by JD Capuano

The internet of things (IoT) is red hot.

Forecasts vary, but most put the smart building market in the tens of billions of dollars in three to four years. Strong demand from cities and states has attracted tons of capital to companies developing smart infrastructure and transport solutions.

Because it’s so hot, I was invited to speak on two IoT panels in the past month organized by USGBC Illinois and the Delta Emerging Leaders. Professionals in different fields want to know what changes connected devices will bring to smart buildings and cities, including cybersecurity.

These are big topics so both panels only scratched the surface, but provided a good foundation for lay audiences. Here are some of the gems worth sharing, divided into two posts:

    1. This one is about the positive potential of IoT developments in buildings and cities.
    2. Stay tuned for the next about cybersecurity and data ethics.


Smart buildings
Many of us have been exposed to elements of IoT in buildings for years, such as light and occupancy sensors, and real-time energy monitoring. IoT is becoming far more advanced.

Commercial buildings have electrical and mechanical systems that are increasingly efficient. While much of that efficiency comes from design improvements, part is driven by connectivity and system intelligence. Lights, thermostats, HVAC systems, window treatments and more can all be centrally controlled and connected to building management systems (BMS).

Add light, occupancy and other sensors, and the BMS has more data to allow facility teams or algorithms to make smarter decisions to reduce energy consumption (and emissions), increase occupant comfort, and perform predictive, as opposed to reactive, maintenance.

Employees constantly battle over office temperature settings. Newer technologies allow for greater precision in delivering conditioned air down to an individual workstation. One notable example is Comfy, an app that allows occupants to request a 10-minute blast of cool or warm air to their location.

Connectivity and device intelligence is about to evolve for residential (and commercial) spaces. Bluetooth announced its Mesh standard in mid-July. Mesh uses low energy signals to better connect devices and extend a network beyond typical wi-fi range. Imagine your network using your devices to extend its signal farther while using less energy.

Smart cities
So much focus in the news is about automated vehicles (AVs). While they are being tested on roads, the timing of when they’ll arrive or legally be allowed in large numbers is tough to predict. More on that in my next post.

Cities are quickly adopting new, connected technology. One widespread example is efficient, connected street lights. Chicago is following the lead of other cities by installing LED street lights that can be controlled centrally. One benefit cities always want to deliver is safety. Instead of relying upon complaints, a city can immediately identify a burned-out or broken light and replace it. When a storm darkens daytime skies, an operator or an algorithm can switch on lights. Some can even be dimmed. Lights can use patterns to signal a safe evacuation path during an emergency.

Smart lights can be equipped with solar panels and battery packs, either grid-tied or not, capable of supplying emergency lighting. Lights can also be equipped with low energy cameras to monitor and manage traffic, pedestrian flows, public safety and more. (I’ll address the negative implications in my follow-up post). The jury may be out on light pollution. Manufacturers claim reduced light pollution, but residents complain about glare.

Copenhagen has one of the smartest traffic control systems in the world. It prioritizes cyclists and buses to help traffic flow better and reduce emissions. About 40% of its inhabitants commute by bicycle and the city established green waves corridors with protected bike lanes where traffic signals are timed for cyclists moving at 12 mph. New signals have systems that not only monitor and adjust to bike traffic patterns, they also communicate with city buses. Buses beam data with their position, number of passengers, any delays. Green lights can be extended eight to 30 seconds to keep the buses moving. The system can also be used to more quickly clear cars after large events.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA), there were 57 million residential, 7.3 million commercial, and 310k industrial smart meters installed in the US through the end of 2015. Smart meters allow utilities and consumers to track energy in real time and are poised to serve as energy management systems that will allow customers to respond to real-time price changes such as rebates during peak-energy periods. We’ve seen this sort of demand response for massive buildings, but opening it up to smaller commercial and residential customers will help manage the grid during times of peak demand, like on the hot days.

The company Street Light Data uses travel patterns from ~10% of the US population to help urban planners inform new transportation projects. They purchase location data from everyday apps we use and combine it with various sources of navigation data and contextual data. Not only can they show origin destination patterns, they have variables such as trip purpose. Their system then paints a picture of our patterns of movement. Their software allows urban planners to conduct transportation analyses and the retail and real estate industries to figure out who shops where, when and insights on why. We’ll revisit this data usage in the follow up post.

It’s all about the data
The real value of the internet of things is in the data collected by all of these devices and the decisions those data allow us (or a computer) to make. We can track patterns over time and learn from user behavior, whether that’s the thermal preferences of building occupants or commuting behavior of a city’s residents.

When we apply context to historical behavior, like precipitation events to changes in commuting patterns, then we can help our systems predict future events. Predicting adverse events is particularly important for keeping people safe, things running smoothly and unexpected costs down.

There is tremendous upside potential for the IoT as it relates to smart buildings and cities, but as with all new technology, we must pay close attention to the downside risks. I hope you check back in a few weeks for my follow up post exploring those risks posed by cybersecurity and data privacy.