Smart cities, smart buildings and the growing allure of infinite data

There needs to be greater awareness of the velocity of workplace innovation, the growth of smart Cities and their market effect on the architecture, engineering, construction and facility management industry.

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By Paul Doherty

Edition 5 – May 2015 Pages 28-31

Tags: smart cities • building information management • big data

Image: The main business district in Singapore


The rapid urbanization of our world and the weaving of buildings into the fabric of Smart Cities are some of the great challenges facing our industry today.

Along with the vast amount of definitions and marketing campaigns surrounding the phrase “Smart Cities” comes the challenge of understanding why the movement is important to the Architecture, Engineering, Construction and Facility Management (AEC/FM) industry and how its stakeholders can profit from, or at the very least, not get swept away in the tsunami. The emergence of Smart Cities as the conduit for ideas, thoughts, policies and strategies for urban environments is an important milestone for our industry, and it comes at a time of rapid innovation, convergence and redefinitions.


Before diving into the numerous definitions of a Smart City, it is important to understand the underlying forces driving this movement, from ideas and concepts into actionable projects and programs.  The unique timing of market conditions, technology innovation, social wants and government needs and the global migration to urban environments that dwarfs any mass movement of people in history; are the forces that are converging to create the Smart City tsunami.

Cities are exploring their options, led by the competitiveness between cities to attract and retain top talent and businesses and provide quality public services while balancing a budget. This exploration through innovative projects and programs is giving rise to a context called Smart Cities.

In 2008,the United Nations reported that the world’s population living in urban areas rose above 50% for the first time and is expected to reach 70% by 2050. If true, the world’s urban population will reach 5 billion by 2030. Using only 2% of the entire planet’s land mass, cities are using 75% of the world’s natural resources which account for about 80% of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions. Cities are moving to a Smart City agenda not because they want to, but because they have to.

Due to the local priorities and needs of each city, there are numerous emerging definitions of a Smart City. The flexibility of this definition provides cities with the opportunity to define their own programs, policies and procedures according to local priorities and needs. Smart City definition frameworks are designed and marketed by academics, companies, urban associations and then reported in the media. Most of these frameworks have projects and programs that include Smart Grid, Smart Buildings, CleanTech and Smart Governance.

Through these frameworks, a foundation has emerged that helps define areas of Smart City interest, action and measures. Most frameworks use the SMART acronym to define Specific, Measurable, Achievable,Relevant,and Time-based goals.

Most of today’s cities are running on independent, multiple departments, which can be associated with “Operating Systems”, designed to optimize a specific service in an expert system manner.  The goal of efficiency and effectiveness for a city to grow into a Smart City is to provide conduits of how these different Departments/ Operating Systems can work and learn together, sometimes through integration and collaboration and other times through interoperability.

The ten common Areas/Departments/Operating Systems that are seen as leading indicators of Smart Cities include:

  • Transportation
  • Infrastructure
  • Energy
  • Water
  • Waste
  • Public Safety
  •  Education
  • Healthcare
  • Green/Smart Buildings
  • Citizen Services

As cities begin their transformative process into Smart Cities, it helps to consider the manner in which cities they need to address the social, economic, engineering and environmental challenges.  The interesting thing about Smart City initiatives is the closely integrated way that seemingly disparate elements work together. Many cities are finding that the common element that ties together these elements is the identification and use of authenticated data from the built environment.

Many cities are finding that the common element that ties together seemingly disparate elements is the identification and use of authenticated data from the built environment.

Authenticated Big and Infinite Data

The main issue for the AEC/FM community is not to find itself mired in the complexities and sheer scope of Smart City initiatives such as the Internet of Things, Big Data and the infinite overlap of process, communication and technology. Rather, its focus should be to find itself at the discussion table of Smart City protocols, standards and projects, providing a wealth of knowledge concerning the physical space and exploring the use of its data in the digital space.

How this conversation between the industry and Smart City stakeholders should begin comes from the growing use of Building Information Modelling (BIM) and the emergence of captured operational data from Smart Building initiatives. BIM and Smart Buildings provide the digital DNA that when put into the context of a neighbourhood, district and City, provides a city with valued, relevant, authenticated data.

