By Pook-Ping Yao, CEO, Optigo Networks
You could safely term the last decade of tech innovation “the Smartphone Era.”
The first iPhone was released almost 13 years ago, in 2007. Since then, we’ve gone from seeing smartphones as something of a fingerprint-smudged fad, to an essential piece to our lifestyle. So, if we’re leaving behind the Smartphone Era, where will we turn our attention next? Are the 2020s the Age of the Smart Building? Or, the Age of Smart Everything?
Here are some of the most critical changes I see coming, laying the foundation for even bigger innovations. No, I’m not predicting parking lots for flying cars, but I do see potential for the cloud, Artificial Intelligence, and a new workforce to revolutionize our world.
While the cloud has been emerging for years in many industries, it hasn’t yet been fully realized in ours. Leveraging the cloud will be critical to the growth of smart buildings.
With the cloud, we can integrate analytics — from energy and water use to garbage pickup, occupancy levels, and more — to better understand our spaces from top to bottom, cost effectively. We can focus on managing a portfolio of buildings instead of individual systems in silos. A facility manager could theoretically oversee as many as 10–20 buildings!
Of course, there’s much that must change in order to reach that point.
First, there’s still a big lack of understanding about the cloud, and even fear of it. The cloud is this intangible concept and, for some, it suggests a risk of attacks, leaks, and high costs.
While everyone should learn about and protect themselves against cyberattacks, that doesn’t mean the cloud is unavoidably vulnerable. In fact, the cloud is often more secure than many on-premise solutions. Fortunately, cybersecurity awareness is growing. More and more people realize they need to learn best practices like tracking assets and using anomaly detection software. Whether your data is hosted locally or in the cloud, this understanding is a requisite now.
For the cloud to work, we also need more connectivity, sensors, and data collectors. Data aggregation is critical to mapping out and tracking all the elements of our buildings — in fact, it’s the point of the cloud. Ideally, an element of Artificial Intelligence (AI) will also help us sort and make sense of this data.
I’m interested to see though, as the cloud enables us to add more “apps” to our technology stack, will our dashboards become polluted? Right now, our phones are crowded with apps we don’t use, or apps we use but only occasionally. Are our building management dashboards destined to be similarly overloaded, with information about water use, energy, parking stats, device issues, and more from all different apps? And, what will that look like as we grow from managing one building, to managing a portfolio of buildings?
The Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, and machine learning
In this new era of intelligence, there’s so much more we can do. We can create personalized and customizable experiences, improve energy analytics, anticipate system malfunctions, and much, much more.
Intelligence isn’t possible without informed decisions, though. And informed decisions can’t be made without, well, information. That demands more data than the human mind can realistically collect or make sense of: reams upon reams of information about building services, and how people behave in our spaces.
We might have the outcomes that we want — for example, that a room stays at a comfortable temperature regardless of how many people are in it. But no person is going to count the number of people in a room and account for the time of day and positioning of the sun on the window and manually adjust the temperature throughout the day to maintain that ideal temperature.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning are powerful tools to make sense of data, consider our ideal outcomes, and build out processes to get those results. Right now, we have a lot of data, and we know the outcomes we want, but we don’t have a line that neatly connects the two, and certainly not one that accounts for all the possible variables.
With sensors collecting information, AI can structure individual data points into a big picture view quickly, easily, and accurately, so that we can focus on more valuable tasks.
Now, so far AI and machine learning have been treated like buzzwords. As the cutting-edge technology shifts more into the real world of our industry, though, I see it having profound effects on the way our buildings are managed (possibly not by humans). We’ll see actual products using the power of AI and machine learning, rather than just talking superficially about “the power of AI.”
As a side note, I’m particularly fascinated by autonomous vehicles, which are just around the corner but for a few lines of code. They’ll drastically change our world, not just on the roads but in our buildings too.
The aging workforce in building automation is an issue I first heard about when I co-founded Optigo almost eight years ago, and it still plagues the industry today.
There are so many talented individuals who have worked in the industry for decades, but many of these folks are nearing retirement. If we don’t recruit new talent, very soon we’ll have a massive labour shortage to contend with. And I’m not only talking about recruiting younger generations, which has been a big focus over the years, but about diversity in general.
We need folks of different genders and ethnicities, people who are differently abled, graduates from disciplines like psychology and sociology who can study the ways people behave in our spaces. We need new perspectives in our otherwise homogenous field. Actively building out our recruitment efforts should be a priority for our entire industry: from integrators, to product vendors, to building owners.
Part of those recruitment efforts will acknowledge the importance of technologies like the cloud, AI, machine learning, IoT, and more. Of course, we also need to work with schools to create internship and mentorship programs, revamp our compensation packages, and collaborate with people to develop work cultures they’re excited about.
But I do think new recruits will want to build bold new technologies. We might just hit two birds with one stone, by appealing to new talent with the promise of modern technology, and by leveraging this modern talent to design bigger and better new technology. If we can inject some fresh new perspectives into our building solutions, there’s no telling where this industry could go.
As we round the corner into 2020 and beyond, we definitely have more questions than answers. That’s scary, and exciting, all at once. I urge you to consider ways you can embrace this growing world of technology, with an attitude of care and curiosity.