May 2020

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Imagining the “Pandemic-Smart” Buildings of the Future

The time has come for the many great minds of the smart building industry to look ahead, and spare some innovative thinking for the next pandemic that will sweep the world.
James McHale
James McHale,
Managing Director,


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We are in the midst of an unprecedented global crisis. Pandemics have happened before, many of them more deadly than we expect COVID-19 to be, but in our increasingly populated and globalized society, the impact and the reaction are different. Today, in our highly connected world of smartphones and smart buildings, we should be better placed to protect people, gather useful data, enact more effective emergency health policy, and control the spread of the virus better than ever before. You would think.

Smart buildings have made great strides in the last decade. Making building systems more efficient while making occupants safer, healthier, and more productive. However, in the face of the coronavirus crisis and subsequent social distancing or lockdown conditions, our smart commercial buildings didn’t have any innovative or high-tech solutions to protect occupants while they work and play.

The world was forced to resort to proven traditional methods to protect people. A global lockdown based on the same strategy used to fight the first H1N1 flu pandemic (Spanish flu) in 1918, which killed as many as 50 million people as it was spread by troops returning home from WWI. Messages of how to wash your hands properly stream across the media as good old soap and water become our principal defensive weapon, meanwhile low-tech masks and toilet paper have become the most in-demand products in many regions.

While the smart buildings industry can’t be blamed for not finding solutions to keep our offices running, various applications have emerged over the years to defend building occupants against power cuts, acts of terrorism, and even natural disasters that may only occur every 10-years or more. Why not for epidemics and pandemics that are becoming increasingly common. The world’s second H1N1 pandemic (swine flu) ended only ten years ago, after infecting up to 1.4 billion people across the globe, killing up to 575,400 people, according to the CDC.

“The 2009 H1N1 pandemic should have been a warning sign,” said Steffanie Strathdee, the Associate Dean of Global Health Sciences at the University of California San Diego’s Department of Medicine. “It didn’t end up being a pandemic that killed millions of people as we feared it would, but it should have been a wake-up call. By all serious estimates, COVID-19 is going to be a major killer.”

While the health crisis is far from over and the full impact of the global lockdown still to be seen, we know we will get through this. We will return to our offices and our smart building technology will help us do it. While offices are empty there is little that occupancy analytics can do, but as collapsing economies force us back to our offices (maybe prematurely from a health perspective), occupancy analytics can make us safer. In a post-lockdown world, occupancy analytics still seeks to maximize the number of people in a space without impacting occupant health, comfort, or productivity, but health has a new metric — social distancing.

A post-lockdown occupancy analytics system will be focused on keeping us apart. By understanding the movement of people around a building, an occupancy analytics system can calculate the maximum number of people that should be in each area, sending alerts to building operators or occupants when a space nears its socially distance-based capacity. By tracking the movement of people in this new reality, the systems can gradually find more and more ways to introduce additional workers while maintaining the appropriate social distance.

Indoor location-based platforms, which enable building managers to locate objects and people within buildings could be used to ensure people keep a safe distance from one another. Combined with navigation, scheduling, and analytics, indoor positioning systems can allow users to see and share their location in relation to workstations, meeting rooms or other occupants in real-time. While the range of workplace apps that have emerged in recent years can facilitate infection-risk free communication between all people in a building.
If we don’t learn from this pandemic then we only have ourselves to blame. The smart building industry must now muster its innovative spirit to reduce the economic impact of the next pandemic, and maybe even help control the spread of the virus itself.

UV light technology is emerging as an effective system for cleaning hospitals during the current crisis, for example. Robotics companies like Texas-based Xenex and Denmark-based UVD Robots have seen a huge rise in sales for their UV-light enabled robots that move around a room to zap the virus in every corner. While other hospitals have begun to use robots to deliver food and medicine to patients while providing basic hospital information, saving time for healthcare staff while maintaining safe social distancing.

Robots fighting invisible pathogens with UV lasers while others serve drinks certainly sounds like a decent vision from our future “Pandemic-Smart Buildings” but with the dangers of UV light and the need for a human touch, robots can only be part of the solution. Smart buildings will need to think outside the box, and even outside the building. Sometimes, like now, the crisis will be so bad that lockdown measures are still necessary, so while robots support hospitals and healthcare workers, the smart building can support its enterprise tenants and their suddenly remote workforce.

There is no reason for remote working to be seen as a threat to the physical workplace. While an increasing number of remote and gig-economy workers do reduce numbers, encouraging tenants to downsize, the benefits of a more diverse labor force will lead to economic growth and a bigger pool of enterprise tenants. By evolving with remote work, smart buildings can be the heart of the flexible working trend. By absorbing remote work into the smart building network’s service, enterprise clients gain the security to enable flexible working and streamline the mass transition to remote work in crisis situations like the current pandemic.

Stuck at home, their high-tech smart buildings empty, and with nothing to talk about except the ongoing crisis. The time has come for the many great minds of the smart building industry to look ahead, and spare some innovative thinking for the next pandemic that will sweep the world. Within the endless potential of these building technologies is a way to avoid the next lockdown while controlling the spread of the virus, a way to identify the presence of harmful pathogens and contagious people, and even ways to help the sick recover. In 10 years from now, smart buildings can be part of the solution.


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