If smart buildings are to capitalize on renewed relevance post-COVID, they’re going to need to get better at collecting and responding to our data.

Despite the repeated attempts of evangelists in architecture and planning departments, and more recently consumer technology companies, our buildings don’t appear to be getting appreciably  smarter. Yes, plenty of us have worked in buildings that will adjust light and heat levels based on occupancy. Sure, some of these systems may even have learned the usage patterns of their users in order to anticipate basic needs, but those benefits have been incremental rather than transformational. 

The last year, with its focus on analyzing exactly how we inhabit, share and move between spaces, has now accelerated that trajectory. Search activity around both smart cities and smart buildings saw new peaks in 2020 according to Google. Countries like Singapore, India and the UAE have all increased investment in smart-infrastructure projects in response to the pandemic.

The role that infrastructure is performing is often quite new, however. At the start of the outbreak, HOK’s director of workplace Kay Sargent told the Washington Post that she thought sensor technology was ‘going to explode’ over the coming months, particularly as we shift from worrying whether a space is fully utilized to ‘whether it is appropriately utilized’. In other words, it’s no longer a case of wringing as much utility-per-square-foot out of a building as possible; instead, we need tools that help us think more analytically about the hierarchy of uses a space can perform, as well as who needs to be there to perform them.

60 per cent of interactions between North American employees violated COVID safety guidance in 2020

Sargent has been proven right, with smart building startups like VergeSense, OpenSense and Infogrid raising significant funding rounds as investors recognize their centrality to aiding worldwide office reoccupation. Sony has launched its own smart office product called Nimway targeted at managing the efficient and safe distribution of workers. The scale of that challenge can’t be underestimated. VergeSense, which has 30,000 object-recognition sensors installed in office buildings worldwide, recently told Bloomberg that, based on its 2020 data, 60 per cent of interactions between North American employees violated COVID safety guidance. The number was even higher in Asia. What was once a metric for success is now a recipe for disaster. 

Butlr uses a mix of wireless, battery-powered hardware and AI to provide real-time data on an individual’s movement, body temperature and behaviour without violating privacy. 

Protecting both health and privacy 

The key to capitalizing on this renewed interest in public environments that can respond to each of us intelligently is the right kind of data. That will require new data collecting technologies that can gather granular details about users, offering greater personalization, but also maintain privacy. That last point can’t be overlooked. Citizens' concerns about data ownership and privacy were some of the key factors that contributed to the failure of Sidewalk Labs’ smart district in Toronto last year. As Boston Consulting Group managing director Massimo Russo outlines: ‘as cities build data platforms, they will have to manage the tradeoff between innovative, valuable solutions and privacy risk’.

Our buildings are going to need to be asked to do more in order to respond to new health requirements

Butlr, a spin-off from the MIT Media Lab, believes it has a viable solution. Rather than invasive facial-recognition-based technologies, or the more common but limited infrared sensors, Butlr measures an individual’s biometric heat signature. That offers a balance of accuracy and anonymity, allowing its sensors to track not just movement but posture, helping it better understand intentions and behaviours. In one demonstration, ceiling lights and blinds drop as a user moves from reading a book on the sofa to lying down. From March 2021 it will also be able to measure health factors such as body temperature.‘In the age of coronavirus, our buildings and human environments are going to need to be asked to do more in order to respond to new health and safety requirements that prevent future disease outbreaks,’ says cofounder Jiani Zeng. ‘We believe that the future of architecture is responsive and context-aware.’ 

Butlr’s network of sensors is able to use an individual’s biometric heat signature, to track movement and posture, and predict behaviour. 

Safety Signals 

Defining the nature of that response is where spatial designers will need to step in. More intelligent sensors will also require the creation of more nuanced environmental-feedback loops, especially with regard to wayfinding and safety warnings. Sensor startup PointGrab is another that has reengineered its occupant management system – which is already installed at sites such as Deloitte’s recently upgraded London campus – to help monitor one-way circulation routes and social distancing. CEO Doron Shachar told CNN that if two people stand less than two metres apart for more than 30 seconds, PointGrab will now generate an alert. ‘An organization will choose what to do with that alert,’ Shachar explains. ‘I don't think that they should blow an alarm.’

Carpeting embedded with LED lighting can provide visual cues

The challenge will be in developing communication protocols that have sufficient impact without causing anxiety. Deloitte has envisioned a future in which ‘carpeting embedded with LED lighting can provide visual cues about where and how far apart people should stand’, while Tim Fendley, founder of wayfinding design agency Applied, speculated to Frame about the ability to plug such networks directly into visitors' smartphones: ‘imagine there’s a large crowd just around the corner, and then being able to adjust your route – or else wait until it has dissipated’.