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Just figured out cloud, mobile, and data? Well ‘Built Tech’ is your next challenge

November 28, 2019

Just when IT pros thought we had cloud, mobile, data and social figured out, we can now add built tech as the biggest challenge yet.

As billions of “smart things” connect cities, buildings and communities, IT pros must invite themselves into built-environment design with architects, engineers, operators and stakeholders.

Will smart cities, communities and buildings change the world as we know it?

The vision of revitalizing cities and built spaces using smart technologies is full of optimism and hope. Data generated from cities, communities, and buildings becomes a utility like water and electricity, accessible to all. Safety, security, parking, medical access and many other services now available digitally become cheaper and easier to access. Data helps reduce energy consumption, optimize traffic, improve water usage and reduce crime. Buildings learn and adjust to how people are experiencing them. Even crises like the lack of affordable housing can be better understood with city data. Vastly improved community well-being in a future when people are concentrated in cities is compelling.

Today, our “smart” designs are actually pretty dumb, and there’s a big gap between the “smart” vision and reality of designing and implementing an intelligent, safe, secure and ethical smart space.

Ask anyone, tech-savvy or not, what a smart city, building, community or space means, and you’ll get a wide variety of perspectives with only one common denominator. Being smart means being connected to a network. Just plug in and you’ll be smart. But connecting any IoT device or sensor into a network without understanding the fundamentals of network design and the implications of data, privacy and infrastructure health is irresponsible and dangerous.

Toronto’s 2017 experiment with Sidewalk Labs, a $50-million investment from Alphabet designed to reimagine cities and improve quality of life, has pushed Canada into the global discussion about strategic issues of smart communities. Countries, cities, investors, technology companies and citizens are watching closely as many warn of the potential negative effects of technology. What happens if a commercial enterprise has access to, owns or manages civic data? What’s the effect on citizen privacy and other unintended consequences that might emerge?

It’s no surprise that the Sidewalk Labs effort has slowed to a crawl. One of the world’s largest technology companies might have underestimated the complexity of built design. Connecting “smart” technology is the easy part.

Creating “smart” spaces requires radical new ways of working and broader collaboration across very different cultures – technologists, architects, engineers, operations…

Technologists need to collaborate in ways we never expected, with built designers (architects, engineers, interior designers) to integrate long-term goals of owners, developers, facilities, occupants and citizens. What happens as Silicon Valley and IT cultures collide with the highly regulated, credentialed architecture, engineering and construction industry where many decisions can’t easily be reversed and a built space can last decades or even centuries?

Technology and built design need to learn about each other. Design teams of the future will consider community well-being, beautiful aesthetics and carbon-neutral goals and will include technologists who understand data, privacy and platforms to ensure safe, secure digital infrastructure. Integrating technology into a built space means working with myriad new, often immature devices, platforms and approaches. Get ready, IT pros will soon be adding smart solutions design to their portfolios.

Built tech is complex, but what’s really at stake is owning the “supersystem” technology platforms that become the “heartbeat” of a building or urban community.

Buildings, communities and cities will have to pick technology platforms to connect subsystems and IoT in buildings. Digital platforms (Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Google) know that the largest platform with the most connections and data wins — in financial valuation and ability to compete. With the same logic, dollars are racing toward built environment platforms that will manage data and learn about the built spaces.  Or, as one large U.S. bank recently commented – “we don’t interconnect our building subsystems for security reasons.”

Investors are placing huge bets on built technology platforms.

Examples are everywhere, from Microsoft’s four-year, $5-billion investment in the Digital Twins Platform, Alphabet’s $50-million investment in Toronto’s Waterfront, Amazon’s IoT Core platform, Huawei’s vast collection of Connected Intelligent World Apps, Cisco’s Digital Building Solutions, and Autodesk’s partnership with Esri Geographic Information to industrial controls and equipment vendors like General Electric, Johnson Controls, Honeywell, Siemens, Trane and Lutron. A $100-million investment for Samsara, a start-up sensor data platform for connected (built environment) operations, confirms that venture capital is paying attention, too. WeWork, the Uber of built spaces, is reinventing the business models for commercial real estate, giving companies and individuals options for flexible workspaces that no longer require signing a long-term lease. Using proprietary technology and data, WeWork is redefining workplace communities and experience and has earned a controversial $40-billion valuation.

In the future, will we live in a Google-, Microsoft- or Huawei-powered neighbourhood? Who has access to data? Are they innovating responsibly? Does it matter? Let’s have the discussion about built environment platforms and how “smart” technologies are implemented when designing a built space, not after it’s constructed.