Against the backdrop of the data and remote access needs of the COVID-19 pandemic, IoT adoption is increasing rapidly around the world as real estate businesses seek to improve the experiences they offer their occupiers as well as their portfolio management effectiveness throughout the life cycle of their investments.
According to Microsoft’s 2019 IoT Signals report, which surveyed over 3,000 leaders at enterprise firms around the world, 94 percent of businesses will be leveraging IoT tech by the end of 2021. This adds a time element to the rollout process: who will be early, and who will be left behind? But bringing IoT into commercial spaces comes with its own risks. Organizations face the prospect of spending time and money inefficiently, while the individual sponsors of IoT initiatives within companies put their reputations at stake. This places a major emphasis on de-risking the IoT rollout process. In this report, we will discuss the benefits of commercial building IoT, explain some of the most common pitfalls in rolling out these systems, provide solutions to each pitfall, and then provide a best practices list for implementing IoT at your property or portfolio.
Before we dive in, it is important to be specific with the terminology we are using. Throughout this report, “IoT” means the networks of interconnected devices, like sensors, thermostats, doors and elevators, that can be controlled or monitored remotely whether by a manager, maintenance employee or occupant, and that can allow operators to leverage data-driven insights into operations and efficiency. The key to the smooth functioning of these systems is the reliable sharing of information between different nodes in the network, whether they are sensors, access points, cameras or beyond. At the same time, it is this sharing of data that makes IoT systems vulnerable to a variety of inefficiencies and exploits that could cause long-term trouble for the organizations attempting to implement them. For instance, different systems or even different components within the same system might use different types of data or different data standards, may possess different levels of security hardening, or may default to different data privacy regimes. It is this multitude of challenges that property owners need to be ready to face as they prepare to harness the powerful benefits of property IoT.
Every year seems to bring a new global crisis, highlighting the importance of having a truly resilient risk management strategy in place. Here at Switch, we’ve been revising our day-to-day processes to be more resilient in the face of local and global crises. We hear that property owners and managers worldwide are doing the same to help offset the impact of each successive economic, climate and health emergency and the resulting financial impact. Indeed, operational inefficiency is never more apparent than during a worldwide crisis, as stocks and property value come under pressure and millions face hardship.
Then comes the problem of how to reopen commercial buildings during or after a crisis, requiring the careful monitoring of site trend data such as air quality and usage and great corporate communications to make occupants feel as safe as possible. Your customers and employees are probably curious about the safety of their sites and might be asking questions about usage, cleaning regularity and air quality. Now more than ever, building data is essential for answering occupant concerns.
One positive thing we’ve observed from this global crisis has been the heightened interest in digitization and smart building tech adoption. We’re delighted to have seen as much smart building tech adoption in the last two months as in the past two years, as building owners and operators experience first-hand how a lack of data and remote access impacts their teams and tenants.
The importance of measuring and verifying your healthy buildings with data
Right now, tenants want to know their environments are healthy and low risk. If the workforce is going to re-enter commercial buildings in the near future, then building owners and managers must know their Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) & Occupancy metrics and be able to share that data with everyone in the building, including visitors. Combining IoT sensors with a data-driven approach is incredibly powerful, enabling building owners and managers to measure, verify and communicate the health of their buildings to tenants.
Safeguarding your portfolio’s asset value in times of crisis
Research indicates there’s going to be more than 8 billion IoT devices operating in commercial buildings by 2022. The reality is that integrating this smart building tech only adds value through reduced operating costs, increased asset value and brand recognition. All of this new data collected from IoT technologies is also expected to create new business models and new revenue streams that we have yet to imagine. When the Google Maps API was created, the tech world had no idea how this invention would go on to form the foundation for countless groundbreaking location-based products in the following years, powering everything from Uber to Pokemon Go. Smart building tech is just as promising, and at this early stage it’s difficult to predict the vast range of ways this technology will go on to be utilized in the future.
Getting a head start on real estate’s uncertain future
There really is no better time to start proactively offsetting the risk of devaluation. Continuing on in the same way as the last several decades is actually the riskiest option, leaving your portfolio and its assets at the mercy of unsustainable market forces.
