We have the connectivity technology to enable truly smart buildings, leading to greener and leaner business, says Joe Murray, channel director at essensys, but the reason why we are yet to see them is the lack of a ‘central nervous system’.

The technology to transform the office space as we know it today into a smart workplace is already here. We have the ability to control elements such as doors, lighting, Wi-Fi, telecoms and utility services at the touch of a button.

However, in order to bring services and devices together to form a smart building, we need them to be able to talk to each other and, in certain situations, act independently of any external human control, based on certain logical rules. The fact is that no such system for tying all the disparate elements of a smart building together in this way is at the moment commonly known or implemented.

The odds that the office blinds and air-conditioning units are made by two different vendors are pretty high. So, as an example, there is no obvious or easy way to link them both together and coordinate the shading of the building with efforts made to cool it down. Or, as another potential example, how could you determine a logical flow whereby if the fire alarm goes off, doors are unlocked to let people out, specific interior doors close and the HVAC system is restricted to prevent the spread of smoke, lifts are disabled and nearby fire engines and ambulances are alerted?

Logic could be applied in a number of ways to create a co-ordinated and connected building but you need two fundamental things in order to really make it happen. To begin with, you will require a device-agnostic platform that can interconnect, automate and orchestrate smart building devices at the back end in an entirely vendor-neutral way. Secondly, the business and key stakeholders must be educated in a way that highlights the benefits and opportunities that come from enabling smart buildings, which will drive adoption by people.

The benefits are limitless

The possibilities are fascinating, whether considered in terms of security, sustainability, workflow efficiency or customer experience.

It’s easy to see the benefits of co-ordinating different elements as well as streamlining and automating daily tasks. For instance, certain IT services, say video conference and collaboration tools, and compute devices such as PCs and tablets can only be made available when a particular person enters a room. Likewise, solutions enhancing the ambience and quality of space – think adaptive lighting and temperature - can really boost productivity and enhance employees’ health and emotional well-being. This is the way things will go. In fact, without the correct use of connected IoT devices, an organisation can be expected to sacrifice a significant proportion of its potential productivity.

And then there’s the sustainability angle. Significant savings on utility bills can be realised whilst driving the company’s ecological responsibility efforts. Lighting costs alone can equal as much as 60% of a business’ overall electricity consumption. By combining the smart workplace approach with natural solutions such as daylighting and natural ventilation, energy wastage can be dramatically reduced.

Orchestration holds the key

The various elements making up the smart building are currently mostly left as stand-alone, which in today’s connected world represents a massive waste of potential. In simple terms, an intelligent, scalable and simple-to-use middleware system is required to pull all devices and services together to give the IoT environment a ‘central nervous system’.

We have seen a few examples of vendor-specific middleware already. For example, some vendors are focusing on enabling smart lighting middleware solutions, often as a way of connecting the end-point devices that they produce. But history has told us that to enable true innovation or for a trend to take off, or even to transform industries and create new ones, a platform must be the central part of the story. Consequently, there needs to be within the smart building sphere an open, interoperable engine that can not only aggregate and interconnect all the building elements together but also generate actionable data and automate the complete management lifecycle of the whole ecosystem.

This is where the need for a device-agnostic logic engine comes into place, enabling anything that exists in the digital workplace, whether it’s HVAC systems, IT & comms services or front door security, to be easily orchestrated and controlled within a single pane.

The final piece of the puzzle

Tectonic shifts will be required to help realise this vision of an interconnected, personalised environment in commercial buildings, and the internet of things, although much talked about, is still an emerging trend. However, moving the smart building vision to reality is going to be easier than most people think. Advanced orchestration platforms enabling the remote management of smart building elements now finally exist. Furthermore, most offices built in the last 20 years have floor and ceiling spaces built-in to accommodate the necessary wiring and sensors and can easily be retrofitted to accommodate the guts of smart building systems. What’s more, with vendor agnostic logic at the backend, these buildings can opt for best-of-breed solutions.

What now needs to take place is a demonstration of the real value and business benefits delivered by smart buildings in order to drive adoption. Stakeholders need to understand the full potential of how smart buildings will genuinely make our workplaces better – improving the ambience, saving energy, reducing costs and optimising business operations and processes.

No doubt privacy and security concerns are likely to be stumbling blocks on the path to adoption but as regulation evolves, the outcomes of innovation will be even more valuable and sustainable. Within the next six to twelve months, I believe that we will begin to see the dawning of a smart building revolution.

Watch this space!