• A recent report by real estate technology company ProptechOS ranks Austin as the #1 U.S. city best prepared for a smart city future. - photo by Leonid Furmansky

Smart buildings are a missing link to reaching citywide sustainability goals.

Smart technology is proliferating across the United States in municipalities large and small. While the hype is huge, the reality is more humble. At its core, the term “smart” simply means applying data and analytics to systems. In the context of smart cities and buildings, digital sensors are embedded in the physical environment to collect data, and that data is then transmitted — often via wireless networks — to be analyzed, managed, and shared by decision-makers. 

When it comes to mitigating the impacts of climate change and progressing toward sustainability goals, the information and insight that smart technology can provide are critical. Data can be collected on everything from air quality to energy usage — by building, by city block, by neighborhood, and across a metropolitan area. 

About Smart Cities

From a municipal point of view, smart technology is a part of public infrastructure. Smart sensors can provide data on vehicular and pedestrian movement to improve urban mobility and traffic congestion. Smart lighting can allow operators to save energy and money by dimming lights on command or by streamlining maintenance and operations. Sensors on aging pipes can help crews prioritize repairs and reduce water loss. Air quality monitors placed in high-traffic areas can assess carbon dioxide emission levels. These are only a few of the thousands of uses and applications for smart technology at the city service level. 

Since the beginning of the smart city movement around 2010, cities outside of North America including Barcelona, London, and Singapore have been widely recognized as global leaders. The U.S. entered the movement in 2016, thanks to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge, which encouraged any city to apply for a combined $50 million in grants to design and implement smart city technology. From an applicant pool of almost 90 municipalities, seven finalists were named, and Columbus, Ohio, was selected as the national winner. 

This first move inspired a wave of activity that continues today as municipalities discover and designate their own unique approaches to integrating connected technology with their city systems. While seven years later there is still no singular “official smart city,” there are thousands of pilots, projects, and large-scale deployments of smart city technology across cities and even across regions. The North Texas Innovation Alliance was one of the first regional smart city organizations in the country to pool the collective wisdom of dozens of local municipalities in search of collaborative approaches and shared learnings. 

Across Texas and across the country, no two cities are alike, which creates an interesting tapestry of how to think about and how to implement technology. One encouraging evolution is that most city leaders are insisting on a people-first agenda in regard to smart city strategies. At the Smart Cities Connect Conference & Expo, the largest smart city event in North America, panels filled with a mixture of industry and government leaders espouse a widely accepted viewpoint that only by understanding the needs of citizens, residents, and visitors can city leadership effectively design and implement technology to address those issues. 

The city of San Antonio has made considerable progress in engaging the public in its smart-city-making. The city-based program SASpeakUp encourages residents to “Connect With Your City!” and highlights areas of key concern for residents, such as property taxes, COVID-related care, and internet access. The public is invited to express their views and experiences through a myriad of surveys, in-person events, committee engagement, and a selection of technology tools. The success of this program is related to its ubiquitous presence; there is a concerted effort by the city to go directly into the community, speak to residents, and then incorporate their feedback in meaningful ways. 

A challenge that almost every city in the U.S. faces is how to better address issues of inequity and how to provide better access to resources regardless of socioeconomic status. While no technology can undo decades or even centuries of injustice, the appropriate data collection tools, in combination with thoughtful community-based conversations, can offer new insights. For example, the city of Philadelphia’s SmartCityPHL program partnered with AI-focused startup State of Place on a pilot project to better understand linkages between often-isolated issues such as urban heat islands and health outcomes for vulnerable residents. Using artificial intelligence and machine learning, the team analyzed hundreds of features in the built environment (like sidewalks, tree cover, and parking lots) as well as urban design issues such as density or traffic safety indicators. 

Results from the study are being evaluated, and it is hoped that this kind of focused analysis can be extended citywide to further explore correlation between urban design and resident outcomes. This data also informs responses between city departments and aids communication with residents. The approach emanated from the city’s Office of Innovation Management’s SmartCityPHL roadmap in conjunction with its Pitch & Pilot program that “encourages the collaboration between private sector businesses to help aid civic projects.”

