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What ever happened to the phrase “smartphone”? Ten years ago, people were using this curious neologism to herald the arrival of exciting and potentially world-changing devices that today we would simply call “phones”. Advertisers still talk about “smart watches”. But only because the old type of watch never really went away.

When digital technology replaces legacy technology, it ceases to be “smart” and becomes, simply, the norm. In construction, we still talk about “smart buildings” but we use the metaphor as shorthand for something like sensor-enhanced infrastructure: buildings, like phones, can be loaded with sensors and used as an interface – a “bridge” as developers say – between us and our software.

When I went to Glasgow’s Censis event a few months ago, the keynote speaker was Evan Cummack, Head of IoT and Wireless Business Unit at a Californian software company called Twillio. His argument was that the ‘smartphone wars’ – the fierce commercial competition between Apple, Samsung and others – have resulted, now, in a kind of ‘peace dividends’. All the new technology required to make smart phones work – from accelerometers to compact GPS systems – was brought down in price and was suddenly made available for software developers.

As he pointed out, the best “bridge” is the shortest bridge; fewer buttons means greater hardware adaptability. An old TV remote can only be used for one purpose. But with a touchpad, the stuff on the screen changes and the touchpad itself can be used for a hundred different tasks. If we apply this insight to buildings, it is clear that cheaper technology can be used to solve harder problems, and that integration – that all important word – is key. From room occupancy to occupant wellness, we can now measure data that was previously unavailable, and the implications are numerous.

At another event in Glasgow University last month, students voiced their opinions about the new ‘smart campus initiative’ to their representatives. Focus was very clearly on mental health: sensor technology could be used to calm the anxious student who wants to find a desk in a quiet room, for example; the carbon savings that are to be delivered from the digital transformation could be displayed on an app for all to see, easing the burden of climate anxiety. None of this would have been possible before, or it would have required a prohibitive number of people and systems working in unison.

More and more physical problems now admit of software solutions, and this trend is certain to continue. 10 years ago, taxis were a problem for hardware. But today there are few big cities without app-based taxi services. In other areas, waste disposal for example, routes are custom-made and allocated to drivers based on algorithmic insight, so that they save time, save fuel, save needless expenses that used to result from approximation and guesswork.

That was the point that our speaker was making at the Censis event: if you can bring something within the ambit of software, the odds are that a solution will be found cheaper and faster than before. But we should not be complacent: there are so many companies that promise software solutions to problems that have already been solved; gimmicks and tricks are the other outcome of the smartphone wars. And in construction we need to make buildings safer, more useful, more accessible, not merely fill them with technology.

Mitie make the same point very clearly in their report of January 2020, “Digital Transformation is Overtaking Facilities Management”. Those who work in facilities management will be aware that, at present, their industry is undergoing a sea change. Services that used to be entirely hardware-based are now becoming increasingly software-based, with the promise of further software solutions down the line, including the long sought-after dream of predictive and preventive maintenance. The authors distinguish between digitization, digitalization and digital transformation:

Digitisation is the process of moving from analogue to digital. Digitalisation is the use of these digital tools to create new business models and revenue streams. Finally, digital transformation is the wholesale change that occurs – to systems, people, culture and behaviours – in this new digital world.

Again, people are calling this “smart FM”. But they won’t be for long because the entire sector is undergoing digital transformation, and all the companies concerned – a handful of very large companies – are undergoing a process of restructure and reorganization in order to develop advanced software capabilities. This will either have to be developed in-house, or else outsourced, and the market for outsourcing FM is now £3.2b.

Back at Glasgow University, the students were asked to rank various outcomes of the proposed digital transformation in order of importance to them. Unsurprisingly (since they are occupants) they cared more about occupant satisfaction than about the concerns of facilities managers like cost savings and security. Their central concern was sustainability. And moving forward the central concern of facilities management will have to be sustainability as well. So occupants and developers are agreed on what needs to happen next: it is not a feature of a “smart campus” to them, but something basic, fundamental, essential.

At any rate the best way to achieve sustainability goals, and to meet the Climate Change Committee’s target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2045, will be smart buildings, smart FM. It just won’t be called that: it will be the only type of building, the only type of FM.

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