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Just how dumb is smart tech? We ask our very own Jon Frost to answer this.

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Name: Jon Frost
Job Title: Head of Digital Services


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BLOG: Just how dumb is smart tech?

01 September 2017

Smart watches, smart homes, smart cities, smart motorways…everything in today’s technology-driven society is supposedly ‘smart’.

In the consumer space, we’ve seen tools such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home. In a new building somewhere near you, there’ll be sensors deciding when the lights go on and off. And you’re probably reading this on a smartphone.

So is the brave new world of smart technology finally upon us?

Not quite. Yes, people are waking up to the surprise and delight of asking a speaker what the weather’s like this morning; some are even starting their cars with their phones! But today’s smart tech is largely just clever ways of turning things on or off or of issuing instructions for otherwise routine functions.

Nevertheless, the huge potential in an inter-connected, technology and data driven ecosystem is gradually coming into sharp focus.

Let’s be clear about where we currently are. Alexa is a one-trick consumer gadget, the adoption rates for smart building technologies are low, and in some cases the technologies don’t – yet - talk to each other.

Nevertheless, this isn’t an issue I’d park in the pending tray. If you’re a developer, an occupier, an investor or an asset manager, the time to start assessing these new technologies and sizing up the gains you could make is now – the pace of technology development is such that ignoring them could mean losing out on years of efficiencies.

The potential also goes well beyond individual assets: smart technologies have the capacity to better manage whole estates, even the way we use large-scale infrastructure. Think smart traffic management systems which communicate with cars and encourage re-routing to reduce rush hour bottlenecks.

The opportunities, then, are massive and I’m pretty sure we’ll get there in the end. So why isn’t this tech being adopted with the kind of ‘better, faster, cheaper’ momentum that tech companies would like it to?

Much of the consumer tech is convenience-based and serves only an isolated purpose – it won’t make a difference to your personal bottom line. If a speaker is simply a different way of serving up information already available on your smartphone, is that really a compelling case for adoption?

By the same token, smart buildings technology still has some way to go before it can lever ‘network effects’ – amplifying the opportunities, efficiencies and the benefits through widespread adoption. To give you one personal example, I’ve just moved home and would like to transfer my smart meter to a new account. Unfortunately, it won’t work with the system employed by the supplier I want to use…

Maddening as it is, this is typical of what happens when a new technology is in its early, evolutionary stage. On a personal level, it’s just annoying. But if a similar scenario played out at the level of national infrastructure management, it could be disastrous.

Be in no doubt that these frustrations will disappear because the prize on offer is huge. Smart technologies have the potential to transform the way the built environment is designed, the way it performs and how it is managed.

And as government strategic policies begin to converge on a technology-enabled smart economy, the socio-economic benefits will become measurable outputs – with social, health and wellbeing outputs becoming equal to the financial gains in the built environment.

Sensor-driven tech can monitor the numbers of people in a room and a building, keep track of resource consumption and manage it dynamically, flag up the need for inspection and maintenance in building infrastructure.

It’s an attractive option for the management of even one asset, but if you amplify it across an entire estate – whether that estate is privately or publicly-owned – you can see the scale of efficiencies that can be achieved.

Not only that, but smart technologies can also generate a positive feedback loop, collating data which informs not just the management of existing assets but the design of the assets of the future. Either way, designing in better control of costs is the golden opportunity.

Even as we speak, the National Infrastructure Commission is consulting on the potential to create digital ‘twins’ of major infrastructure assets – a clear measure of the scale of the potential in smart tech, and a natural next-step from the government’s existing commitment to BIM and the Digital Built Britain programme.

So how do we get to this technological promised land? The hurdles we have to overcome centre on common technology standards, and probably a shift in attitudes towards the use of data.

Right now, there is understandable nervousness about the collection and storage of data about people’s behaviour, and it may take a generation to overcome that: people who’ve grown up sharing their lives on social media may be much more comfortable with their presence in a building being routinely recorded.

It is still early days for the deployment of technology in the built environment. Different standards and isolated application might make it seem dumb, but be in no doubt that it is the smart way ahead.

With the UK rapidly gaining a reputation as a world leader in the application of digital technology in the lifecycle of the built environment, it’s going to be an exciting time for those of us involved.