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Why smart cities need smart buildings

As the two ecosystems evolve, they will have ample opportunity to feed off each other, says Thomas Seiler, CEO at u-blox.


The smart home is growing from the bottom up, with consumers upgrading their homes using an ecosystem of increasingly affordable technologies. Smart buildings, such as shopping malls and offices, are following a similar path, motivated by business incentives.


Smart cities, by contrast, tend to be managed from the top down by municipal or national authorities in partnership with public and private utilities. Their drivers are making cities more efficient, sustainable and better places to live.


But so far, as ABI Research reports, top-down coordinated smart city projects have only been partly successful in their mission. Yes, they’ve been quite good at deploying smart street lights and opening doors to things like car and bike-sharing schemes. But when it comes to broader integrated projects, such as transforming a city’s healthcare offering or upgrading its power distribution infrastructure, complexity and cost quickly become barriers. Connecting smart home and smart cities projects could, therefore, be beneficial to both.


Environmental legislation – the EU’s Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) and the US Commercial Building Initiative (CBI), for example is forcing public authorities and businesses to step up their efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption at the community level. Commercial buildings, which in the US consume 36 per cent of the electricity, are an important part of this equation.


From energy and health to security and transportation, a push from the companies and public authorities with a stake in increasing data exchange to monitor and control the built infrastructure at the urban level will boost smart building adoption while furthering the goals of smart cities.


Power from the people


While good for the planet, there’s more to increasing the share of solar energy fed into the grid than setting up vast expanses of solar panels. If our grids are not modernised, it could lead to an uptick in power outages as utilities struggle to balance power production and consumption.


The decentralisation of production is a major paradigm shift in power management. Today’s power grids are built around a relatively simple network architecture designed to distribute power from power plants to cities, then neighbourhoods, then individual buildings through a branching network of powerlines. To keep the grid up and running, utilities ramp production up and down to match consumption as demand varies throughout the day.


If our grids are not modernised, it could lead to an uptick in power outages as utilities struggle to balance power production and consumption.

Now imagine how feeding energy into the grid from individual buildings increases the complexity of the system. It’s one thing to predict the power output of conventional thermal or hydroelectric power plants. But when every passing cloud or gust of wind causes power production to fluctuate, matching power supply and demand across the grid becomes much more challenging. Existing infrastructure can handle low shares of variable renewable energy sources. But when variable renewable input grows, utilities need to expand the bag of tricks they have at their disposal to stabilise the grid.


Part of the problem, and the solution


So what does this have to do with smart buildings? As more and more of them are going solar, power utilities are being forced to devise new schemes to manage the highly variable renewable energy produced. And while they are at the root of the challenge, smart homes – and smart buildings in general – will also be key in providing a solution, combining energy storage, electric vehicle charging, smart appliances and demand-response management using smart thermostats.


Initially, these solutions might mean savings for consumers and facility managers but eventually, they’ll become vital to power companies. That is why utilities could become the driving force behind the proliferation of smart building technology, by offering reduced rates for customers that let utilities take over some control of their connected appliances, decide when their electric vehicles should be charged, and manage excess solar energy stored in domestic battery units.


Who’s afraid of the nursing home?


The overlap between the goals of smart cities and smart buildings isn’t limited to the power grid. Smart health brings it into the home. The topic is high on the agenda of many smart cities, especially as a ballooning population of baby-boomers needing care is on track to collide with the current shortage of vacancies in residential care homes and dedicated medical facilities.


There are plenty of reasons for cities to promote e-health and domestic assisted living solutions.


There are plenty of reasons for cities to promote e-health and domestic assisted living solutions. Typically, cities pick up a significant part of the – rapidly growing – tab for senior care projects: long-term care costs are projected to increase by 80 per cent between 2015 and 2060 in the EU. Offering better alternatives to residential care homes, dreaded by many, is low-hanging fruit for smart cities. For many applications, connected homes are the ideal touchpoint.


This begins with promoting easy-to-access e-health services that don’t scare away the less tech-savvy population. Giving caregivers access to the status of connected appliances, such as lights, washing machines and the fridge can be one way to monitor the mobility of the elderly, in addition to fall-monitoring wearables.


Smart locks that let caregivers enter the home make it easier for those with restricted mobility to receive care. Combined with new forms of telemedicine, these technologies can enable elderly individuals to stay at home longer. It’s only a matter of time before city authorities find ways of proactively setting up platforms and subsidising hardware rather than financing an expansion of the network of residential care facilities.


All for one and one for all


Banding together has a range of other advantages beyond one’s own four walls that ultimately benefit smart cities. Take security, yet another smart city component that can be built from the bottom up. The smart home security company Vivint recent launched its Streety app, which extends home security to the neighbourhood by providing a platform for members to share access to their residential cameras. Amazon-owned Ring provides a similar service, which extends to local police departments that can share their data through the platform as well.


The same logic applies to other areas as well. For example, one way to make mobility smarter is to cut down on the time spent driving around in search of parking – roughly four days a year in the UK. Apps like Pavemind offer a smart solution, letting people rent out their residential parking to others during defined timeslots.


Seeding smart cities one smart building at a time


According to a Smart Buildings Magazine article, buildings are an ideal starting point from which to grow smart cities. In the same way that a building is a microcosm of a city, smart buildings are a microcosm of smart cities, with needs that overlap broadly, from managing energy, water, and lighting, to delivering security and emergency services.


“By adding and integrating certified smart buildings,” the article concludes,” local officials and technology leaders can quickly form smart campuses, smart communities, and scale all the way to smart cities.”


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