The key to success in creating value propositions for both the professional who owns the rights to this data and the Smart City stakeholders will be how effective and efficient the building’s data, its Digital DNA, weaves itself into effective Smart City initiatives.  This creates opportunities for Cloud based and mobile analysis and management that can lead to better design, performance, service and sustainability. The emergence of the phrase Big Data becomes a marketing and business development tool for the stakeholders in the built environment to begin to translate and interpret to the Smart City stakeholders why our data is important to them and how the knowledge behind the urban intelligence of Big Data latently resides with today’s AEC/FM professional.

As we identify the challenges of living in a highly connected and resilient world, it is comforting to relate to our cities as organisms. If the city is an organism, then we have seen its evolution from the agrarian society to the Information Age to today’s interconnect world through the development of systems. Each city has its own cardiovascular (traffic, mass transit),skeletal (infrastructure),respiratory and digestive systems (energy, waste) and even a primitive nervous system (telecommunications). In order for a city to provide access to its intelligence behind and become a Smart City, the development of the Intelligence System that connects the central nervous system to a brain is required. Feeding the vast amounts of data into this brain will require a measured and thoughtful process.

Does a city create an uber system which consolidates all its data and functions into a nice tight package but run the risk of having such a system vulnerable to hackers, terrorists or other challenges?  Or does a City emulate the Open System approach prevalent in the IT industry and create a dispersed framework of interconnected exchanges that allow important data to flow freely to the end user who, but runs the risk of technology complexities and a “too open source” way of working that makes a system so resource intensive to be unrealistic?  The operational structure for a City’s brain will become one of the great challenges for our world’s built environment.

The operational structure for a City’s brain will become one of the great challenges for our world’s built environment

So just what AEC/FM data is valued and relevant for cities that are looking for pathways to becoming a Smart City? It is important to learn what cities already possess to properly answer this critical question. Due to the implementation of vast information technology (IT) solutions over the past few decades by cities,the world has created varied and enormous amounts of data in both digital and paper formats.

This data comes in all shapes and sizes and enables an enormous amount of tasks to be conducted more effectively. The issue is not if the city has the data to become a Smart City, but how. to apply it. The media people are calling this the emancipation of data from silos. This means that an enormous body of data has the ability to enter your city and freely circulate.  The job of the city’s IT department is not to just secure people from getting into a city’s system, but to control and manage the glut of data that will be trying to escape.

Think of what happened to sensitive data that was set free in the Wikileaks scandal a few years ago and you get the picture on Big Data’s effect on the free flow of data. So a major issue for a city’s IT department is how to manage Big Data, now that it can be set free so easily.  The City that solves this issue will be on the correct path to being a Smart City.  Those that don’t may experience what other organisms experience when there is too much blockage in its nervous system, a breakdown.

The focus on Big Data and your city’s behaviour towards its data’s management is a critical element towards being a truly Smart City.  A smarter, efficient city that would encompass aspects of intelligent transportation, security, energy management,CO2 emissions, and resiliency is contingent on the implementation of a Big Data strategic plan to enable decision makers and authorities to perform their jobs.

In response, some cities have taken an Open Data approach to assist in making data available to the general public, which has spawned an emerging market for the development and sale of “Apps” to enable this Open Data to come alive and provide value to a user. Some cities have also begun programs to leverage the existing data on the built environment found in their building departments, zoning departments and utilities.

Programs like Smart Permitting in Singapore; Quick Response (QR) tagging of Building Permits in New York City and Smart Metering/Wifi in Santa Clara, California are leading their citizens into the next generation of their relationship with the city.

A relationship that fosters a two way communication built on trust, while acquiring and building captured and authenticated digital DNA (Big Data) of the city’s built environment – becomes the foundation for a Smart City and is a winning combination for the transformation of interesting cities into Smart Cities.

Smart buildings

For over 20 years, many buildings have moved towards automating facility management processes to provide a quality environment, streamline tasks and deliver more efficient resources. However, the sophistication of certain building systems like lighting, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC),conveyance systems (elevators, escalators) and security has created robust solutions, but has also created deep silos of operation.

