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A smart new world

With the green agenda on the back foot due to global political and economic disharmony, corporations are set to dominate the smart-buildings sector, says Henry Lawson

The structure and make-up of our buildings and cities have always been intensely political. The most visible of all human creations, they speak volumes about our abilities, our status and our values and our aspirations.

I felt this last month when viewing the ruins of Ephesus – once the second city of the Roman Empire – as much as when I am visiting London or Chicago.

At least since the turn of the millennium there has been a tacit assumption that while technology is the great enabler, much of the change in the way our buildings and cities are designed and organised will be driven by social concerns, typically expressed through politics.

In particular, the perception that the threat of climate change requires far reaching action has led to a sustained series of targets, guidelines and regulations to increase both energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy, which naturally affects the built environment as one of the biggest consumers of energy.

Is this movement losing momentum? The financial crisis and recession affecting much of Europe, North America and some other parts of the developing world has proved to be the most prolonged since the 1930s.

Even countries that appeared to escape the worst impact have since experienced either recession or a dramatic slowdown, including Australia, Canada and, of course, China.

With falling or stagnating production and rising government debt levels in so many countries, it is no surprise that finances and basic economics have come to the fore.

All of this has sometimes appeared to leave the ‘green agenda’ somewhat on the back foot.

Even in countries such as Germany, Austria, Australia and New Zealand, where Green parties have attracted mass support and had a major influence on government, they have seemed to become more marginalised.

Britain’s recent elections resulted in a new majority government which has very quickly moved to relax requirements on the energy efficiency of new buildings, and also to phase out subsidies for wind power.

While there is argument as to how far this is simply a question of means, and how much it represents a shift in priorities, there is little doubt that measures to improve energy efficiency or to promote use of smart technology face an uphill path if they cannot also provide a quick payback. 

Government involvement

Where governments get involved in technology, it tends to be for old fashioned economic reasons.

When mega-corporations such as Microsoft, Apple, Google and Amazon have been in the spotlight it has mainly been because of accusations of anti-competitive practices or because of their tax policies.

Rather less thought has been given to the ways in which companies such as these could change the basic structure of society, the balance of power and the whole environment.

Increasingly, these global brands interact directly with a global audience, influencing their behaviour, and in turn being influenced by them. It is no accident that Microsoft, Apple, Google and Amazon, having established themselves as consumer brands, are now all active in the area of smart buildings, ranging from the smart home to, in Microsoft’s case, providing the data crunching to manage and optimise whole campuses of buildings.

We can now link these to wearable devices and to creators of virtual realities, which could radically change our day-to-day activities and environment.

Even the basic blocks from which buildings are made can have ‘smart’ properties, from ‘self-healing’ bricks to glass that responds dynamically to different levels of light.

With artificial intelligence already surpassing human intelligence in certain well defined areas – such as chess playing – questions are raised about how far the technology goes, who owns it, and how much power they will have.

Even our homes and offices can study, learn and predict our habits and our preferences, in ways that can certainly be useful, but also potentially disturbing.

For more than a hundred years there have been fears about the prospect of vital areas of technology being dominated by a single concern or perhaps a cabal of companies. So far, in practice, it has been innovation itself that has come to the rescue.

Even the most nimble-footed technology giants have been caught off-guard by new waves of technology, from IBM to Microsoft to Nokia.

In the case of building technologies the requirements are particularly diverse, and it is quite unusual to find a country where a single supplier accounts for more than 25 per cent to 30 per cent of the market.

Nonetheless, we look to a future where corporations and, by implication, governments have access to information about almost every aspect of where we are, what we are doing, how we feel and what we want and fear. 

While you can probably rest assured that your dishwasher probably doesn’t have a motivation to blackmail you (why were those extra glasses washed out at 3 o’clock last Thursday morning?) you can be less assured that it won’t soon have the evidence to do so.

More information about the latest editions of BSRIA’s market studies on Building Automation, Building Energy Management, and Smart Evolution is available at www.bsria.co.uk.

Henry Lawson is market research consultant on behalf of BSRIA

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