiencies".

Energy is a prime example of where the IoT has a role to play, encompassing hyper efficiency and asset management. The lighting of empty space and overheating or excessive cooling of rooms all contribute to the waste of energy – around 50% of the energy that goes into buildings, according to Shankar. Sensors 'talking' to one another could synchronise energy use of the building with when and how people use it. While many businesses are implementing programmes to change behaviour through turning off lights or equipment, or keeping windows closed, human fallibility prevents these programmes making the difference they intend.

Connected for efficiency

Quite simple connections are still being missed in the built environment. Shankar gives the example of a large US insurance firm, where sprinklers damaged the upper storeys of a high rise building after a small electrical fire started on a Saturday morning. No linked systems existed to inform security or an external service provider that the sprinklers had been activated and they continued to run for two days, causing huge damage to the building and its contents.

Energy is a prime example of where the IoT has a role to play, encompassing hyper efficiency and asset management

This type of situation is easily avoided where sensors can communicate with one another, building managers and/or service providers.

On a less dramatic level is the classic issue of the expired light bulb. The 'traditional' process in a large building may be that the person responsible for maintenance is called out, sees where the light is, notes the type of bulb, goes to get it and then comes back to fit it. The connected alternative, says Shankar, is that: "A really simple system can be put in place to say a certain light has failed at a certain location…the electrical scheme of a building can be plotted on a database and tell you exactly what light bulb it is."

As he points out, people's time is the most expensive commodity for businesses – anything that saves time can have a great impact.

The human touch

Could this world of hyper efficient reporting devices present a threat to those working in the built environment? Shankar counters that people have been concerned that technology would take away jobs since the advent of computerisation, but "actually, we’re doing more with less", meaning no shortage of work for human beings.

There will be more alerts to respond to and higher end user expectations. Responsive, accurate service will be expected in buildings, with the need for more roles in service industries and people to manage these workers.

The IoT is not just an idea, it is already here, and end users of smart systems for home heating or other aspects of household technology will soon expect them in the workplace

For Shankar, automation creates more need for people to engage with one another: "There will be less monitoring systems and more helping people."

So what should built environment professionals do to benefit from this brave new world? Shankar urges RICS members to get involved, because the potential cost savings are huge, as are the benefits of meeting end user expectations for "more refined and intelligent environments".

The IoT is not just an idea, it is already here, and end users of smart systems for home heating or other aspects of household technology will soon expect them in the workplace. He recommends talking to technology specialists to find out what is available and what is coming up. It is clear that massive systems of communication devices and
networks are set to change the face of service provision in the built environment.

Claudia Conway is Editor of the Commercial section of the Property Journal.

Further information

Related competencies include: Property management

This feature is taken from the RICS Property journal (July/August 2015)