When is a building smart?

Buildings don’t have to be shiny and green to be smart.

Individual perception of ‘a smart building’ varies widely, and differences of opinion fuels the understanding of what makes a smart building.

Data scientists will articulate that ‘being smart’ envisage automated ( or semi at least ) processes anticipating human needs to make them efficient and productive. Sociologists think about the built environment as a place to make humans more collaborative and mindful. Technologists will focus on Co2 savings, platform integration and single panes of glass administration.

And somewhere in the middle of all this lie many other perceptions and points of view. Tip of the iceberg in fact.

I work in the world of buildings, workplaces and software, helping people achieve a more cognitive experience from the assets around them. In my travels therefore, I often ponder how well our industry is doing in the quest for smart buildings, and how human outcomes can be enhanced by technology, not defined by it.

Let me paint a story.

In 1994, a renown author, called Stuart Brand published a book called How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built.

Brand proposed that buildings adapt best when constantly refined and reshaped by their occupants, arguing that buildings improve with time — if they’re allowed to. He defined several layers of ‘skin’ that evolve from the Site that provides the foundation ( circa 300 years ) through to Services ( up to 15 years ), Space ( up to 3 years ) and Stuff ( furniture and belongings that moves around twice a month).


Stuff. Such a great word that we use to conveniently wrap up items in our lives that don’t carry a label. Under the stairs’ stuff. The garage stuff. The stuff in our lockers. The stuff in our heads. And the stuff in the workplace? No longer the desk chair, telephone, potted plant or coffee pot that gets moved about in the 1990s.

We all have the capability to produce digital stuff in milliseconds ( even when asleep ) with tools provided to us, and obtained by us. We share digital stuff and we expect the digital stuff around us to help us have a ‘better day doing whatever it is we do’.

Our buildings and workplaces are either setup well to allow our digital stuff to be a dividend for us, or on the flip, setup to make it difficult for us to perform well, and a tax we pay.

We ‘do digital’ to increase our headspace to make better decisions. Our cognitive space. Allow us to be more mindful of ourselves and others. Space to let us be the best possible version of what we are paid to do.

Of course AI is starting to blend these worlds into services offering us ways to remove the tasks that we find distracting and less productive, giving us more time to manage our digital stuff.

But will this alone make us smart (or smarter), or does this not matter provided the building is smart and is providing us with just the right comfort levels for light and temperature, and allows us to use ‘an app’ to book things we need?

Worker experience defines us.

Forrester research suggests almost 90% of organizations face challenges with worker experience in that Worker Experience (WX) is not on the radar of executive-level conversations.

Loosely defined as the way a human uses consumer grade technology, enjoying a flexible workplace and getting easy access to information, WX is not well served by the layers beneath in your average brownfield building ( and some of those shiny ones too ) .

In the 1990s WX and CX were not so much of an issue, but today can be the differentiating value when we enter a store, office, airport or hospital.

And the challenge is that you and I are many layers from the intent and desire of architect, planner, asset owner, where their perception of performance varies dramatically from ours. None of us want to queue for passport control, right? Or find that restrooms are in a mess? Or suffer from poorly thought out tools that frustrate more than support?

Sobering thought.

60% of the buildings that will exist in 2050 already exist today (Carbon Trust).

So not every building in our immediate future therefore, will be a shiny greenfield technology paradise promising unparalleled experiences driven by semi-automated facilities and proactive use of data. No, for us it will be those brownfield buildings which will define our perception of what makes a building smart.

Ken Shuttleworth, president of the British Council for Offices stated “Buildings on the drawing board now will have employees working in them that aren’t even born yet, so developers need to think smarter”.

And it is difficult.

The concepts of human perception are not well understood in relationship to the workplace building. Compared to the lifetime of a building, our understanding of what humans really feel is still in its infancy.

How does different space influence cognition? Is there an ideal kind of architectural structure for different kinds of thinking? Can I influence how great a day I am going to get from the building I am about to walk into? Will the experience of this place frustrate me or delight me?

The good news is that we are getting this right.

Telemetry data and sensor technology will support disruptive younger generations and their consumer grade outcome devices. In return increased pressure will come to bear on architects, planners, asset owners and technology providers to sort out the black holes of building information, supply chain transparency, collaborative sharing of data and abstraction layers to inform stronger social outcomes for these worker generations.

We need a plan.

People who never thought they would be in the same room together, need to be in the same room together.

Imagine the scene.

Roles may include someone who owns ‘organizational health’ in terms of ‘operational result’, someone who owns ‘social outcome’, someone who owns ‘digital change’, and someone who owns ‘action this day’.

The group should be encouraged to think about Experience or WX, putting themselves in the shoes of their consumer group.

They need to honestly appraise who around the table is responsible for WX. Perhaps a shared managerial responsibility that goes top down, something that is implied not explicitly dictated, or something that is more relaxed and peer driven from sideways up.

They should start thinking about their buildings as a System — lets call it a System of Socialisation. A system that sits on top of their Systems of Record and Empowerment using a broker of some form that manages all aspects of policy, security, analytical insight and a economic value measurement ( personal well being, team productivity, material output ).

A consumer grade experience for a human to interact with a building to suit their personal needs and wants. Something that allows them to work with peers in classic work-group fashion but doesn’t lock them into a ‘traditional platform or app’. Perhaps something that lets me use Facebook one day to engage with the building, and then a SMS message the next, while you choose to use Twitter and Slack interchangeably.

And the children?

Of course the children in the school do not have any of this digital stuff. That much is very evident. Not a smart whiteboard or tablet computer in sight. Yet one senses from the picture that they are getting Experience in bucket loads thanks to their teacher’s guile, and their young minds being wide open to learn. Can you imagine what happens when ‘digital stuff’ enters their lives? And when they enter the workplace in 15 years’ time?

And what of the building? I sense the building has witnessed thousands of young minds going through such a vital life experience, and itself will continue to learn and adapt to support young minds to have the best possible day — every day.

“I wish for a workplace that has learned sufficiently to allow me to have the best day at work — every day.” ( Said by no-one ).


I write these words as a individual member of an open society, and they are not representative of my professional role or employer.

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