The challenge for many occupiers is to integrate these systems so buildings become smarter by having operational data “talk” to each other. It is a daunting task, as there is massive complexity inside buildings – with both proprietary and open protocols and systems, that can lead to a resource intensive process just to have systems communicate.

Integrated solutions have matured in recent years, breaking down this task into affordable solutions. Equipment management control companies have provided the market with innovative Building Automation Systems (BAS) in many configurations that are creating the framework and environment for the emergence of truly Smart Buildings.

What this maturity of Smart Buildings brings to the market is the opportunity to look beyond the individual project and position for capturing value (and alternative revenues) at the data transaction level. If the market is creating the digital DNA of the building and the building is leveraging this data to perform at an optimal level, the logical next step is to have buildings begin to communicate together as a self-healing style network.

Knowing that your data is being used in a more robust ecosystem of a Smart City that has potential transactional value, AEC/FM leaders will capture greater market share and open up new opportunities for growth than their competition. This revaluation of digital DNA dwarfs any previous notion of the value given to AEC/FM data.

Buildings as servers, cities as networks

Think of your city as a network, with each building acting as a server.  When this individual building data is connected to the City Network, likely through an Open Data policy or as an ordinance, interesting things begin to happen.  The captured AEC data that a city captures through this process or already possesses becomes the digital DNA of Smart Cities.

In a similar way to the latent data in each building; cities possess an amazing amount of data of various forms.  The magic of utilizing this data to make better decisions lies in identifying, locating and reporting latent data into actionable data. Like oil exploration, finding the right reservoir of raw data to tap into can be an interesting journey in itself, but with advances in ICT like Cloud-based technologies, there has been great improvement in a city’s ability to gather vast amounts of data in a cost effective manner.

ICT advances becoming commonplace in cities today include:

  • Ubiquitous sensors enabling authenticated data collection.
  • Low-cost communications protocols and systems to simplify and reduce costs.
  • Pervasive video devices that assist in public safety programs.
  • Real-time management systems for traffic, water, sanitation and public transportation that automate control and optimize performance.
  • 3D visualization analytic tools that translate all of this data into actionable intelligence.

This data intelligence process begins with a proactive approach of identifying, capturing and managing a city’s digital DNA. Because the outcome is to equip city stakeholders with the tools to make better decisions,3D visualization analytic tools are emerging as the preferred method due to their ability to take highly complex amounts of data and show results in context with the actual city. In order to work 3D visualization tools require accurate, authenticated data to “build” a 3D view of the city.

This data resides in a city’s building department, engineering department, land department, planning department, sanitation department, tax departments, postal services or any department where they collect and manage vast amounts of data that when viewed as a whole, create the virtual representation of the physical city.

The building blocks to use this data rest on the ability to repurpose its existing data and documents associated with the Built Environment. The accuracy, authentication and integration of this data is the key to a proactive approach to entering a path to becoming a Smart City. Without proper digital DNA structure and management, the connectivity from a city’s “nervous system” to a “brain” will be problematic, inhibiting performance and the evolution of a city into a Smart City. Once this foundation of a digital visualization process is in place, cities have the ability to leverage this “front end” to begin viewing the data behind the digital, smart buildings.

Today, cities acquire most of the data of a building through some basic communication of paper and digital reporting which can be resource intensive. What is emerging in both is the automation of this reporting process through programs and systems like Smart Meters, cable television and telecommunication boxes and building “Black Boxes” that can house and report on the “health of a building” for things like structural integrity to Building Automation System data.

This can be viewed as buildings becoming servers of data, like in a computer network. Best practice installations use the core of the building and mechanical room as the location where this building data can best be captured, managed and reported. Think of a building’s core as the “spine” or backbone of that building that can be hard wired connected to the Internet, with a redundant backup of being wirelessly connected, to communicate with an intelligent operations center (IOC). Once at the IOC, the building’s data can be analysed using the 3D city model for quick, intuitive results.

A simple example is the capture of power consumption, which is reported in real time to the IOC, measured against benchmarks and then each reporting building showing a Green, Yellow or Red indicator. If the user wants to view more information on the colour coded building, they can have access by clicking on the building. Lessons learned and best practices from operating and maintaining computer networks will be required reading for many city stakeholders to realize the benefits of having immediate access to authenticated building data.

