September 2013

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Is Your Building Smart Like Your Phone?

… and the answer is “No”

Andy McMillan Andy McMillan
BACnet International

Contributing Editor

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Answering the question, “Is your building smart like your phone?” might seem problematic since the apparent answer is, “It depends.”  You might think the answer depends mostly on your building … what kind of controls it has, how thoroughly it was commissioned, how well it’s operated.  But I would argue that none of that actually makes any difference.  The history of the evolution of the “phone” into the “Smart Phone” suggests we have barely started on the journey from “buildings” to “Smart Buildings” … although “journey” may be too gentle a word.  If history is any guide, we may be embarked on a pretty wild adventure.

Smart Phones

In the old days (less than a decade ago) there were no Smart Phones.  Instead there were just phones (now referred to as “feature phones” – presumably because devices called “dumb phones” wouldn’t sell very well).  Of course they were actually pretty smart because they could not only initiate and receive calls they could also tell you who was calling before you answered it, take a message for you if you chose not to answer it and give you a list of all the calls you’d ever made or received – and they could do it without wires; all great, innovative features at the time.  And then along came the iPhone that offered something fundamentally different.  It was still a phone but it went about many of those “phone things” in a different way and incorporated features that were not traditionally “phone” features at all.  Plus it provided mechanisms to easily expand its functionality – to the point where there were soon over half-a-million apps available to extend and customize it.  The iPhone and the phones that followed in its footsteps have become the definition of “Smart Phone.”  Thus the Smart Phone represents a radical shift in the implementation and expectation of a phone while not actually doing “the phone thing” any better.  So, how does all of this relate to Smart Buildings?

Smart Buildings

It seems to me that much of the current perspective on Smart Buildings is not ambitious enough.  Many things promoted as part of “Smart Buildings” today would be akin to calling the first phone with downloadable ringtones a Smart Phone.  The Smart Phone was a radical shift from traditional cell phones.  So we need to think radically to get to a Smart Buildings concept, too.  Several technologies are coming together in building controls that will drive truly radical change.  LED lighting is one, wireless communications is a second and cloud-based applications and services is a third.  Think about a world where every light source is a sensor and information node in a distributed network; where you have detailed geospatial information on temperature, occupancy, light and activity with a granular level of a couple of square meters; where all of that information is gathered and stored and analyzed with virtually unlimited computing resources;  where that processed information can be fed back to every light node to impact light intensity and color temperature; and where any information can be encoded in the visible light emitted from those light nodes and thus accessible to any device or sensor with line-of-sight; and where anyone can design an app that aggregates, utilizes, leverages, builds on and/or rides along with that information in either direction.  That is where the infrastructure will be in ten years.  That will be the platform for Smart Buildings.

Of course the platform for Smart Buildings is not the end game, but just the starting point.  There are presumably a lot of applications that can be deployed on the coming platform and many have already been conceptualized and even prototyped.  In fact, I have met people who believe we have already thought of most of the relevant applications.  But history would say that our imagination falls far short of the innovation potential of the “crowd.”  So what exactly will a Smart Building look like?  Well, even if I knew the answer I don’t suppose I would just publish it in this column.  But I will say that I am confident it will start with ubiquitous connectivity and open innovation platforms and that it will roll out in conjunction with the rapid deployment of next generation LED lighting technology … and it will be industry-changing.

Smart Companies

[an error occurred while processing this directive] How industry-changing will it be?  Lacking a crystal ball, let’s look at history to see if we can get some idea of how dramatic the move to “Smart Buildings” as opposed to “just buildings” might be.  Prior to the first Smart Phone, the world leaders in cell phone were Nokia and RIM.  That was just five years ago.  Today, they both struggle to remain relevant and neither one is in a leadership position.  Instead, Apple and Google – neither one of which were a factor in the cell phone market six years ago – are the industry drivers.  Can that happen in the building automation industry?  Many people would say it can’t.  They would say the industry moves slowly and there is little risk of an outside player moving into a significant position because no one can do building automation better than the current industry leaders.  Personally, I’m not so sure. 

It’s worth remembering that Smart Phones don’t really perform the traditional functions of a phone any better than feature phones.  In fact, many Smart Phones are significantly worse as a phone in terms of form factor, keyboard and even voice quality.  But Smart Phones changed user expectations in ways that made those characteristics less important in the decision process for a large (and rapidly expanding) group of users.  Will something similar happen in building automation?  If so, we may find ourselves caught up in an “Automation Armageddon” where disruption in the building automation industry dwarfs anything that has come before. 

Smart Companies will think long and hard about that.  They will try to envision the new products and services that will comprise the Smart Building landscape.  They will consider the potential impact on their current customers, suppliers and business models.  And most importantly, they will recognize that they can’t know all of the answers in advance so they will ensure their organization and processes are well equipped for rapid change.  Smart Companies are the ones who will win in the marketplace as Smart Buildings become a reality.

If you want to hear more about the potential change in the industry, attend the NFMT Vegas conference session titled “Automation Armageddon” at 9:00am on Tuesday September 17th  

As always, the views expressed in this column are mine and do not necessarily reflect the position of BACnet International, ASHRAE, or any other organization.  If you want to send comments to me directly, feel free to email me at


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