How the Internet of Things can make buildings and cities ‘smart’

The Internet of Things is more than a future vision; it’s already making our cities and buildings smarter today.

The Internet of Things is more than a future vision; it’s already making our cities and buildings smarter today.

The Internet of Things is more than a future vision; it’s already making our cities and buildings smarter today.

What’s more, I can only see the pace of adoption accelerating, thanks to recent technology advances that are reducing costs and complexity.

Change may seem daunting, but intelligent buildings and smart cities will benefit everyone. Businesses can run more efficiently, consumers will receive a better service and cities could save huge amounts of money.

More importantly, though, is exactly how the IoT will do all these things and more. The starting point is being able to communicate with things and get some basic information back: are they working, where are they and what can they tell you about their surroundings? This is at the heart of the Internet of Things – connected devices providing information that can generate insight, action and benefits.

IoT in the city

Cities are competing for talent and investment on a national and even global scale.

I (and numerous others) see digital technologies – including the Internet of Things – as a key differentiator. Some have even set up dedicated bodies to accelerate the adoption of these new technologies. To name just a few: “Bristol Is Open” for open data; TechCity and Digital Greenwich in London; as well as Milton Keynes’ smart city initiative. 

At a time when city finances are under enormous pressure, Internet of Things technologies also provide a great opportunity to improve services and reduce costs – by doing things differently.

Many of the potential applications for Internet of Things are right in front of us. Think about the average street: there are waste bins, potholes, lighting, signalling, graffiti, parking, noise, traffic flow and air quality. All of these aspects interact with each other, and once you understand these interactions, you can start to influence behaviours, such as the way people use environments. For example a city could share information on the location of available parking spaces – helping people to find spaces faster - then monitor the impact through traffic flow and pollution sensors. The IoT also presents a huge opportunity to optimise the way that services are provided – so that bins are only emptied when full and streets are cleaned only when needed.

Benefits for facilities managers

Of course, smart buildings are an integral part of smart cities.

Today, facilities management brings together a complex mass of individual services in buildings, from cleaning to maintenance.  Checking on the quality of service provision, what needs fixing and what is about to run can all be time-consuming and costly.

By embracing the Internet of Things, and with every element of a building connected I think facilities managers’ jobs will naturally become much easier

Building services will be run more efficiently to consume less energy and reduce costs.  Items will be replenished automatically. All facilities will be maintained in a cost-effective way, so no longer will unnecessary work, energy and funds need to be spent maintaining an estate.

What is happening internationally?

Outside of the UK, there are some fantastic examples of how smart cities and intelligent buildings are providing tangible benefits. I’ve seen some great case studies in France, including one community that has been able to save three million euros a year – or around 10% of annual budgets – just by making sure the in-home care people are paying for is being delivered. Thanks to remote monitoring, the standard of care has improved too.

Security and smoke alarms is another area where Internet of Things technologies are already making a difference. In Spain, Securitas Direct, the leading security systems provider in Spain and Europe, will connect and monitor millions of security devices in customers’ homes and businesses via SIGFOX’s dedicated Internet of Things network, which Abertis is deploying throughout the country. Connecting alarms is about more than getting fire or intruder alerts – it can be used to check if alarms and batteries are working (a real issue given that many fires happen in homes with smoke alarms that aren’t working).

The challenges ahead

In order to truly realise the benefits of IoT, business owners and city planners need to understand that it isn’t all about the technology. I think it’s very easy to say “here’s a great technology, let’s just spray it everywhere and see what happens”, but this isn’t an efficient way to garner any benefits. You need to have a goal to work towards, something to improve.

If you’re spending £100 million a year on maintaining streets, think about what you’d have to do in order to save 20 per cent of that. What information do you need? It’s only when you start asking these questions that you can start to build a business case. Stop thinking that the IoT is an exciting new start-up technology and instead start using information to change people’s habits.

I think we now need to get people to move from this ‘exciting new start-up technology’ kind of mindset, to actually trying to change the way people do things based on using information. That’s the biggest journey at the moment. It will not be an easy journey, but with some hard work it is possible to change these perceptions. There’s a huge opportunity to optimise the way things are done. Let’s make sure we don’t miss it.