Kim Bybjerg, vice-president and head – continental Europe, Tata Communications, asks how can we actually make buildings smarter, and why would we want to?

Everything around us is getting smarter, from your fridge to your car, as the Internet of Things (IoT) is embedded into everyday objects making us more connected than ever before.

For a long time, we have spoken about the benefits of IoT in manufacturing to reduce costs, improve efficiency and monitor the supply chain. However, we are starting to see IoT move out of the factory and into the products themselves.

When we talk about smart buildings, you might think of a science fiction future with oddly shaped buildings floating in the air, however the reality is here today. Many people are already using smart meters in their homes, for example. On a much larger scale, IoT is being used to connect buildings all over the world and the data is giving us real-time insights into how the space is being used and can be optimised.

But how can we actually make buildings smarter, and why would we want to?

The current state of play

IoT has been one of the most impactful emerging technologies for the past 10 years, it has allowed us to gain insight into how objects are used, as well as connect and share data across the globe.

It is no surprise then, that Gartner has forecasted that 5.8 billion enterprise and automotive IoT endpoints will be in use by the end of this year. Of this, it predicts that the highest user will be utilities, such as smart meters, and that building automation, driven by connected lights, will see the largest growth.

Smart buildings are clearly high on the agenda, rather than a distant prospect and it is imperative that we embed more IoT if we are to see the real potential of this technology.

Two great examples of how IoT is already being used in buildings are the Edge in Amsterdam and Berlin’s 10-storey Cube. Both of these buildings are covered in sensors that monitor what is happening inside.

They can give insights, for example, into free desk or meeting space so that employees can quickly and easily find these areas using a mobile app. Once a free space has been found, staff can use the same app to control the temperature and light levels – giving an incredibly personalised experience to every employee.

This experience is not limited to inside the office either, the car park also uses IoT sensors to illuminate the area when it senses a human presence, and to show which spaces are free.

These are just a few examples of how IoT is currently being leveraged in buildings to offer employees a seamless work life. However, the benefits of IoT don’t stop here.

Going green

While it is important to ensure that employees get such new-age, automated facilities, IoT within buildings also offer businesses a chance to go green and save money.

By leveraging IoT, companies can intelligently monitor how a building is being used and manage it on a daily basis accordingly.

For example, while employees are benefiting from free spaces around the office, cleaners can skip rooms that haven’t been used. Catering staff can also minimise waste and office managers can be warned in advance when office supplies need to be refilled.

While all of these may seem like small, incremental improvements, they add up to a bigger cost and time investment from a business, which IoT can help to dramatically reduce.

The additional data generated via IoT also allows businesses to reduce their carbon footprint by meticulously tracking information on energy, water and waste management. Companies can use IoT to better consume energy with smart grids and changes to heating. They can also help maintenance staff to identify potential leaks or repairs in advance, and so improve their overall water consumption. Smart bins are also a great way to manage waste to ensure recycling is properly done and optimise pickups.

The use of IoT in office buildings is a great way to utilise the space effectively and efficiently, and they’re a great testing bed for innovation. Other sectors, particularly healthcare, can benefit significantly from the insights that IoT provides.

Transforming healthcare

Healthcare sector has shown tremendous advancements over the years and the pandemic has put the spotlight on the importance of technology in ensuring the well-being of people. Technologies like video conferencing and telehealth have proved that innovation in healthcare is most important as it directly impact human lives. Covid-19 is a testament to this.

Older people and patients with critical illness are most exposed to the coronavirus. It is important that they have limited-or-no contact, and hence meetings with doctors and hospital visits can be risky for them. Smartphones, smartwatches, digital assistance units and medical monitoring devices like wearable heart monitors are among the technologies used to relay essential data directly to healthcare providers. These are all connected devices that are significantly improving the assistance that healthcare workers can give to their patients.

The sector also needs to look at leveraging technology in relation to the buildings of hospitals and care homes. While sensor based entry and exit can be the first step in ensuring contact-less interaction with the hospitals, the healthcare industry needs to look at how they can take advantage of technology to make their premise more safer and secure for their patients and visitors.

Not all plain sailing

Like with any technology, security is of course a major priority with IoT in buildings. Data is being used here on a wide scale and so flaws in a building’s heating or parking system that leaves the business vulnerable to attacks can be a major concern.

Research shows that we are more aware of the value of data than ever before. Which is why security is more important than ever. Data must be protected in motion (i.e. as it travels on an IoT network to the cloud and back) and at rest (i.e. within any connected device or ‘thing’). To do this, companies can use private mobile networks with encrypted mobile-edge-to-cloud connectivity.

You wouldn’t leave the doors to your office building open, and so companies need to ensure that they don’t leave the backdoors to their office open with vulnerabilities. Working with trusted partners to ensure the company has fool-proof cybersecurity should be a priority of all businesses, no matter how much IoT they are using.

Laying the foundations of future buildings

If the science fiction perception of smart buildings is already here, then what can we look at for the future of buildings? With Covid-19 changing our working life and relationships with buildings for the foreseeable future, IoT within them will start to look at connecting the office or the hospital with the home. IoT is much more than a buzzword, but in order for companies to realise its full potential, they need to begin integrating and embedding it into all aspects of daily life.