The right digital facilities management solution can help protect people and assets, turning buildings into sources of rich data that can be shared with stakeholders and tenants to enable both to make better and safer decisions. The essential first step will be to audit the devices connected to your building networks, highlighting sensor miscalibration, slow response times and network vulnerabilities, paving the way for further smart building integration. Right now, building owners and facilities managers have a chance to adopt a new, diagnostic approach for the benefit of every building, floor and occupant.
Deb Noller, CEO of Switch Automation
The Benefits of IoT Technology in Real Estate
IoT technology provides benefits for buildings of all types, and offices are one of the clearest, most compelling examples. The wide variety of systems within major commercial buildings, from management of HVAC to tenant-facing apps, make IoT widely applicable in many cases.
One of the most fundamental strengths of IoT systems is their ability to collect large volumes of data quickly, cost effectively and at scale. IoT systems are constantly collecting data, whether it is the number of occupants per hour, variance from baseline temperatures, or humidity level in the basement. While much of this data will have specific and obvious uses for management teams, like being able to tailor amenity spaces to the most popular use types or detect leaks instantly, there are other data uses that may not be immediately evident. Once again, the coronavirus outbreak provides an example: before COVID-19, detailed air quality data was not information that tenants were, by and large, particularly interested in. Now that the potentially airborne virus is here, things are different. Buildings that are already set up to collect air quality data have a step up on competing buildings.
There is another organizational benefit here, as well. Providing an organization with a central data repository, like the kind that can come from a true smart building platform, can help collect useful pieces of data, and indeed organizational knowledge, that would otherwise be distributed amongst the minds of the various employees of the company. Feeding new streams of data directly into the company’s shared enterprise software serves an important role by making otherwise invisible, yet important data usable by everyone in the organization.
Ability to control systems remotely
Alongside data collection, the ability to remotely monitor and control the multitude of systems across a portfolio is the next most obvious benefit of building IoT. Every IoT system can by definition be remotely managed, saving employees across the property team time spent moving through the building to access different components. There are other benefits to this as well. IoT-enabled access systems can allow for remote control of employee, guest, and visitor access to the property, and in appropriately-equipped properties, even specific rooms within the property. In the context of COVID-19, this could be useful for managers seeking to limit access to common areas after certain occupancy levels are hit.
IoT systems don’t only help with the active management of building components, they also offer the opportunity to automate or digitize substantial portions of property management. For instance, maintenance can be performed based on sensor readings, preempting occupier complaints, and visitors can be automatically assigned a properly-credentialed guest pass for the spaces they need to use. In many cases, a large percentage of all complaints from tenants are comfort issues that are predominantly handled in a manual, labor-intensive process today. Digitization of this workflow means using data and analytics to surface, diagnose, triage, report and notify, saving time and money while and improving customer experience. This benefit becomes most evident in IoT platforms that connect completely different systems, like sensors, thermostats and access control in the room occupancy example above.
This leads to the final main benefit of IoT. We are still in a time where some properties leverage this technology and some don’t. This means that the properties that harness IoT’s capabilities have a unique differentiator compared to their competitors that lack IoT functionality. Given how competitive many modern rental markets are, this undoubtedly has a direct if hard to quantify impact on leasing velocity and rent rates.
There is another reality to the point of IoT as differentiation, as well. Given what we know about the pace of IoT adoption, if landlords fail to step up their use of these systems, it is only a matter of time until their tenants take the initiative on their own. This would be a major missed opportunity on the part of the landlord, since it would result in a building IoT system gaining only part of the true capabilities of a property-wide system. It could also be used as a future bargaining chip by the tenant, who could potentially point to the fact that the landlord failed to provide IoT tech or other valued insights, like up-to-date information on indoor air quality, occupancy monitoring for entire suites as well as specific rooms, and even guest and visitor contact tracing as justification for a rent reduction or other, more favorable lease terms.
Many of these strengths are brought together in the future use case envisioned by Louise Monger, technology and innovation project director for a leading Australian real estate investment firm. “The low hanging fruit here is understanding our retail marketing spend, tenant mix, and impacts of decisions shown through data. For instance, if we know Sydney is having a rainy day what does that mean for a shopping center located there? If we do a marketing push during that rainy day, will that lead to more sales? In many ways, IoT systems help us demonstrate data conclusions that were only previously gut feel.” This is an important added value particularly in large organizations where seasoned real estate experts can’t be everywhere and attend to every challenge or decision at once.
