A black screen fills with neon green numbers and symbols cascading downward in an endless flow of permutations. Focusing closely on the limitless flood of figures streaming through the screen, we move closer, revealing the picture, rendered by a billion data points. What I am describing is, of course, the iconic opening of the blockbuster film “The Matrix.” This imagery is meant to evoke the idea that if you understand data well enough you can start to see the simulations that it creates and maybe even anticipate and control it.
The film has relevance to the digital revolution happening in our office buildings. Filled with state-of-the-art sensors, buildings are creating data at an unfathomable pace. Like the film’s hero, Neo, building managers are forced to learn how to see patterns in the seemingly random stream of data that surrounds them. With the right perspective and training, Neo begins to see the patterns, forming a new understanding of reality from raw input. Hopefully, technology will develop to help those who manage buildings to do the same.
Data analytics is the next frontier in the built world. How to leverage massive amounts of data to better understand our new reality is the property industry’s great challenge over the next five years. In order to be able to make our buildings more efficient, facility managers must learn how to read The Matrix.
The red or blue pill?
"If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain."
Very early in Neo’s cinematic journey, he is forced to make a choice, one that he will not be able to rescind. He can either take the red pill and dive into the new reality that he has come to recognize, or take the blue one and remain blissfully ignorant in his current situation. This same forked path lies ahead for building managers. People are expecting more from their buildings, both at home and at work and that is forcing landlords to manage a digital experience as well as a physical one.
The choice here is to invest in digital systems or not. The vast majority of the world’s building stock is older than the internet. They are stuck in their previous reality and have not been awakened to the digital Matrix that already exists around them. Luxury buildings were the first to swallow a pill to the digital world, a part of reality that, in this day and age, is as real as our physical surroundings. But many buildings don’t have the kind of margins that luxury assets do. Plus, many do not serve a market that would be willing to pay increased rent for a digital connection to their living and working spaces.
The biggest detractor from investing in building technology is often cost. Many systems often need extensive physical upgrades to be able to be digitally connected to the existing building management platforms. But starting with physical upgrades is a way of thinking tied to a former reality. Now buildings are easily able to create a digital personification, with no physical upgrades at all. “Tenant-facing apps can add a complete digital layer to a building without any retrofitting at all,” said Lee Butz, founder of the tenant engagement platform District.
Many buildings are already creating enough data to create at least a basic digital twin. The journey for most buildings to become truly smart is a long one. The only way to embark on it is to know it exists in the first place.
"Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself."
Even Neo, the chosen one, does not immediately see the Matrix in the code. First, he must train. Similarly, buildings and the teams that run them have to upgrade their systems and recalibrate their mindsets. Buildings create data in a lot of different ways. Be it accounting entries, work orders for maintenance, energy usage breakdowns or occupancy management, there are many sources of information, each with their own unique data structure. Pair this with data created outside the building, like local weather, energy rates, and appointment booking and the landscape starts to look hard if not impossible to understand.
Data needs to be sorted, standardized and organized. The way the data is stored and the way the system is architected creates organizational intelligence that can augment a team’s path to mastery just like Neo downloads martial arts training directly to his brain. “The most important thing is the software layer,” said Pete Coman, CTO at PTS, a digital workplace experience design firm. “The software layer is the glue, the conduit between all the technologies. All these systems were never designed to speak to each other. With all of these interactions and standalone systems, next thing you know the client has twelve different dashboards. The software layers talk to every system, providing the logic.”
Slowly but surely building service providers are coming together to help building managers with their hero’s journey. “Companies making technology for buildings have a responsibility to integrate with each other,” said Micheal Wong, President and CEO of Genea, a software provider for commercial buildings. In order to do this, you have to first understand what property managers do day to day. “Oftentimes facilities managers become the complaint department. They are really busy and they know they will always be the ones that respond to emergencies so they don’t have time for data just for data’s sake,” Wong said.
With enough training, building managers can start to see the image in the code. This usually starts with strategic visualization. “We first help building teams create visualizations, that way the teams can get to work right away using that knowledge,” said Sonu Panda, CEO of Prescriptive Data, a building analytics software. He said that each team has their own ideas of which data they want to focus on. No matter what metrics a team chooses, to “see” it they need to have it be updating as close to real-time as possible. Cyclicality and seasonality of building performance has to be brought into managers’ field of vision as well. Only when buildings are able to automatically compile data into a way that is easily digestible will they allow people that manage them to see the Matrix.
Bending the spoon
“Do not try and bend the spoon, that’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth… there is no spoon. Then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.”
Eventually, Neo learns not only to see what is happening in the matrix but to control it. Neo does this by bending on a spoon, buildings do it by finding patterns. Seeing how different inputs can change outcomes for each situation can help buildings intuit when problems might occur. “First, we look for negative patterns that we can dampen if not attenuate for,” Panda said. Then a building can switch from defense to offense. “After the negative patterns have been eliminated, we look for positive patterns that we can amplify, if not ideally repeat,” he explained.
Installing software and hardware, architecting data, designing dashboards, and developing analytical programs might seem like a lot of work just to identify patterns. But it is important to remember just how hidden these correlations might be. When it comes to even something as fundamental to every building as heating and cooling, there is an undulating interplay between occupant comfort, system capability, outside weather, occupancy, lease obligations, energy prices, power rate calculations, and reusable electricity generation.
Identifying patterns isn’t just important for managing the current state of the building, it can help inform how it can improve. Occupancy data informs cleaning schedules and can be used to design future floorplans. Equipment usage data informs maintenance schedules and can be used to understand the effectiveness of upgrades. Tenant engagement data informs user satisfaction and can be used to identify new services.
For buildings to free themselves from their narrow view of reality, oblivious to all of the symbols endlessly cascading down, they need to awaken to the fact that there is so much more than what we can see, hear, and touch. This is just the beginning of a long journey towards intelligent buildings, one that will likely need much more than a trilogy. To quote the movie one last time, “I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin.”