Easily mapped to a computer network, the City as a Network brings many unexpected results that cities are only beginning to discover. Using buildings and infrastructure assets as a visualization and data foundation, the use of sensors, video and mobile devices to assist with city management becomes an easier process. This best practice of IOC’s for cities elevate the value of data coming from both AEC and FM. Innovative AEC and FM firms are rethinking their value propositions when they realize that their data is being used over a longer period of time when in the context of Smart Cities rather than just in the design, construction process or just within a single building’s use.

New business models are emerging that put a portion of traditional AEC and FM fees into extended service agreements based on the amount of data used, like the music industry publishing model. Others are becoming data escrow agencies who provide data on an “as needed” basis, ensuring the quality and authentication of data. Using the Cloud to conduct and automate these services, the costs and technology complexity usually associated with these solutions are negligible, making the business case easily adoptable. As these emerging business models mature and the market begins its pull cycle for digital DNA services, the rewards to innovative companies will be substantial, potentially outperforming existing fee based contracts.

The age of the Smart City is before us all.  We did not ask for it, but it is here nonetheless. Smart Cities are being created due to a perfect storm of economic conditions, the next generation ICT tools and urban migration that require new and existing cities to respond with powerful new programs, solutions and relationships between people, places and things.

This time, our time, requires not just smart technologies and systems, but smart thinking.  The basic goal of Smart Cities is to improve the quality of life and the wellbeing of its citizens, as Human Capital far outweighs any other measure of a successful urban environment.

As the discourse, development and implementation
of Smart Cities emerge as a primary objective for urban environments across the globe, it is vital that we as a people do not get this wrong. Having a place at the table to assist in creating Smart Cities should be a goal for the AEC/FM industry as our data plays a fundamental role in the success of Smart Cities and our processes need to be understood
by other stakeholders. If we fail to ensure our voice is heard, Smart City initiatives run the real possibility of not achieving optimal results.

The AEC/FM firms that best exhibit this ability to have a place at the table are in an enviable position of transforming their value and ultimately their revenues to levels never achieved in the traditional sense of our industry.

Ways for a Smart City strategy to succeed

There are three key ways for a Smart City strategy to succeed:

1. Holistic View: Smart City strategies and solutions must be considered with the context of a city’s entire operations infrastructure processes and work ows. This eco- system view will assist in identifying isolated projects will have limited impact. Cloud-based, 3D Gaming style solutions are proving to be successful in telling this vital story.

2. Citizen engagement: Gaining public support and trust in new processes and tools such as crowdsourcing, mobile Apps and report tracking is a primary objective of many cities on the path to becoming a Smart City.

3. Collaboration: ICT technology breakthroughs, insightful policies and urban designs that delight are intersecting in a manner that calls for collaboration at a rate that we have not been accustomed to before. These points of intersection are fertile ground for innovation within organizations and between organizations.

Cities are a mirror to the values of our age. Both large and small Smart City solutions have the opportunity to assist in creating an urban environment for people to prosper, in a welcoming, inclusive and open manner. Living a “connected” life is being transformed into living in an “interconnected”
life for people living in today’s urban places.

When people, places and things begin to seamlessly and transparently communicate, interesting things begin to happen. This is
the promise of Smart Cities. Getting Smart Cities right is our generation’s greatest challenge and the best legacy we can leave to our children. W&P

About the Author

Paul is the President and CEO of the digit group, a Silicon Valley-based Smart Cities solution provider.  Paul is a licensed architect and regular speaker at industry events.  He sat on the Board of Directors of IFMA and is the co-founder of the IFMA Shanghai Chapter, former President of the IFMA Information Technology Council (ITC), co-founder of the IFMA Smart Cities Task Force and the co-founder of the IFMA BIM Lifecycle Operations Community of Practice.

Paul’s current work is focused on Smart City solutions worldwide. Paul is the co-founder and producer of the AEC Hackathon ( that launched at Facebook Headquarters in Silicon Valley in November 2013.



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