IoT Pitfalls And How To Avoid Them
While the benefits of leveraging IoT are plenty, there are a number of challenges associated with implementing this type of technology.
1. Failure to set strategy and engage stakeholders
The reality of IoT is that numerous stakeholders wind up being involved, particularly if there is an organizational goal to unify disparate systems.
Solution step 1: Build communication between disparate stakeholders in the IoT system.
As managers go about setting up their IoT infrastructure, they will likely find that responsibility for components of the system is shared amongst many people. Some may be held by the IT team, some by property managers, some by maintenance staff, the list goes on and on. This is also true at the portfolio level. While it may be centralized corporate decision makers who decide to integrate IoT into their company infrastructure, it will be individual building employees, and budgets, who are needed for buy-in and to foot the bills for implementation. With this in mind, having a clear understanding of who is necessary for what is critical for effective IoT rollout.
One of the best ways to develop inter-departmental communication ahead of time is to start by speaking with the different stakeholders in the organization, in this case whether on the property side or the tech side, and address their concerns and ideas. By building that foundation of communication, it is possible to expand to holding group discussions and updates throughout the IoT rollout process, giving the different parts of the company an opportunity to connect and break down communication barriers. This will not be a one-and-done solution but rather an ongoing effort to keep stakeholders in different parts of the organization aware of what is happening and how it may relate to them.
Solution step 2: Build organizational buy-in by putting benefits front and center.
It is important to remember that the individuals who champion IoT adoption within their firms are taking a personal professional risk through their advocacy of the tool. System failures and cost overruns alike could blow back on these evangelists in serious ways. That’s why it’s important to remain goal oriented within the context of IoT readiness. Even as the costs of preparation begin to mount, managers should remember the benefits and potential saved money and manpower that IoT technology could allow for.
According to Ms. Monger, “When dealing with property people in the company, show, don’t tell. Utilize pilot-scale rollouts and show customer impacts, demonstrating the loss of friction across the customer journey. Try to build results and get momentum, and from there it is easy to get people on board since they can see the change. Ms. Monger explained that for one tech rollout at her company, her team set up a small-scale trial of a new access control tool to around 30 decision makers within the organization on both the property and tech sides. “Word gets around and soon enough people were asking ‘how do I get on the trial?’” Building buy-in organically, rather than forcing it through PowerPoint presentations and lengthy discussions about benefits, is the better approach.
2. Disconnected systems
The fact that IoT systems involve nodes, hubs and the transfer of data over long distances means that disconnected systems pose a major risk. There are several types of disconnected systems to be concerned with. First of all, stakeholders spread across different teams can be out of alignment. Perhaps someone with budgetary control is on one team while the person responsible for training staff in IoT use is on another. Or perhaps it is a more physical disconnectedness, potentially something as simple as a disconnected cable leading to a sensor or computer. Or it could be siloed data, or different data standards entirely. Any of these things would compromise functionality across the entire system.
Even buildings that make good use of various IoT systems may not be properly calibrated to run at full efficiency. This is the difference between smart systems and smart buildings: smart systems may work well but be isolated from one another, while a true smart building possesses the data sharing and integrations necessary to allow predictive, diverse responses that can empower managers to address emergent situations on the fly.
Solution step 1: Confirm physical systems are connected and commissioned correctly.
It may sound elementary, but there are numerous ways that the IoT system could be improperly configured based on solely physical factors. Obstacles as simple as poorly positioned sensors, unplugged cords, or even crimped cords can compromise either components of or even the entire system, depending on where they are located. It is therefore important that managers understand the full scope of their physical systems before beginning an IoT rollout.
This is also the step most likely to require the hiring of an outside consultant. While much of the IoT readiness process, like ensuring data standards are uniform and bandwidth is great enough, can be performed remotely, ensuring the proper physical conditions are met typically requires a boots on the ground approach. Part of this step should also be to ensure that only the necessary maintenance staff and tenant facility managers have access to spaces containing vital IoT network equipment. Since disconnecting or interfering with system components can have disastrous implications, and inventorying every component manually can be time consuming, managers should do what they can to ensure they will only have to take this start-up process once. This requires developing thorough, periodic review practices that turn the heavy lift of taking this step over and over into easy to manage, bite-size parts of an ongoing routine.
