Why your body is like a smart building

IMC executive editor Steve Rogerson found some unusual comparisons at this week’s IMC IoT in Smart Buildings online conference.

What do you think about when you see a building? Nice architecture? Interesting façade? Good access? These are normal sorts of reactions, but what I am sure you do not think of is how much the building is like the human body.

I was thus a little surprised this week to hear that comparison, and from Sara Brown, vice president of marketing at MultiTech and chair of the IoT M2M Council (IMC). She was speaking at IoT in Smart Buildings, the latest in a series of online conferences organised by the IMC under the banner IoT Days.

Brown has been talking with her daughter about smart buildings and between them came up with a map of just how much a connected building is like the human body, and how the human body shows that we still have a way to go to have fully interconnected buildings.

As an illustration, she talked about a problem that many of us have faced – a leaky pipe. The usual response is to call a plumber and get it fixed. But what if the leak was caused by the pipe straining due to a structural problem in the building itself? Fixing the pipe then would only be a temporary measure as the fault in the structure would eventually cause the pipe to break again.

Applying this to smart buildings, there are a lot of applications out there but they are not being brought together so that the effects of different parts of the building can be influenced by and used to change what is happening in other parts of the building.

This is where the human body comes in. All the parts of a body have their own unique systems and rules, but they are also all inter-dependent on each other. That is why some healthcare providers do like to look at a person’s overall health as specialists can become too focused on their specialities.

Brown demonstrated this by showing how she mapped body parts to smart building features. The skeleton and skin are equivalent to the building’s structure. The heart and blood circulation are like a building’s electrical system. The body’s motion can be like the moving parts of a building, such as elevators and escalators. The respiratory system is equivalent to HVAC, helping heat and ventilate the building. The sanitation and waste management in a building are similar to the digestive, renal and urinary tracts of a body.

I did notice that Brown’s original diagram included the body’s reproductive system and was waiting on the edge of my seat to see if the building has an equivalent. But when she missed this out, I used the webinar’s Q&A widget to ask the question. Not surprisingly, she didn’t deal with that but I did get a response on the widget that just said: “Wise guy.” Guess I deserved that.

Anyway, back to what Brown did cover; perhaps the most relevant part for our industry is the nervous system. This is the glue for a smart building covering not just phones, internet and wifi but all the building’s sensors and networks that allow a command and control centre to make the building truly smart.

Putting all these together and having them work with one another is what can make a building really smart, just like our bodies.

The half-day conference opened with a joint presentation by Erik Kling, vice president of Vodafone IoT, and André Strauss, chief commercial officer of IoT.nxt, a platform connectivity company that Vodafone acquired last year. Here, they too looked at the interdependency of a smart-building systems including the importance of bringing existing assets, such as HVAC, into a digital platform.

As an example of interconnectivity, Strauss showed how a room occupancy detection system could work with air conditioning to control the room depending on the number of people inside. Like Brown, he said what was needed was a single pane of glass approach to all the building systems.

Kling said IoT should not be looked at on its own but as part of an ecosystem that also included cloud, data analytics and artificial intelligence. These four pillars affect what you can do with your space.

They also touched on how the current pandemic was acting as a spur for companies with a survey showing that 71% of firms have made at least one technology investment and 36% have accelerated their digitalisation plans, both in response to the pandemic

“Covid-19 is driving digitalisation,” said Kling.

Arne Aßmann, head of strategy and business development at 1NCE, explained how his company’s flat rate model for IoT services was helping with applications such as connecting building infrastructure and smart home appliances. Recent examples included granting access to wind turbines without using physical keys and a gateway that can link all aspects of a smart home. Included in the flat rate is a connectivity suite powered by Amazon Web Services.

The event finished with a presentation by Fred Yentz, founder and CEO of IoT Launch. He also looked at the impact of Covid-19 saying one of the problems was nobody knew what the new normal would be. There is a tremendous amount of uncertainty.

Because of this, he said it was important that investments in technology due to the pandemic should be made with a view to using these in other ways once the world has kicked Covid-19 into touch. For example, access control systems that check temperature and mask wearing before unlocking doors, or digital voice help systems, could post-pandemic be used as digital security guards and hostesses. Digital signs reminding people of compliance requirements can provide other company information.

I am going to finish with a confession. When I saw the agenda for this conference, my heart sank a little as I thought that I was in for a worthy but fairly dull two hours. I could not have been more wrong. This was fascinating from start to finish on how the technology minds are shaping the places where we live and work. And the image of my body as a working building will stay with me for some time.