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Cognitive Buildings: Smartening Up for the Future

Image © IBM Watson

Imagine your future office. Before you get there, a parking space is reserved for your car. As you enter the building, you are greeted by name and directed to a free workstation. It knows your preferred light levels, temperature settings and even how many sugars you want in your cappuccino. Sound too futuristic? Well it’s already happening, and it’s a trend that’s gaining momentum. The Edge in Amsterdam is being hailed as the smartest building in the world, and we have a lot to learn from the way it’s implementing technology.

I was recently invited by IBM and WIRED magazine to be a panellist at the Cognitive Building Forum; the first in a series of forums designed to bring together thought leaders, industry experts and technologists to discuss how the Internet of Things (IoT) is changing the world around us. The forum threw up some fascinating insights around how the IoT is shaping the way we design, construct, use, maintain and experience the buildings around us.

Every hour of every day, we all carry devices that create vast amounts of data which generate an impression of our daily lives. Imagine the opportunities we could exploit if our buildings could connect to this information and customise our experience, creating adaptable ‘made environments’. If executed properly, such technology can lead to greater efficiency in buildings, lower operating costs, improved wellbeing and productivity and more resilient buildings.

I know full well that technology is not a means to an end, but it is a very powerful enabler. The end is happier, healthier, more productive occupants, and technology is simply a way of aiding that result.

However, it’s not as black and white as specifying a smart building and then delivering it. One of the biggest hurdles we come across in trying to implement technology, whether it’s environmental or experiential, is cost. At the outset, with the best intentions, it is built into the brief. But the reality is that by the time it gets down the design chain, it’s value engineered out because it’s hard to measure real value. Any designer can profess that by packing your building with sensors - motion, light, temperature, humidity, infrared – your workforce will become more productive and the benefits will far outweigh the financial investment. It’s only now that we are able to really interrogate the data available to help crystallise the benefits in a way that couldn’t be presented before.

Another barrier we often come up against is human perception and security of data. There is split opinion, often polarised by generations, on the collective benefits and possible threats of data gathering and its use. This ‘Big Brother’ notion that companies will use technology for carrying out surveillance on its staff is still very prevalent. More needs to be done to show the real value technology can have, not just on a building’s efficiency but also on employee wellbeing and performance, and ultimately, on business success. If we can illustrate this value, we can help alleviate the resistance.

Similarly, as buildings become ‘smarter’ people are understandably concerned by the threat of security breaches. My fellow panellist, Graça Carvalho from University College London’s Alan Turing Institute talked about the work she’s been doing to understand the entire business around data privacy and data ethics. They are having conversations with experts in academics, industry and government, and they’re looking at what the solutions might be for finding a secure common platform that can be adopted more broadly.

So, if we want our future buildings to be more interactive, intuitive, flexible and responsive, how do we go about achieving it? Well, one of the biggest changes we’re seeing is in the tried and tested design team structure. Traditionally, architects were the lynchpin in the design teams, but now we’re seeing a transformation to multidisciplinary design teams which include organisational design consultants, wellbeing consultants, behavioural psychologists and, importantly, facilities managers. This restructured approach means crucially that all key players are involved from the outset so that all considerations are put in place at the start, not just as an afterthought.

We want to design buildings that are their best versions. We want them to be positive spaces for users that are not just the optimum for today but can adapt for the challenges of tomorrow. Technology can afford us a rich platform for learning and research, providing us with the ability to completely understand how people use a building, and this in turn can allow us to truly transform the way we live, work and play in our built environments.

Richard Harrison leads the Commercial Office Building Developers studio in Gensler’s London office, delivering projects across the EMEA region. A seasoned technical architect, Richard works on all aspects of a project from project management, consultant coordination, detailing documentation, and contract administration through to site supervision. His portfolio includes many high profile projects in the UK, Europe and the Middle East. Contact him at richard_harrison@gensler.com.