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21 May 2018
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The measurement revolution promised by the Internet of Things will falter if user communities and their actual needs are not the first consideration in the specification process. Chris Weston reports.

Credit: Getty

10 July 2017 | Chris Weston

Every day, in every way, we are becoming more connected. That’s one of the New Truths, and you can’t argue with it; the facts are incontrovertible. 

Cisco, which at a value of around $170 billion is the biggest networking company, says the number of machine-to-machine connections will grow from 4.9 billion in 2015 to 12.2 billion in 2020. 

So what does it all mean for FM and workplace management?

People have been working towards the ideal of the ‘smart building’ for some time. In such a building, hardly a finger need be lifted to solve everyday problems. 

The building will know where you the end-user occupiers are, providing information relevant to what you are doing at the time. It will know how hot or cold you like it, and adjust its environment to suit. It will save energy by shutting down systems that nobody is using. And it will know that something is wrong before you do, alerting people to come and fix it – that is, if it hasn’t already pre-empted the problem so the failure never happens at all.

But there’s something else: the smart building is something of a pipe dream at present. Because while the technologies to accomplish all these things exist in one form or another, integrating them is tricky, and balancing the needs of everyone in a dynamic environment like, for example, a hospital is fiendishly complex. You only have to work in an open-plan office as winter approaches to know how the politics of the thermostat causes divisions among the smallest group of people.

But as proponents of the Internet of Things (IoT) will tell you – indeed, did so at ThinkFM last month – the potential benefits of a reduction in use of energy and resources are attractive. To that end the rapid rise of smart city projects around the world – each essentially a collection of smart buildings around a common infrastructure (100 in India alone) – is a testament to the faith we are placing in the advance of such systems.

Short-life community 1

The motorway hold-up

A good example of a short-lived community is found when there’s a hold-up on a motorway; the traffic grinds to a halt and before long we’re sitting in stationary traffic. After five or 10 minutes people start turning off their engines and getting out of their cars. One or two people will be checking their phones for news. Those savvy with social media will be searching platforms like Twitter for ‘M1 hold-up’ and more likely than not they’ll see posts from people a mile or more ahead telling the world about the overturned lorry or whatever it is that’s to blame.

Emma Potter
Credit: Getty

Caring about the community

But one question remains – are we missing the point of such technology in the FM community? We inhabit a world where we are measured by our customer at every step through our contracts, and where asset management is a key activity. Advances in IoT cause many ‘Eureka’ moments where all the possibilities suddenly become clear and we see ways to monitor critical assets more effectively to prevent downtime. We imagine an array of sensors around buildings to show that our staff have completed tasks within our service level agreements, not to mention the potential to measure the productivity of those same people.

Through these techniques we reduce the penalties that might be incurred through the unavailability, say, of a lift, because we’ve fixed the problem before it occurred. We’ve proved to our customer that we’ve hit our SLAs and our contract payments will be less subject to deductions. The customer is getting what they want, and we’re able to work more efficiently because we’re better informed.

There is an argument, however, that an important part of the equation is missing.  Because in all of the above we have not yet mentioned the people the building is there to serve – the hospital patients and staff, the office workers, library users, the tenants in a housing association block. The focus on assets and SLAs takes our focus away from the communities that are the reason the buildings exist in the first place.

It’s instructive to explore this notion of communities (see boxes). We have seen through the rise of social media that communities can be both short and long-lived, geographically spread or focused on a specific area.

Users of buildings are similarly members of a community. They may be various tenants of a high-rise office block that share lifts, cafés, creche facilities, and so on. They may be visitors to an event at an exhibition hall or public facility. They may be members of those communities for a short time, such as a hospital in-patient, or an extended time like a company employee in an office. Regardless, these communities have a shared interest in the building they use; that it meets their individual and group needs, that it is warm, safe and dry, and that they are able to resolve problems quickly so they can go about their business. They will often work together to innovate and stop problems occurring, which is a win for them, but also a win for the people that would otherwise be called out to deal with them.

The power of these communities has a part to play in the direction of workplace management technology, not least because almost every member of those communities carries their own internet-connected device with them – their smartphone. The railways have found ways to interact with customers using social networks, successfully using platforms like Twitter to field questions from passengers on trains, or on platforms about the services they are using. This is done in a very human way, the person always announces their name when they take over the Twitter account and queries are dealt with in a conversational style. If this can be done on a train, it can be done for a building or a campus.

Smartphones also have ways of communicating other issues and information to building managers. Rather like the happy/sad face buttons in some washrooms, mobile apps or local websites can gather details from people about the service they are getting, or the minor problems they encounter to build data sets that allow resources to be allocated more effectively. Since we can get at this data, it seems sensible that we should use it to form our service provision around the success of the community as much as the efficient running of a building.

This contrasts with the ‘smart’ technology that appears to be our ideal solution – sensors that can report a status without anyone else being involved. While that appears more effective, by cutting out that interaction with people we also lose some requisite context about what is important. People tend to raise issues about things that have a higher priority, and by this method we continue to elicit information from our community so that we can build the service around their needs, rather than the needs of the assets in our buildings.

Credit: Getty


Internet of living things

As we consider the cascade of IoT-enabled technology and its implications for measurement and management, we need to consider that a community-first approach requires us to think differently about how we measure our service provision. Plenty of wise old heads tell us “‘you can’t manage what you can’t measure”, but what’s perhaps more important is the phrase “what gets measured gets done”. When measures are poorly designed, they do not produce the outcomes that we all hoped they would. 

The targets for hospital waiting times are one of the clearest examples of such narrow thinking – patients were simply moved from a waiting room that was measured to a slightly more advanced stage of processing that had no measure on it. The same happens in procurement – a triumphant saving of £10,000 a year on a lower-quality product in a manufacturing process might mean a loss of £100,000 in lost time and/or business – but the procurement team is regarded as being successful.

The triumph of the smart building, and IoT, might be that they provide us with different, more effective ways to measure and manage the service we provide; to work with the communities that depend on those assets and services to understand their priorities and the way they change over time.

 But before we rush down the path of greater automation through advanced technology, let’s ask ourselves – is the solution we’re considering serving our building, or is it serving the community?  

Short-life community 2

The Eyjafjallajökull eruption

In a prolonged event you might find a hashtag becoming associated with the event, and people asking for help. One real-life example of a ‘pop-up’ community was the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010. An enormous cloud of volcanic ash caused flights to be cancelled across Europe, resulting in many people being stranded on holidays or business trips. These people were suddenly part of that community and many used social media to tackle their predicament. 

Twitter hashtags such as #ashcloud became common and were used to connect those who needed transport with those who had managed to hire a car, for example. Facebook groups were created for similar reasons. That community lasted as long as flights were grounded, and then dissipated.