Solution step 2: Discover and understand systems already deployed.
This is the other component of the vital “know thyself” portion of IoT preparation. Traditional building systems and modern IoT systems have different details and characteristics that can hinder or help setting up the proper integrations. For instance, there are a range of IoT-focused data standards, like Brick, IPSO or Haystack, that can be difficult to understand for laymen but crucial to ultimate success of the roll out. It is vital that managers take the time necessary to fully understand how their system functions before rolling out a building IoT system.
According to Deb Noller, CEO and co-founder of Switch Automation, “there are generally two categories of people embarking on enterprise-wide IoT implementations. First, those that have no clue what they are working with and just want to find out what’s out there, or those that have a good idea of existing building systems already deployed, but they are looking for validation and confidence to launch a large program.” But while uncovering the truth behind what IoT components, protocols and system details are in place sounds arduous, in truth there are a number of ways to go about obtaining this information. An internal IoT expert, if one is on staff, can be assigned to perform a comprehensive system audit. In many cases, though, property companies may not have such an employee on hand.
The typical alternative would be to engage a consultant to perform the audit. IoT consultants are useful augments to the on-the-ground IoT monitoring capabilities of a property business but in many cases their utility is most obvious when there is a specific challenge or implementation to work on, as opposed to this sort of full-scale system diagnosis, which could rapidly become a time-consuming, high-billable hours undertaking. An alternative option here is to leverage a tech tool to help perform the initial audit. Such a tool could serve several purposes, identifying inconsistencies in data, malfunctioning or poorly performing systems, whether digital or physical, and actually cataloguing the entire scope of IoT devices within the building. This could save management teams time and effort manually performing each individual task themselves.
3. Missing data
Problems can also be more fundamental than misaligned data. The data may not even be there in the first place, or else it could be so low quality as to be unusable, thanks to a variety of reasons: sensors could be miscalibrated, data may not be stored in places where it is accessible by the relevant employees, or device settings may not even be set up to record data properly.
Solution step 1: Be deliberate in the decision between on-prem and cloud-based storage.
It’s critical to understand which data storage strategy is more appropriate for each type of data in the organization. While cloud storage can be beneficial by keeping data access available from anywhere, and since modern cloud storage tools are highly secure and resistant to data loss, it can be wise to keep mission-critical information on the cloud. However, less sensitive and more voluminous data, such as day-to-day operations information, may benefit from remaining stored on-premises, since this sort of data requires less security measures and often ends up being so voluminous as to make downloading from the cloud difficult without ideal network conditions.
Solution step 2: Make data usable for all stakeholders, not just data scientists.
As part of your overall data strategy, and indeed one of the most typical goals of an IoT system rollout, it is a good idea to make your data accessible in such a way that employees without extensive data science training can make use of its insights. Assuming the data is there in the first place, there are two sides to this: first, data access must be provided to the employees who need it, and second, tools must be provided to democratize data use. Tableau and Microsoft Power BI are two solutions that make data use easier than jumping into the deep end with a system like Python, but part and parcel with providing tools is providing training. Integrating these tools might require planning a monthly data training call for every staff member that you expect to use these systems. Instead, it may make sense to identify a more user-friendly data tool that allows for seamless data normalizations and visualizations without requiring training at all.
4. Security and data compliance
The interconnected nature of IoT systems make them stress points for both security and data privacy issues. On the one hand, the fact that IoT networks are so widely distributed provide potentially harmful actors with an abundance of weak points to target. Modern IoT systems and components tend to have an emphasis on strong enterprise security, but older components, or ones that have not been updated in some time, present a bigger challenge since they were often not designed or implemented with modern cybersecurity capabilities. And data privacy can be an issue, too, particularly with regard to resident location, preferences and habits.
Solution step 1: Understand the realities of security vulnerabilities (primarily older systems).
