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Last edited 29 Jan 2021
The Smart Building in the Smart City
If smart cities are to meet the needs of the people living and working in them then they will benefit from expanding on the experience gained in managing complex buildings – and then up their game further…
As well as giving me the chance to set out BSRIA’s vision of smart homes and their wider impact on smart buildings, I was able to enjoy the opinions and insights of a wide range of fellow conference speakers drawn from more than a dozen countries, spread across Asia, Europe and North America.
The central focus of the conference was on the state of the smart city and its future. For an organisation like BSRIA, whose expertise lies above all in buildings, the relationship between the smart building and the smart city is an interesting, subtle and increasingly strategic one.
On the one hand, buildings are the most obvious and important elements making up any town or city. Think of a town or city and you probably think of prominent buildings and how they relate to each other and the landscape. In developed societies, buildings account for the largest share of energy use, ahead of industrial production or transport. Urban humans also spend most of our lives within the confines of buildings. In that sense they dominate our world.
Until recently, building services have been directly predominantly at addressing tangible technical challenges, such as how to reduce energy consumption while maintaining physically acceptable temperatures, ventilation, lighting levels and physical safety and security. Recently the emphasis has started to include more intangible, social and human objectives such as comfort, wellbeing and social cohesion. Such “humanistic” values are increasingly seen as being both valuable in themselves and having an economic value. A building where people feel happy is likely to be more profitable.
Such goals and outcomes are of course much harder to measure, but advances in the collection and analysis of data make it increasingly possible to measure human emotions and outputs, to the point where the question increasingly moves from “Can we do this?” to one of “Is it socially or ethically acceptable to be collecting and analysing such sensitive information about people’s inner states and information?”
This development in turn strengthens the links between the smart building and the smart city. Cities have always been close to the very essence of what it is to be human. It is no accident that the word civilisation is related to the Latin ‘civitas’ or town. One of the strongest messages to come out of the conference is that some early smart city ‘solutions’ suffer from the fact that they purport to offer a ‘technical’ answer without considering all of the very human social needs of a city.
We heard from mayors, city managers and academics from cities ranging from around 5,000 inhabitants to ones with several million. Clearly there were big issues and divergencies with resources and with priorities. A larger city is likely to experience greater challenges in areas such as transportation. In a small city with more limited resources, focussing of effort needs to be more precise, concentrating on issues that will bring a quick and noticeable return.
 Towards “City Management Systems”
As with standards in general, there is a natural tension between the benefits of experimentation and adopting a tailored approach which is focussed on a particular community’s needs on the one hand, and having solutions that can be adapted and rolled out by a wide range of different cities on the other, ensuring that systems can communicate and avoiding the temptation to “reinvent the wheel” every time. Two cities may have different detailed needs when it comes to tackling crime, or transport or urban places, but it doesn’t usually make sense to invent something completely different.
One possible answer to this dilemma is to produce smart city “platforms” which accommodate the key aspects likely to be found in a smart city project, including education, transport, security, energy management, health, governance etc. but which can then be configured to meet the different needs of different communities. This could be seen as something almost akin to a Building Automation System (or BACS).
 If you think Building management is Complex, Try Cities..
At present there are obviously limits to how far this coordinated approach can advance. Even within a building, there are big challenges to resolve when integrating services such as HVAC, lighting, room booking, security or fire protection. For a start, these may well be the responsibility of different departments.
In a city, these divisions are likely to be multiplied many times. Most cities will have numerous ‘stakeholders’. Even where there is an enthusiastic, well informed and pro-active Mayor – like the people I met in Qingdao, they will need to accommodate political colleagues and rivals, public officials, services, utilities and businesses and media. In many cities, such as London, the Mayor has limited political power and budgeting resources and needs to cooperate not just with a council representing numerous parties, but with more than 30 London Borough’s each with their own powers and agenda, not to mention the UK national government.
Beyond city leaders in democratic countries have to court public opinion to secure re-election, and this opinion can be fickle if smart city initiatives are seen as ineffective, representing poor value, or are simply misunderstood.
Projects can easily go wrong, particularly where technology is used to plug a gap in a poorly thought out policy. To take an example related to buildings and energy, if policy encourages buildings to generate energy, store it and return it to the grid, then the investments will only work if there is an adequate infrastructure and pricing system in place to remunerate contributors and make efficient use of the energy.
Similarly, while district energy schemes can be extremely efficient, and can benefit from smart technology such as monitoring and analytics, the basic design needs to be properly balanced and they need to be supported with appropriate expertise.
This may encourage excess caution. While there are ample opportunities to spread risks and benefit from the expertise of the private sector, this is unlikely to be effective if the city managers lack the necessary knowledge and understanding.
 The Way Forward
So what can the building services community specifically take away from this? Firstly, a confirmation that the boundaries between the building on the one hand, and what goes on both inside and outside of it are becoming increasingly blurred. Both building systems and city-wide systems need to be able to communicate and exchange information in a controlled and appropriate way.
Most obviously, buildings can contribute both positively and negatively towards the immediate environment, and via their consumption and production of greenhouse gasses, to the wider global environment. The conference heard of some interesting examples of projects for buildings forming “vertical cities”, including not just social amenities but also “sky gardens”.
In highly dense cities such as Hong Kong this approach could yet take off. And even in European cities like London, buildings meeting environmental and social needs look set to become a key element in the smart city of the future.
Open standards will also be essential for the world of the smart building and the smart city. ISO standards such as ISO 37106:2018 Sustainable cities and communities — Guidance on establishing smart city operating models for sustainable communities and ISO/IEC 30182:2017 Smart city concept model — Guidance for establishing a model for data interoperability will play an important role.
However, there is a real opportunity for companies which already have solutions for the management of complex buildings and campuses, including everything from services to physical and cyber security, to extend their offering in a way that allows for the integration, analysis and management of wider smart city services.
 Beyond the Immediate Future, a More Unexpected Twist?
I came away from the conference convinced that smart technology is quite likely to change the whole structure of cities, and even, to some extent challenge the need for mega-conurbations. Large cities have arisen in the past 150 years mainly because industrial production and then service delivery required the concentration of large “armies” of people in a limited and accessible area.
If most routine production and most services come to be provided mainly by a combination robotics and by AI as now looks increasingly feasible, and humans are needed mainly the more specialised and abstract roles that sit above this, then is there really a need for millions of humans to be concentrated in a limited area?
But that is a much bigger question for another article. For now, the opportunity lies with companies who can help meld the elements of the smart city – with buildings as a key component – into a robust and workable system.
This article was originally published on 14 November 2018 as ‘The Smart Building in the Smart City – The Ultimate Convergence?’ at https://blogs.bsria.co.uk/
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