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Smart technology

While smart technologies have been evolving over a long period of time, what is relatively new is that, with the development of software, communications technology and common standards, we now have the ability to collect, store, analyse and distribute vast amounts of information. Crucially, this means that not only can we observe, monitor and control individual processes in isolation, we can also see how they interact or how a change in one affects another.

For example, electricity suppliers can monitor and predict demand for power, and respond to behaviour by generating additional power from the most efficient source, storing energy for when it is most in demand, or encouraging consumers to modify their behaviour by using power at different times, or by exporting their own power.

Similarly, the development of the electric car, while still in its infancy, raises questions not just about how and where they will be recharged, but about the capacity of a grid which was essentially designed for a much lower load.

The communications revolution has had a dramatic effect on work and travel patterns for example by making home working increasingly practicable and long distance business travel less essential.

All of this raises a challenge and an opportunity for manufacturers, utilities, and public authorities as well as for those designing, building, owning or occupying buildings or providing services to them. Companies which have developed a successful business model supplying, for example building automation controls may find on the one hand that the systems with which they interact such as HVAC systems, have become more 'intelligent' and need less control. At the same time, building energy management systems may need to respond to “requests” from power suppliers to reduce consumption or to export power where appropriate.

There is no risk-free response to this. Suppliers can choose to continue to specialise in their key area of strength and risk becoming bit-players in a system dominated by other companies which have mastered the newly dominant technologies. They can attempt to expand their range of solutions and services, but this requires large-scale investment and acquiring new capabilities either by research and development or through mergers and acquisitions, which often fail to deliver the expected returns.

So who is best placed to benefit from an interlinked smart world? Utilities in many ways are well placed. They generally have the resources, and already run networks which reach into almost every building.

Managing and coordinating a complex, continually changing building-environment or power, transport or security system requires a full understanding of the situation, what the possible responses are, and what is most likely to happen if you, say, divert power from one area to another. This means that companies which are strong in analytics and artificial intelligence and which can 'learn' and adapt to new scenarios should prosper.

Operators will also need to understand the social and political ramifications of their services. On the one hand governments and city leaders are constantly looking for ways to make the areas that they govern more efficient and competitive, more attractive to live and work in and more environmentally friendly. They are also looking for more effective ways of communicating with their citizens, whether it is in sending out information and alerts or in soliciting their opinions. Smart technology has a huge contribution to make in each of these areas.

While building automation systems have been around for some time, the latest wave of smart technology offers the chance to collect and analyse a lot of data, and to use this to improve performance. In principle, any device, including small components, can now be designed to return data about its current status, and to show, when they may need replacing.

Given that buildings also affect the performance of people - something as simple as an increase or decrease in temperature may affect productivity - it is now possible to analyse the impact of changes to the building's state on the workforce, whether it is “self-reported” or collected through sales figures, performance reviews or other metrics.

At the same time, the spectre of a 'brave new smart world', and one that is increasingly interconnected, is raising understandable concerns. The smart meter, one of the key links in the smart evolutionary chain, is attracting opposition, both on grounds of arguments about its cost-effectiveness, but perhaps more tellingly, fears about the personal data that can potentially be collected.

Increasing levels of automation, interconnection and sophistication have also raised the fear of cyber-attacks, as something that could compromise the functioning, the security or even the safety of a building or of a larger scale system, such as a power or transport network. Reports of building control systems being hacked into, including both smart homes and high-profile offices, highlight the fact that an interconnected world is in some ways potentially a more vulnerable one. While specific threats can invariably be addressed once identified, this problem raises the stakes and means that the smart world is also likely to remain a battleground of wits between those pursuing greater efficiency and interactivity on the one hand, and those seeking to cause disruption for whatever reason.

History suggests that societies adapt to new technologies, and initial glitches will be overcome, but there will be a trade-off point, which may differ from one city or society to another as to how much information and control organisations and individuals are willing to share, and for what benefit.


This article originally appeared in the February 2014 edition of BSRIA's Delta T magazine. It was written by Henry Lawson, Market Research Consultant, BSRIA Worldwide Market Intelligence. It has been posted here by --BSRIA 08:46, 8 December 2014 (UTC)

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