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Microsoft Bridges the Smart Building Divide on the Arabian Peninsula

The world at the turn of the 19th Century was a dynamic one. New empires were springing up on both sides of the Atlantic, as old dynasties and upstart ideas battled for influence in the Old World and the New World alike. The world was shrinking, but in one way things were very much the same as they had always been. Transit and communication, particularly between the continents, was still an arduous and time-consuming effort. Sending a message between the great capitals of Europe and Washington, DC, impressive though they were, still took a sailing ship and a period of weeks to months. 

It wasn’t until much later that things improved. Even with better naval technology, steamships still measured their travel times in weeks, not days. Not until the mid-1800s, when the first undersea telegraph lines connected both sides of the ocean, did things get much faster. 

Smart building technology is also in many ways a number of continent-like individually-advanced systems, such as sensors, IoT infrastructure, or management platforms. The recent past has seen companies both large and small delivering excellent tech solutions to buildings, from foundation to roof. Energy management is a particular area of focus, with tech platforms allowing for remote monitoring of energy use, both at the point of generation as well as the point of use. Workspace optimization is a nascent field, as well, where sensors are used to do more than just turn on the lights, but rather to provide data on employee activities. This is allowing managers to refine office designs and make leadership decisions, like optimizing break times, based on data. Then there’s smart access control, where video intercoms and AI-enabled security systems aim to increase tenant ease of access while decreasing the risk of trespassers gaining access to secure areas. 

All of these things are making managing and investing in buildings easier and more efficient. In general, they’re all about sensors. Providers may layer on software to control and communicate with a sensor network, but in many cases, we’re looking at sensor-driven observations, one way or another. For their part, sensors are only going to get more common as time goes on. The total count of connected sensors and endpoints is expected to break 21 billion next year, and growth is likely to continue. A day will come, probably sooner than later, when “blind” buildings are in the minority, perhaps treated similarly to how we currently regard properties with asbestos: not necessarily an investment dealbreaker, but certainly needing remediation. 

However, for all the advancements that we have seen in the industry, the areas of smart building tech that have exploded recently are still akin to the big cities on both sides of the Atlantic two hundred years ago. Advanced, sure. Successful, undoubtedly. But still fundamentally separate. 

It’s in this space that digital twin technology has risen. While the sensors themselves and the software that runs them have often been the product of businesses in the facilities management space or startups, digital twin tech is actually often provided by major tech companies, like IBM, Cisco, or Microsoft. This could be for a few reasons, such as the high data infrastructure requirements needed to make digital twins scalable or simple economies of scale within tech giants already working on sophisticated cloud platforms. Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing is a perfect example of this: a large, widely-used cloud computing platform that is applied in a range of industries and was consequently ready to jump into digital twin deployments. 

We’ve written about Microsoft’s project in Sharjah, UAE before. All the way back in April, the collaboration between Microsoft, Johnson Controls, and environmental management company Bee’ah was making waves as a premier example of digital twin-enabled IoT tech in a new construction project. Now, half a year later, Bee’ah’s HQ building is getting closer to its scheduled delivery next year. The project is important not only for its elegant architecture, virtual concierge and the Microsoft/Johnson Controls partnership, but for how its technology will bridge the gaps between disparate building platforms. 

That’s part of what Rimes Mortimer, GM of Applied Innovation & Incubation at Microsoft, is excited about. “The key is to have an integrated cloud platform that can handle the volume of data input and support potentially hundreds of applications,” he told me. From there, advanced computing can run the machine learning algorithms for insights on how to operate the building. “Software can spot what equipment might fail, where there may be an issue with overcrowding, or even a security issue, before they become serious,” Rimes explained.

Connecting things like workplace analytics with energy management and access control will likely have a profound impact on the way buildings are run. Think about the arrival of the smartphone. Before smartphones appeared, people carried separate cameras, music players, calculators, phones, and netbooks. With smartphones came an opportunity to unite all that functionality in one device, making it vastly more practical to use any one of those particular functions. Similarly, bundling together so many different uses offered opportunities for emergent tech areas and brand new uses to pop out, like AR in general, or Pokemon Go in particular. Giving the same treatment to buildings will both make it easier to manage buildings, but also could provide advanced contextual opportunities at a variety of scales. Rimes added: “By switching from reactive to predictive, you can optimize space and reduce costs and impact. This is true for deciding where and how workstations could be configured for improved productivity, or at a city level, in helping determine where new infrastructure can be built to optimize for street traffic or even retail commerce.”

Think, for instance, about the opportunity to combine data from advanced occupancy and motion sensors with access control tech. Doors, or even articulated walls, could be automatically opened or closed based on the presence of people nearby. This is just the sort of technology that will likely show up at the Bee’ah property. Rimes gave the example of meeting rooms that could potentially automatically welcome event attendees and record proceedings without needing AV fidgeting. Another example that Rimes mentioned was the guest experience. Receptionists will potentially be able to see who guests are before they walk in the door, allowing for a faster check-in process. At the same time, parking spots can be automatically assigned to visitors based on availability, while the visitors themselves receive automated directions and property information. It’s this seamlessness that will likely define the property systems of the future.

Indeed, we talk a lot about integration within the PropTech industry, but it’s just as critical within physical buildings, too. Obstacles and challenges don’t always occur within one system. Sometimes, upstream problems take place in entirely different parts of the building, and can shut down major building components. Rimes added that “A gorgeous kitchen is useless if you don’t know how the plumbing is working. Focus on knowing how the building systems are performing and then you can create new tenant experiences.” He talked about the need to use open standards and protocols to ensure solutions and data interact. “It’s critical not to deploy proprietary solutions that don’t integrate with others,” he said. “We need a Lego block approach and Microsoft is working hard with many different partners to build a platform that supports plug and play.”

All the tech advancement throughout individual building systems is phenomenal. Even now, buildings are smarter, more connected, and more responsive than ever before. But the next step in property evolution may not come through incrementally better point solutions, but rather a way to combine all of the different parts of a smart building into one package. The telegraph served this purpose for the world stage 150 years ago. What will do the same for today’s buildings? Microsoft wants to be the connective digital smart building tissue. Now they have a great example of how their system can at the highest level with the Bee’ahs headquarters. 

Associate Publisher, Propmodo Research

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