Digital transformation through Smart Buildings

Jan 31, 2017   |  

We’re on a journey of digital transformation. Every company is becoming a software company. According to the World Economic Forum, civilization is entering a fourth industrial revolution built around cyber-physical systems. Physical, digital, and even biological realities are staring to merge. For CIOs and IT organizations, this presents an opportunity to apply new technologies in ways that enhance or automate organizational capabilities. It is also an opportunity to extend existing or create new business models harnessing digital possibilities. That means truly positioning IT as a growth engine—not just a provider of important yet already commoditized services. Put simply, it is an opportunity to be out in front and create the future.

Core to our own journey at Microsoft is the Internet of Things. We have been exploring ways to add business value by bringing IoT sensors into our enterprise. Our initial pilot focused on driving greater insights and productivity into open floor plan environments. We worked across the stack inclusive of hardware and software to provide both facilities reporting and employee-facing capabilities. Among the initial scenarios were: the ability to view real-time occupancy, temperature, and noise conditions of rooms to help people find spaces; reporting and heatmaps to understand how spaces are, or are not, being utilized; and predictive analytics. For more on our first pilot, see this article and video.

Since then, we have learned a lot and are advancing our thinking through an evolving Smart Building strategy and framework that includes four key areas:

Building automation Energy management Space utilization Occupant productivity
Enable controls such as HVAC, lighting, and fire suppression systems. Optimize energy use through analytics and real-time sensing. Measure space usage to improve facilities decisions, lower costs Enhance productivity and increase workplace satisfaction, capability.

While we have investments in all four, the two most emerging areas are where our pilot started: space utilization and occupant productivity. The goal is to better understand the environment in order to make smarter facilities decisions and offer new productivity experiences. We have also launched several new pilots, including a larger-scale one where our Azure IoT product team sits. That pilot has become an important testbed for new scenarios and for joint IT/product group collaboration.

What are we learning? By understanding space utilization, we believe organizations will be able to build more spaces that employees use, while reducing the ones they do not, thereby increasing overall building utilization. This could save real money as higher utilization means less real estate is required. It can also translate into higher satisfaction as employees have more of what they desire in buildings. Building architecture, layout, and space planning decisions could rely on real usage data and patterns. Organizations can look at foot traffic and other analytics to optimize building security, furniture choices, and smarter network infrastructure deployment planning. Privacy being a key consideration, it is important to note there are technologies that allow measuring utilization both with and without identifying individual people, alongside enforcing data use and opt-in policies.

Leveraging the same sensors, organizations can implement end-user experiences that improve productivity. At Microsoft, we are beginning to prototype and pilot even more occupant scenarios. These include: Smart Lighting (responding to noise and room occupancy), Indoor Location & Navigation (finding and navigating to people, places, and things inside a building; smart rooms that automatically initiate and connect you to a meeting once you walk in), and Natural User Interfaces (bringing voice, bots, and other new ways of interacting within a building). Our goal is to measure adoption to see which scenarios stick and are valuable for Microsoft and potentially other companies.

True to digital transformation form, Smart Buildings provide opportunities not just for all IT organizations to add value, but also new potential digital business opportunities for companies that supply assets or services within buildings. The power of the cloud combined with commoditized and flexible sensor technology has unleashed a whole new era of innovation. Smart Buildings are not just about offices, but will be inclusive of shopping, healthcare, homes, and other facilities—including extending the concepts into entire smart cities.

The possibilities are endless, and we encourage you to explore opportunities to digitally transform your workplace and business—just as we are on our own journey.

Pankaj Arora is a lifelong innovator and strategist who leads the Microsoft IT Innovation Group. When he’s not working on bringing new experiences to life, Pankaj enjoys reading and exploring new places.

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