The Link Between Smart Buildings and Smart Cities 

Smart technology can apply to building systems as well as cities. Although less than 20 percent of privately owned buildings in the U.S. are designated as “smart,” the movement to implement smart technology in built environments is growing. The smart buildings market is expected to balloon to $121.6 billion by 2026, according to industry reports by MarketsandMarkets. 

Digital sensors, enabled by wireless technology, provide information on how to optimize energy usage through monitoring HVAC, lighting, and water systems so that utilities are used only as they are needed. Other non-environmental applications can include security management through access control mechanisms. Both government and private sector building owners depend on technology developed and deployed by the wireless industry. Michelle James, vice president of strategic industry programs for CTIA (the wireless industry association), explains: “The wireless industry represents a pivotal resource for cities on their journey to becoming smarter with 4G and 5G networks blanketing the nation, with providers working in rural, suburban, and urban communities to further improve and expand service. These services support smarter connected buildings, intelligent traffic management systems, more efficient utility grids, and a host of services that keep communities safer.”

The benefits to tenants, building owners, and operators include increased productivity, enhanced safety, lower operating costs, and higher satisfaction. In an ideal situation, gaining a better understanding of how building systems perform — as well as how people move in, out, and about those physical spaces — can offer a fascinating layer on top of smart city operations data. This fictitious scenario offers a seamless view on how cities really work and what variables can be adjusted to improve sustainability measures. 

In reality, when it comes to sharing information and data on building performance, there are scant examples of cross-sector collaboration and no known examples of this level of data integration at scale in the U.S. Instead, there is a wide divide between the public and private sectors. There are many reasons why this is the case, including traditional roles and misaligned incentives, as well as technical and ethical challenges associated with data sharing. 

To begin, regulatory requirements usually define the relationship between business and government. Commercial real estate developers, building owners, and building managers traditionally interact with city government at the point of site design, permitting, and land-use approvals. While some municipalities have instituted project management technologies that streamline these processes, many are still using antiquated systems that can result in tension and frustration for all.

Beyond the organizational issues that arise from public and private sector collaboration, the technical considerations are also significant. It turns out that integrating data across domains is difficult. In fact, many cities still struggle to enable interoperable data systems, data visualizations, and data dashboards even within a single city system. Most cities pursuing smart city strategies are limited to individual departments deploying single-use cases (for example, an energy utility implementing smart lighting or a transportation department deploying smart traffic signals) as opposed to a system-wide, holistic view across municipal areas of influence. 

There are, however, some examples of cities deploying resident-centric strategies that use cross-departmental data to serve the city’s “customer.” In fact, the city of San Antonio has emerged as a national leader in terms of its efforts to share data amongst its public sector SmartSA Partners, which earned the city a Smart 50 Award in 2022. 

Brian Dillard, chief innovation officer for the city of San Antonio, is quoted on the city’s website: “Data is key for the City of San Antonio and our partners to make informed decisions that impact our community. By unlocking the ability to share data more efficiently with this agreement, we look forward to improving our collaboration with our partners and citizens to make San Antonio a more connected, inclusive, and resilient community.”

One of the important challenges that comes with aligning data across public and private sectors includes the imperative for all organizations and entities to be ethical and equitable with regard to data collection, management, and sharing. Collecting personally identifiable data on individuals (as opposed to inanimate infrastructure) opens a wide cadre of risk that goes far beyond cybersecurity vulnerabilities. 

The deployment of facial recognition software, in particular, is a controversial topic. These technologies are common in smart buildings through the use of automated entry systems or security-related monitoring systems through cameras in lobbies or public spaces. While the use cases can appear innocent (and perhaps even necessary), there are precautions to consider. Data collected on individuals and their likenesses can be harmful, as they feed algorithmic bias built from data sets that may not have not passed ethical scrutiny. The lack of clear ethical standards around artificial intelligence further exacerbates the confusion. The lack of transparency about how the technology works and who has access to its data, combined with questions about if/how individuals can control their personal data are serious smart technology issues to consider.

