The Personal Touch: Why Smart Buildings Must Adopt User-Interface IoT

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For buildings to be truly “smart,” they need to foster personalized communication and feedback from their occupants.

Smart buildings are no longer a thing of the distant future. They’re already present in various forms—from new buildings that focus on sustainability to buildings fitted with IoT systems that monitor infrastructure and provide system automation. While the benefits of IoT systems for reducing energy consumption and providing accurate system maintenance data have been well proven, the advantages of smart buildings for their inhabitants must be discussed further. 

IoT systems have made their case regarding energy efficiency, predictive maintenance, and statistically better air quality. The next frontier is putting the needs and desires of building users at the forefront to create buildings that are a pleasure to occupy. 

Why buildings must take their users seriously

As countries see-saw between lockdowns and COVID-19 cases vacillate drastically, people are experiencing anxiety at the prospect of returning to work or even going about their day. Once the pandemic is over, many companies will be quick to encourage their employees to return to work. For Facebook, getting back to the office is more than just utilizing existing office space. “Innovation isn’t always a planned activity,” Apple CEO Tim Cook told People.  “It’s bumping into each other over the course of the day and advancing an idea that you just had. And you really need to be together to do that.” As such, businesses need to encourage people to return to work. Residential buildings, too, have been forced to curtail residents’ anxieties through stringent distancing and sanitization. While following COVID regulations can allay occupants’ fears, commercial and residential buildings alike need to make their spaces more appealing if they are to thrive in the COVID era and beyond. The best way to do so is by fostering a people-centric environment.

A workplace that caters to its employees’ needs and comfort will raise morale, make employees feel valued, and enhance their happiness levels at work. Happiness at work, comfortable HVAC conditions, good ventilation, and cleanliness are all factors that yield more productivity. The same is true for a residential building. Apartments that are comfortable to live in, safe, offer regular cleaning and maintenance, have streamlined processes, and incorporate natural spaces like gardens, are likely to see satisfied and long-term residents. Given the above, building management, new building designers, and IoT system designs must place a focus on cultivating a robust, data-driven but people-centric environment. 

How systems that respond to users and adjust to their requirements harness the potential of “smart” buildings

Individual feedback benefits the whole.

A key feature of smart technology is that information is filtered for us—the individual user—in a relevant way and can be acted upon as we choose. Whether it’s a smartphone or a smartwatch, smart technology presents us with data that is personalized and actionable. In the same way, a truly “smart” building needs to provide its occupants with “smart” information and the ability for users to feed their own experiences back into the loop. Imagine this familiar scenario: you are in the office (or any building) where the temperature is too high for comfort. Unfortunately, the thermostat is set at a predetermined value by an unseen building management service. You choose to either suffer, move rooms or leave the building entirely. In a building with a smart IoT system that has a user-facing feedback initiative, you could report your discomfort via public touch screen or mobile app. Your request can be responded to immediately, but other workers in the office also have the app and make similar requests. Based on the number of requests and the requested temperature values, the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) control system now adjusts the office temperature. The feedback becomes part of a larger feedback loop of occupancy and efficiency data, and future adjustments can be made based on this data. Office HVAC design can then offer cooler rooms or warmer rooms based on demand and allowing people to choose where they enjoy working.

User-facing IoT systems enable people to make personal choices in collective spaces. 

The next level of this type of feedback is the pairing of anonymized data from wearables such as smartwatches to provide a biometric layer of information about the building and its occupants. Heart rate, temperature, stress levels, and movement can give building managers further insights into creating comfortable and desirable spaces. 

Being informed enables flexibility

An occupant-facing dashboard/app service can provide information that aids in streamlining productivity and flexibility at work or home. For example, a marketing team can use smart IoT technology to hold impromptu meetings or brainstorming sessions without scrambling to find an area with suitable energy and network capabilities. A worker poring over a particularly demanding report can utilize IoT to find a different room with conducive temperature and decibel levels. Essentially, by having the ability to access relevant information, occupants gain the autonomy to make personal decisions as per their discretion, convenience, and productivity demands. In 2021 there is no excuse for workers to waste time looking for empty meeting rooms, quiet places to work, or sit at their desk in discomfort.

Public-facing data delivers psychological safety

In the context of COVID-19, a building’s IoT can employ counting proximity sensors to relay the number of occupants in each area so that social distancing is possible even in closed spaces. Alerts can be integrated to show areas or rooms with more people than deemed safe. Temperature sensors can regulate temperature based on the number of people in the room. Some occupants use the dashboard and decide to take the stairs if HVAC sensors reveal bad air quality in elevators. Sensors can also alert staff when certain high-traffic areas are empty so that cleaning can be scheduled before reuse. 

However, the need for peace of mind is not limited to COVID-era anxieties. Occupants in commercial and residential buildings alike can benefit from user-facing IoT. For example, access to security cameras in underground parking areas can be useful for people when deciding to enter or leave. With multiple users on the system providing feedback in real-time, users can leverage reliable information and flag suspicious activity. A community is stronger and safer with the right shared data. 

This feedback loop can further enhance residents’ sense of security by logging requests to increase lighting in specific areas, demanding more coverage at certain corners, and identifying potential “blind spots” in the security. The applications of such smart IoT are myriad, but they all grant inhabitants autonomy and peace of mind.

User-oriented IoT is already here.

Norway-based Disruptive Technologies has created wireless sensors that provide diverse, real-time data—from temperature and humidity monitoring to open doors and windows and touch buttons for customized feedback or notifications. A cloud account aggregates data from as many as 1000+ sensors and presents them in a dashboard format for use by building managers, employers, HR as well as for public engagement. This aggregated data can be easily integrated into other applications via webhooks or a full REST API for increased personalization and actionability. By creating a real-time network of personalized data, Disruptive Technologies offers real-world applications which pave the way for “smart” buildings that center around occupants’ experience. In addition to their tiny, robust passive sensors, Disruptive Technologies wireless touch sensors enable users to interact with their IoT system in a straightforward, useful manner. These discrete tactile sensors can be used for temperature reporting, safety alerts, and more.  A touch results in a personalized wireless message being sent via SecureDataShot™ technology to the Cloud Connector (Gateway), notifying the user about the event. 

Summary

Buildings must employ user-facing IoT, that supports its occupant’s ability to make informed decisions about the way they interact with the environment. Further, they need to encourage user feedback that can be translated into actions. The future of smart building IoT will enhance the relationship between facilities and occupants and be places where people’s convenience, preferences, safety, and personal autonomy are always at the forefront. As demand for personalization grows and technology becomes more people-centric, such buildings aren’t just desirable—they are inevitable and expected.

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