Paul explains that the ‘smart building’ question is a very live one for his organisation as it carries out its mission of consulting with companies and the wider industry to best ensure the environments they create answer the right questions and solve the right problems.
Paul says: “There is great quote from Einstein: ‘If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.’
“The built environment in some way impacts everyone’s life and there is much evidence of the effect that homes and other buildings have on wellbeing.
“Yet we tend to do the opposite of what Einstein said, spending the vast majority of time and effort designing and building (answering questions) and precious little time, if any at all, determining the proper questions (briefing). We need to think about whether we are getting carried away with the solutions we are used to providing, to the detriment of really thinking about what problems we should be solving in the first place.”
Paul adds: “Technology is in a place now, as we enter the era of the Internet of Things, where it can play a huge role in working out just how buildings are used and ultimately what people really want from the building and the technology.
“Sensors placed around a building could measure everything that goes on, that data could then be gathered and used to start asking a whole new set of questions which address how humans interact with the built environment and what their needs and desires are. I believe the talent exists within the built environment field, from architects, to builders, to installers to do it, but there has to be a desire to look at how we do things now and adjust for the future. We need to accept and embrace a new paradigm in how we both create and understand how people use the built environment.
“We need to be developing environments that allow people to intuitively interact and for those environments to adapt to suit them, not vice versa. Statements that the building would work better if only the users operated it correctly are indicative of the problem, ultimately at the moment we are too deterministic. Such statements and attitudes are in my opinion clear evidence of just how far off the mark the industry is today.”
Paul is also of the view that a lot of what happens in automated systems currently are just ways of digitising something that used to be an analogue or physical process.
These processes have some appeal from a ‘gadget’ point of view, but Paul insists we need to ask if we are really making life better and offering a way to care for the occupant’s wellbeing?
Paul believes the process is beginning: “Retail spaces are interesting. Stores are using technology such as intelligent signage and bespoke offers based on near field sensors and shoppers’ smart phones. Such systems gather data on their customers and manipulate that data to offer choices to the customer that it ‘knows’ they might like.
“Adapting this approach for the home could see systems which don’t just react to the owner’s arrival, but anticipate what the needs of the person might be based on data it has collected.”
Always one with an apt quote, Paul says: “Le Corbusier the famous French architect, artist and writer famously said: ‘The house is a machine for living’. Our ability today to put technology into homes makes this reality more true that it has ever been, but will what Le Corbusier was really saying be understood? We have the potential to really make life better, not just different. Does just automating and digitising things really make life better? Or can we go further and produce systems where the building learns about its occupants and intervenes in pleasant and supportive ways. This surely is what a ‘home that is a machine for living’ is?”
Paul argues that information can be gathered not just from sensors in the home: “Smart products such as watches and phones can play a part monitoring things such as health, location or schedule. This could be combined with info from the Internet say on travel delays, opening up the possibility for the home to make choices on behalf of the owners or present choices based on what it knows has happened in the past or very recently.
“The train is going to be late, the house system knows this, so turns the oven down, or re-adjusts the time that the heating will come on, or maybe lets others in the family know the person will be late. Once you start to think about it, the possibilities are endless and we start to see a level of AI where the home becomes a concierge offering services based on what the user actually does. The info is there, if we can harness the data that people carry around with them, we are into a very powerful way of learning what people actually want and do. There are also real beneficial gains here for assisted living and care homes.”
Paul accepts that none of this is easy and barriers, such as getting whole ranges of products from one global brand to interact with another, will always be difficult politically.
However, Paul does see the possibility that very large brands could create whole buildings or environments that deliver the kind of learning interactions he is talking about.
For example a Google or Apple based building could exist which uses the power of those brands and the information they have access to and combined with the expertise of installers, allow the building to care for the occupants.
Paul suggests it could be very interesting if a developer decided to go down this route and chose a technology partner.
Buildings could become part of a ‘brand’ and the choice of where to live, buy or increasingly in the UK, where to rent, could become as much a brand decision as which car or phone a user buys.
The way products and systems are produced can also be problematic. Paul says: “Manufacturers and installers need to ask themselves, ‘why did we begin this journey?’ ‘What was the requirement?’ To a degree when we get something right which takes off, like multi-room music, there is an element of luck as often what is happening is that industries come up with lots of ideas they think consumers want, some of them work and some of them don’t. It would be more prudent to spend much more time not guessing what people want, but using technology to find out for sure.”
As well as using technology to do this, just taking on board some of Paul’s ideas could inform how installers interact with clients at the planning stage of a project. At the planning stage, are we really learning all we could to make the system able to react to the user’s needs?
Paul concludes: “Of course none of this easy, but then by definition the home technology market grew out of solving problems and creating systems which did not exist before. “In essence what I am suggesting is that the industry does this again and starts to think about the next generation of interactions that could take place.
“These support services and choices could also move to the cloud and span the person’s whole life and follow them around from home, in the car, on the train and into the work place or abroad. The biggest barriers are the individualistic attitudes of the industry and the current financial models, with individual organisations charging for design, installation or products that constitute discrete sub- systems, but not one complete holistic system.
“What is needed is shift from product to service, a service that is provided through ‘smart’ buildings that are seamless integrated holistic systems. What the building does being the value that is sold, not the building itself. Only then could the built environment be considered 21st century.
“There was a time that a car was an unreliable poorly made piece of engineering that broke down regularly; the car evolved. First transformative design and fabrication methods gave us cars that are consistently good and reliable, then technology has afforded us cruise control, satellite navigation, engine management and integration with phones.
“Buildings too are today (usually) made better and use technology to control heating, lighting and other building services. But as we are moving towards a time where self-driving cars are becoming a reality, I cannot help but wonder, what would a ‘self-driving’ home be like and why aren’t we developing them?”