Before we can have smart cities, we need smart buildings

Tom Harmsworth
Tom Harmsworth

Tom Harmsworth, MD of WeMaintain UK, points out what needs to be done first in making ‘London Smarter’

In 2018, the Mayor of London launched Smarter London Together. Described as a roadmap to make London the ‘smartest city in the world’ and a ‘flexible digital masterplan’, it sets out how City Hall plans to make digital technology part of London life, improving urban services, reducing costs and consumption, increasing contact between citizens and government and managing the flow of people and vehicles, among other things.

It is an exciting prospect in a city of nine million people. But how?

It can be instructive to look at something that serves as a kind of microcosm of the smart city - specifically, the smart building. It gives us a good idea of how fully fledged smart cities might work.

Each one is its own kind of community, often bringing together different organisations and people, possessing its own set of rules and regulations and, in the shape of lifts and escalators, having its own transport system. Digital technological integration in buildings improves the experience of each member of this community and the functioning of the organisation to which she or he belongs. We can also see how this leads to dramatic cost savings for managers and owners. By looking at cities through the lens of the smart building, then, we can get a sense of how a smart city might improve the quality of life of its citizens.

What makes it ‘smart’

IoT - the network of physical objects or ‘things’ that can collect and communicate data without human involvement - lays at the heart of what makes a building ‘smart’. Sensors recording temperature, humidity, motion, contact and occupancy, among other things, can gather an enormous amount of information and relay that information in real time. The smart building can then make adjustments, such as decreasing humidity or turning lights on and off according to occupancy and motion, all by itself. You can make an analogy here with traffic lights or street lamps that change colour or come on in response to the presence of vehicles or pedestrian footfall, respectively.

Crucially, IoT also allows us to predict when things go wrong, which is vital to making the much-needed shift in the built world towards the cheaper, more enduring and more sustainable maintenance model, rather than the prevailing replacement model. Lifts, for example, need not break down. They may deteriorate somewhat, but data can inform a building owner how and to what extent this is taking place, and that building owner can have engineers address any problem before it gets worse. I need not add that (as all doctors know) prevention is preferable to cure, and when a lift, or its city equivalent, a train car - breaks down, it can cause enormous disruption.


But smart buildings do not serve solely as useful analogies for smart cities. The built world and its continuing ‘smartification’ will be central, if not quite a necessary first step, to the realisation of the smart city vision. These are the places we live and work; even post-pandemic, when we will likely see more flexibility with respect to professional arrangements, buildings will remain at the heart of our lives. Just as the arrival of ‘disruptive’ companies such as Uber, Airbnb and Amazon set in motion an inexorable trend towards ever-greater convenience for the consumer, smart buildings, and the people working towards making buildings smarter, can drive the trend towards smart cities. Once people get used to having a seamless experience in buildings, the demand for a seamless experience in and around the city in which those buildings are located will grow rapidly. The change will be cultural and irreversible, and there will be a greater appetite, in the form of money and political will and uptake from citizens, to accelerate what is a necessary change.

Voice and facial recognition

And why is it necessary? For one thing, as the World Economic Forum has noted, buildings may be the key to creating a sustainable society post-pandemic. The built world is responsible for 40 percent of all global energy consumption and 33 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. For another, smart buildings improve the productivity of their occupants through better air quality, lighting, and transit through the building. And though we hope that COVID-19 does not continue to mutate and pose a problem far into the future, there will be much greater attention to hygiene in the post-pandemic era, which underscores the need for voice recognition and facial recognition technology, as well as other forms of hands-free tech.

But as it is, we have a way to go before buildings become truly smart. In Europe, more than 220 million buildings - three quarters of all buildings - are energy-inefficient. And a broken yet dominant sector business model, geared towards extending the lifespan of equipment, rather than emphasising the role data and technology can play in enable predictive maintenance, as well as the real-time adjustment of temperature, humidity and more, is a barrier that must be overcome. We must also understand that the built world is a notoriously traditional space, and change can take time. This is one reason why disruptive companies pushing for transformation by taking a fundamentally different approach have such a big part to play in making buildings smart.

Modern history

The end of lockdown heralds a new era, one whose characteristics are yet to be defined. One school of thought believes that the next 10 years will be a new ‘roaring twenties’. Another thinks we have learned important lessons in the last 12 months and will leave with these in mind. Whatever your view happens to be, we can agree first that we are at a hinge moment in modern history, presented with an opportunity to make positive changes to our society, and secondly, that digital technology has been one of the heroes of the coronavirus saga, allowing us to connect with loved ones, keep working, and live with some kind of normality when things were anything but normal. Its value is undeniable.

These two facts give us reason to be optimistic. Organisations like WeMaintain are determined to play the part of disruptor in this story and help to drive the trend towards smart buildings and, therefore, smart cities. But there are many companies trying to do things differently, overturn dysfunctional models, and usher in a more progressive, tech-enabled future of which the smart city is, without a doubt, a key part.

Tom Harmsworth is MD of WeMaintain UK

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