As mentioned above, recently installed systems, or components that are soon to be added, are not the most likely point of security vulnerability within a building’s digital presence. This is because modern IoT systems are built with adequate amounts of security measures built in. The same is not true, however, for older systems. According to Ms. Noller, “The risk is not what you are doing in the next 10 years, it is what you did in the last 20.” Of course, even if your goal is not to roll out a modern IoT system, this is a useful, necessary step regardless. Although in the modern context cybersecurity concerns are more often used as an excuse to avoid making networked updates, than actually posing real threats themselves, it’s still true that legacy systems can lose legitimate security concerns. With that in mind, while a deep security review of modern, recently-installed IoT systems and devices may not be necessary, it could be beneficial to spend the time reviewing legacy systems, and ensuring that there are not glaring security vulnerabilities within these devices and tools.
Solution step 2: Develop a persistent, company-wide approach to data security and privacy.
Since the goal of an IoT rollout is to reduce siloed data, it isn’t enough that one or two teams in the organization have strong data management. Instead, it is important that the entire organization has healthy data practices. In order to achieve this, IBM’s Big Data and Analytics Hub suggests developing a unified data governance strategy across the entire organization. According to them, such a strategy can be broken down into two areas: policies, which are broad yet documented guidelines, and rules, which are specific and discrete, and lead to following of data governance policies.
Best Practice Takeaways
With the benefits and pitfalls of IoT in mind, we are able to present a list of best practices for IoT implementation.
Create an inventory of your systems before launch
It may seem obvious, but before spending time and money on an IoT system for your property, managers should review all the details and components of their systems in detail. This means understanding the full scope of networks, data requirements and standards from system to system, and the actual physical elements of the systems: cords, cables, device maintenance and access for both staff and occupiers.
Additionally, it pays to understand the level of vendor support you will receive before beginning the rollout process. Ms. Monger added that “You’ll notice little things like how flexible they are in their conversation. Many companies don’t want to deviate from what their solution does or work with other vendors. But, she added, “Technology is a team sport. Good vendors are open minded and easy to work with.” Once you’ve completed your inventory, you’ll be better equipped to understand what components may need to be updated or replaced, and whether your current vendor network is equipped to support you through your rollout.
Analyze the universe of risks
With an understanding of the system components in your property, you can move on to consider all the potential risks that may present themselves. There are several main ones to primarily consider. First and foremost is the risk of data anomalies, like incompatible data formats or corrupted data, presenting themselves and interfering with the sharing of information. Second is the risk of security vulnerabilities, primarily stemming from older systems. Third is the impact of problems on both the hardware and software sides, and finally, the last main risk is the presence of organizational challenges that could make it hard to adopt and maintain the IoT system in the first place.
Consequently, the risk assessment should cover all these bases and culminate in a single report developed with input from, and then distributed amongst, stakeholders from across the organization. This will serve the dual goals of further developing buy-in from throughout the organization, and also ensuring that no stone is left unturned in the risk analysis.
Engage in ongoing monitoring
The reality of building or portfolio-level IoT is that not every problem can be caught at the time of launch. For all of the best efforts of the management team, some obstacles may not present themselves until well after the initial inventory of risks and challenges. With this in mind, it is important to engage in ongoing monitoring efforts across all of the realms of possible system disruption: security, data management, device interconnectedness, stakeholder buy-in and network health.
Reviewing possible vulnerabilities and network integrity in an ongoing manner will allow managers to respond quickly to lapses in building readiness before small problems turn into big ones. It may be helpful to deploy a targeted solution, like the Switch Dx³ building systems network assessment tool, that has the ability to unify the monitoring process within a single dashboard, as opposed to trying to keep track of every IoT system component, network factor and readiness state manually. The upshot of this is that even minor system disruptions can be caught quickly and remedied before they grow into costly problems requiring expensive solutions to solve.
In this report we explored IoT systems through a variety of lenses: the benefits, pitfalls, and solutions to these challenges. IoT implementation may not be easy but most managers will find that the benefits outweigh the costs. If automation, data collection and increased efficiency are organizational goals, taking a systemic, procedural approach to IoT rollout is a wise choice to make.
The right digital facilities management solution can help protect people and assets, turning buildings into sources of rich data that can be shared with stakeholders and tenants to enable both to make better and safer decisions. The essential first step will be to audit the devices connected to your building networks, highlighting sensor miscalibration, slow response times and network vulnerabilities, paving the way for further smart building integration. Right now building owners and facilities managers have a chance to adopt a new, diagnostic approach for the benefit of every building, floor and occupant. With the correct implementation strategy, IoT adoption can be an efficient, effective process.