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“Workplace strategy needs to be about more than just driving down costs and maximizing the utilization of assets: it must be about enabling productivity and collaboration” stated Mike Gedye, Executive Director at leading commercial property and real estate services adviser CBRE.

Speaking at the Smart Buildings 17 event in London at the end of May, Gedye highlighted that; “we have undoubtedly reached an inflexion point in the evolution of the workplace.” He believes that “developers, tenants and technology companies are all hungry to promote smarter workplaces,” and asked, “what’s holding the industry back?”

The concept of the smart building is certainly, at least, 25 years old, many would suggest its origins lie in the 1980s, more than 30 years ago, some even claim it is an idea that first emerged in the 1960s. Yet here we are in 2017, being critical of our few truly smart buildings, debating which standards to use and still wondering which applications should take priority.

“Thanks to advances in technology, the smart office building is an idea whose time has come. It brings with it a host of tangible benefits for employers and employees alike but what features do people really want?” asks Jeremy Myerson, Director at The WORKTECH Academy & Research Professor at the Royal College of Art.

The Smart Buildings conference answered that question quite explicitly. Whereas, just five years ago, the main focus of smart buildings would have been optimizing energy use and reducing costs, today the industry and its customers are far more interested in increasing occupant wellbeing and productivity.

“Building owners didn’t care about energy before and they don’t care about it now. It is quite difficult to make a sale on energy alone,” said James Lee, CEO & President of Cimetrics, during a Memoori Webinar earlier this year.

Smart building stakeholders, especially smart office buildings, understand that there is much more to be gained by increasing output of workers than by cutting energy costs. Absence due to sickness costs the UK economy £14 billion a year according to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). Healthier employees are more present employees, so a smart building that makes occupants healthier is one that increases the tenants and owners bottom lines.

Smart buildings can also directly improve productivity of occupants in an office, for example; using intelligent lighting, HVAC, scheduling and many more technologies. In order to achieve this, the spotlight needs to be turned from ‘technologies designed for buildings’ to ‘technologies designed for people’.

“Turning connected ‘buildings’ into connected ‘occupants’ is now possible using today’s technology. Too much is said about integrating disparate systems within a building, rather than connecting occupants and thereby facilitating an optimal working environment for each individual. Integration of systems has been done in the past but successfully engaging and supporting each user is the challenge that we all face today,” suggested Mark Stanton, European Key Account Leader at Honeywell, during the conference.

It is a challenge that many believe we are currently failing, and that failure puts the sector and our economies well behind what they could, and probably should, be. “Buildings are crucial enablers of economic activity but if we’re honest about it, they frequently fail to live up to our collective expectations based on our experiences everywhere we live, work and play,” said Pradyumna V. Pandit Vice President at Schneider Electric in his presentation.

The answer to the problem of standardizing has been clear for sometime – create a widely agreeable protocol for the communication between Internet of Things devices. We have also long understood that if we want to gain the broad economic and societal benefits of smart buildings, then we need to find a way to build and retrofit more of them. Overly simplifying perhaps, but if our fragmented sector wants to achieve its potential then it should work together, while in competition, under these principles.

The relatively recent shift of focus from ‘making better buildings’ to ‘making better buildings for occupants,’ may bring more unification within the industry, driven by a greater demand for the increased value of smart buildings. Flooding a building with technology is no longer enough; vendors must take a step back and ask how best to serve occupants before planning their product offering.

“Modern buildings produce masses of data. Before we add even more sensors, how can we use this data to improve our interface with the users, optimize performance and improve health and well-being in the workplace?” asked Philip Kite, Director at engineering firm Ramboll. “Through integration of technology we can engage with users and influence sustainable lifestyles,” he added.

Too often we see technology for the sake of technology, often wasting our time and increasing our stress levels. A focus on productivity and wellbeing not only increases profit and satisfaction, it naturally diverts us away from developing technology that doesn’t help us. Those companies who take this approach will reap the benefits and most likely leave slow adopters in their wake.

“If you require people to click on their phone ten times to change the lighting, you’ve failed because it would have been easier to walk over and hit a light switch,” said Vanessa Butz, ‎Entrepreneur, Advisor and Angel Investor at District Technologies. “These technologies need to be as intuitive as possible – if you’re not looking at your end user, you will die”.

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