As daunting as these challenges seem, they don’t need to stymie innovative thinking around smart technology deployment. An informed and thoughtful approach that prioritizes transparency, accountability, and fairness — with clear communication on how data is managed and used and for what purposes — can be liberating for organizations, for municipalities, and for the individuals involved. Prioritizing this more careful, deliberate, and informed conversation on data governance between city governments and private sector businesses could be a next step on the path to potential collaboration. 

How Can Smart Buildings Support Sustainability?

Even though there are still clear technical, ethical, and organizational issues to resolve, the urgency of climate change calls for radical thinking about how smart buildings and smart cities can contribute to sustainability solutions. As the earth’s rising temperature disrupts historic weather patterns, communities are met with a surprising number of unpredictable disasters including hurricanes, flooding, fires, earthquakes, and more. Smart technology can provide real-time metrics on the status of people and property during emergency situations.

While it is impossible to predict which smart systems will be more resilient than others when communities are ravaged by storms, earthquakes, or fires, often the first systems to be restored are those affecting critical infrastructure like electricity, water, and internet-based communication. Sensored devices can provide important data to system operators about the status of power lines or cellular towers and accelerate communication between response crews and with the public. For building owners and managers, data from smart building control systems can provide remote information on the structure’s status, which is helpful to inform distressed tenants who may be displaced along with their workforce. 

Beyond an immediate crisis, smart systems can also accelerate recovery. Following Hurricane Harvey, approximately 12 percent of the buildings in Houston were flooded. In the wake of the disaster, Jesse Bounds, the director of innovation for the city of Houston, rallied partners across the region to come together and implement data-informed approaches to simulate possible scenarios, and to forecast and plan for future events. 

In a 2020 StateTech article, Bounds describes how the storm inspired a more tech-forward city vision. “It aligned all of our partners around the theme of building back better, which our mayor often talks about.” One example of the many smart city efforts in the city of Houston is the application of “low-cost, high-impact” flood-detection sensors. Mounted to city street poles, the sensors send data to the regional transportation system and rapidly inform the public. This pilot is being tested in partnership with Rice University in hopes of a citywide deployment.

Before disaster strikes, there is much that can be done with smart buildings to help cities meet sustainability goals in an effort to decrease the impact of climate change. Often, cities turn to mobility and transportation issues in an attempt to decrease the number of carbon-emitting vehicles. They may also cite intended land use as a way to increase green space or encourage walkability. These efforts, while important and well intended, are simply not enough. 

Commercial buildings are an untapped asset in terms of marking the sustainability of an urban area. Building data and performance, particularly in high-density (downtown) areas, are a critical and substantial part of any smart city. Smart buildings are the missing link to realizing the potential of smart technology, data, and analysis on a citywide scale. 

Although we have a long way to go in the quest to optimize cities’ operations by integrating smart building data within municipal boundaries, we are faced with an exciting opportunity: to leverage connected technology and share data in a safe and secure way in order to mark, measure, and mitigate the impact of climate change and to explore collective solutions. Architects have a clear role to play in this evolution as arbiters among design, function, and public impact. Input from designers, developers, engineers, and builders provides informed and experienced perspectives on how digital tools can inform our physical space. 

Determining how we can optimize those elements to create improved urban experiences for all is an exciting area of research that will require city leaders to integrate a new level of expertise. Gaining a better understanding of how we use (or misuse) our urban systems can lead to better decisions about how we conserve and optimize our resources. Data and analytics on building design and the built environment offer support for reaching sustainability goals through measurable outcomes that support transparency, equity, and accountability.

Chelsea Collier is the founder of Digi.City and editor-at-large for Smart Cities Connect. She is pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin in the School of Information.

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