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The Internet of Things is Evolving and Changing the Nature of the Built Environment

Dec. 27, 2018

“Hey Alexa … what is the Internet of Things?”

If you had posed this question to the average person just five years ago, the most likely response would have been: “Who’s Alexa?”

Today, everyone knows that she (or it, rather) is the voice-controlled personal assistant on the highly-popular speaker, the Amazon Echo—one of approximately 11 billion smart devices connected to the Internet of Things (IoT), according to analyst firm Gartner. With the explosive growth of mobile technology in the past decade, it seems just about anything—including your doorbell—can be connected to the Internet. In fact, blogger Kevin Claveria of Vision Critical predicted, “There isn’t a single area of our life that won’t be touched by IoT devices in the next decade.”

So, what exactly is the Internet of Things, and how is it shaping the built environment? We’re glad you asked.

IoT: A Brief History

For the uninitiated, the term IoT refers to “a network of devices, buildings, vehicles, and other physical objects embedded with sensors that transmit data between a company and the consumer,” according to cloud-platform developer Covisint. Beyond simply connecting devices and collecting data, the purpose of the IoT is, ideally, to enable smart action with or without human interaction.

According to an article by Keith Foote on Dataversity, the term “Internet of Things” was originally coined by Kevin Ashton, the executive director of Auto-ID Labs at MIT, during a speech in 1999 for Proctor & Gamble in which he described a future of connected computers collecting data that is now a reality. While the term IoT is still relatively new, the foundations for it were laid much further back in history. Foote notes that the invention of the telegraph in the early 1800’s set the premise for communications between machines, a concept furthered by radio transmissions in the century following. But perhaps the most significant development in the history of IoT is the existence of the Internet itself, which provides the means for smart devices to communicate in the first place. 

The Internet began as part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 1962, which later evolved into ARPANET that opened up public use of the early Internet in the 1980s. With the advent of Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) in the early 1990s by the Department of Defense, the major components of worldwide connectivity were in place. By 2013, Foote says “the Internet of Things had evolved into a system using multiple technologies, ranging from the Internet to wireless communication and from micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) to embedded systems,” including the traditional fields of automation (including building), wireless sensor networks, GPS, and control systems.

The built environment is somewhat unique in terms of how it fits into the bigger picture of IoT, however. “The general industry definition [of IoT] is a little bit different than the definition for people working in the building space,” explains Matt Ernst, PE, CEM, QCxP, LEED AP, staff commissioning engineer at Burns & McDonnell.

“For buildings, it’s quite different because for a long time—at least the past 30 years—buildings have been connected and controlled, just not to the Internet,” he says. For example, Ernst points out that HVAC systems, lighting systems, and fire protection systems have always used controls to read sensors and inputs to perform certain pre-programmed functions or outputs, such as turning lights on or off, or regulating the temperature in a building. “So, the Internet of Things as it relates to buildings is really merging those two concepts: the ability to connect to so many new things and the ability to do that cheaply, but also being able to weave that into how buildings have already been running for a long time. I would define it somewhere in the middle of those two things,” he adds.

By 2020 the number of IoT devices will reach 200 billion—an average of 26 objects per person on Earth. 
Courtesy of the Internet & Television Association (NCTA)

Slow Growth in the Built Environment

The proliferation of IoT-connected devices is rapidly accelerating, and by all accounts, the trend will continue into the foreseeable future. In 2015, there were approximately 15 billion objects connected to the Internet according to a report by Vision Critical. The report predicts that by 2020, the number of IoT devices will reach 200 billion—an average of 26 objects per person on Earth.

Additionally, the economic impact of IoT is expected to top $14 trillion in two years, ushering in a “new economic age,” as described by AIG. Further, a report by Intel concludes that “the explosion of IoT products will give every major industry access to more data so they can make better decisions, whether it’s for marketing, human resources, or industrial processes.”

Yet in spite of the rapid growth of IoT in consumer markets, the AEC industry is lagging behind other industries for a number of reasons. “The building space is probably further behind than other industries and other sectors, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing—it’s just that the use case isn’t there and it is not yet as valuable as it is in other spaces,” Ernst observes. He adds that transformation is underway, particularly on the operational side where analytical software increasingly is being used to take data from existing automation systems to optimize them.

However, Ernst points out that technical challenges need to be addressed before IoT will be used as robustly as in other industries, the first of which is simply the age of many existing buildings. “A lot of these [automation] systems that are within buildings are traditionally their own proprietary systems, and connecting to those systems that may be 10, 15, 20 years old in a building in a technical way is difficult. They speak their own languages, they have their own different types of databases and so forth, so there is a technical challenge to connecting to those things and then being able to export data and in an efficient way,” he says. New standards are emerging to help standardize these systems so that IoT devices can be integrated more easily, he notes.

Adding to the challenge is the fact that different building types have unique operational needs, and a one-size-fits-all approach simply isn’t going to work. “I think the world of operating buildings is so fragmented that there’s not just going to be one solution that’s the best for everyone,” Ernst says. “There’s going to be 20 different solutions on the market and depending on what type of building you are—if you’re a hospital or a data center or an office space—you’re going to have a different solution that’s best for you. And that’s just the challenge of working in the market of buildings—it makes for a slower adoption of different systems,” he adds.

What’s Next?

In terms of where IoT technology is headed with respect to the built environment, Ernst doesn’t expect to see a tremendous amount of innovation on the operations or facilities management side. The biggest growth, he predicts, will be in the area of workplace experience. Ernst notes that today’s workplace is changing significantly, as are the expectations of what people expect out of the office environment.

“A typical person today is more and more likely expecting the ability to use their smartphone to schedule rooms or video conference or connect with different types of systems within the building, and I think that’s where there’s a lot of growth potential,” he says. Buildings that offer integrated technologies that work with the IoT will provide owners and managers with greater value because their facilities become more marketable to tenants than ones that don’t feature them.

“I think there are more areas for creativity and growth and there’s a bigger driver to the workplace experience type of application of the Internet of Things [than with operations], and I think that’s where I see most of the growth coming.”

About the Author

Robert Nieminen | Chief Content Director

Robert Nieminen is the Chief Content Director of Architectural Products, BUILDINGS and i+s, sister publications of Smart Buildings Technology. He is an award-winning writer with more than 20 years of experience reporting on the architecture and design industry.

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