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The emergence of digital technology is driving the creation of more efficient, sustainable and productive workplaces, says AECOM’s Director of Smart Buildings, Tony Buckingham.

You’re driving towards an unfamiliar corporate office to host a crucial meeting. But it’s a smart-enabled building, so you’re pretty relaxed. The company app on your smartphone, containing your profile, enabled you to prepare last night and the building is expecting you.

At the parking entrance, automatic number plate recognition cameras match the registration with the vehicle listed in your profile and allow you access. An intelligent parking system directs you to your reserved spot. Facial recognition cameras identify you as you enter the reception, but before going further, you present a security matrix barcode sent to your smartphone for second-level verification. Knowing your meeting room destination, the building calls the lift.

Automatically arriving at your floor, a location-sensing system leads you towards the meeting room. But knowing you’re early, it suggests, via your smartphone, a coffee. You accept and take a detour to the automatic vending machine. “The usual, Mrs. Smith?” it asks, politely. Cashless vending takes care of payment.

You enter the meeting room. The audiovisual (AV) system activates, and video conferencing links to the regional offices. It knows the type of device you’re planning to use and the AV systems automatically connect. The intelligent Building Management System (iBMS) has pre-set the room temperature and lighting is optimised for video conferencing. You’re ready. Tempted to put your feet up, you clear a few emails instead.


Smarter, better

Smart technologies are rapidly accelerating the development of modern offices. Gone are the days when they were merely buildings to which people commute because they had the right infrastructure and equipment to allow them to do their work.

With smartphones now common in the workplace, office users and owners are expecting high-level app-based interoperability. This cultural shift is changing office environments dramatically. Soon experiences like Mrs. Smith’s will be as synonymous with the workplace as watercoolers and flexible working.

Employees today are demanding better conditions to improve their everyday work experience and wellbeing. People want workspaces that provide a range of environments tailored to different types of working. These include areas where groups can collaborate and project ‘neighbourhoods’ that can be configured easily. Mobility and connectivity are key.

Developers and clients, on the other hand, want to get the most out of space. Property managers want to know if workspaces are being used efficiently, a difficult assessment to make with a mobile, agile workforce often spread across multiple floors and buildings. However, a number of smart building technologies and systems are emerging to assist.


Technologies across sectors

For many years, retailers and shopping centre owners have used people-counting systems to register footfall (the location and number of people entering in a given time) and shoppers’ travel paths through retail areas. Commercial offices today use similar technologies, from sensing the presence of people in meeting rooms, to analysing how they flow through a building.

Imagine you’re planning to eat in the office canteen but you’re in a hurry, so you check your firm’s app to see how long the queue is. While you’re connected, you check the menu along with the nutritional content of the meals. Soon you’ll be able to order and pay for your meal via an app, and have it delivered to your table by an autonomous robot, a technology that is already being trialled in the hospitality sector.

This new technology also means that scenarios where unused meeting rooms powered-up with lights, projector, screen and heating can be a thing of the past. Linked to a company’s room booking system, sensors can automatically detect somebody in the room and via iBMS, switch it to standby, saving energy and money.

With integrated, easy-to-use room controls and app-based booking systems there’s an opportunity to influence the way people manage bookings. Employees can receive rewards (such as canteen credits) if they mark a room as free after vacating it early, an action that will also switch the room to standby, and enable somebody else to use it.

This technology also provides property managers with real-time data across their real estate portfolio, letting them identify trends and understand why certain areas are well occupied while others are not. Sensors allow them to examine the effects of potential factors such as ambient noise, light, temperature and ventilation.


Bespoke solutions

Of course, each business will have a different need. When Formula 1 racing team Red Bull Racing installed nearly 500 wireless sensors around its factory in Milton Keynes, England, its aim was to improve the working environment to make staff happier and more productive, to drive performance.

The wireless sensors were quick and easy to install, and unlike traditional cabled solutions, with minimal disruption to the building fabric. They monitor elements such as the temperature, noise and lighting with the data feeding into a live model that allows the real-time optimisation of building controls. The technology had a positive impact on security, too, with the sensors able to detect if somebody left a window open.

To enable these existing, new and emerging technologies, ICT infrastructure remains a critical part of the jigsaw, be it wired or wireless. Its design needs to be flexible and adaptive to react quickly to situations. Infrastructure is the enabler for technology.

For example, a property manager faced with regularly low occupancy levels within a selected area may wish to experiment with new floor layouts and configurations. With the correct location and workplace monitoring systems in place, they can analyse real-time information and occupancy trends and quickly determine if the new layouts are yielding increased occupancy. Successful models and solutions can then be rolled out to other underperforming areas.


The growth of smart technologies

Other trends are emerging. Studies show that a person’s productivity, wellbeing and happiness increase if they work in an environment with good lighting, and comfortable temperature and air circulation. Office users are now able to source cost-effective hand-held devices to measure CO2, temperature and humidity. So while the initial focus was on how we occupy space, there’s now a demand for monitoring indoor office environments, with employee wellbeing a key driver.

Property investors are constantly chasing further efficiencies from their real estate portfolios, while at the same time employees continue demanding better collaborative working environments. To deliver on these sometimes divergent aspirations, buildings need to become smarter, allow for data collection, data analysis, optimisation and control including the use of artificial intelligence.

Controlling environments and creating sustainable and inspirational spaces also play a part in delivering better property investment returns, by increasing the attractiveness and contentment of users in a building (read more here). Landlords and tenants that embrace digital technology are both satisfying the modern day user’s needs and also differentiating themselves from competition with the potential to commanding higher returns on investment for smart workplaces.

In November 2017, Amazon announced Alexa for Business, an ‘intelligent assistant’ for work. Already used to keep users updated and informed at home, Amazon’s voice-activated artificially intelligent technology is moving to the workplace, accessing schedules, managing calendars, booking meetings and searching for information. It lets people use their voice to interact in a way that feels natural, leading to more efficient and productive workplaces. This is another significant step forward for smart building technology, and another example of how digital technology is enabling improvements in productivity, efficiency and workplace satisfaction.