IBM's building whisperer: If we want smarter cities, we start with smarter buildings

Fri, 2013-04-05 11:47 -- Liz Enbysk

Would you turn up the heat in your home when it's hot outside and your air conditioner is running? Of course you wouldn't because it wouldn't provide the comfort you were looking for and it would be a waste of money. And you wouldn't leave the lights on all day and night, either.

But those are examples of how separate systems work in many larger buildings: separate systems operating in an uncoordinated and often counter-productive way. David Bartlett, VP of Smarter Buildings at IBM, has a far different vision of what smarter buildings, and by extension, smarter cities can be.

At a speaking engagement on smarter buildings at the University of Cape Town, he outlined what his vision is and how to achieve it. Quoted in an article posted on ITWeb, Bartlett said "Buildings are talking to us, and if we can just learn to listen to them holistically, we can learn to heal them of their wild energy and water-wasting ways."

Buildings consume an average of 42% of the world's available electricity, and that number is expected to exceed 50% by 2025.

Bartlett is referred to as the "building whisperer" in the industry and he has what can best be described as a "physiology of buildings" approach to highlight how buildings work and should be managed for maximum sustainability and efficiency. It's an amusing but fairly accurate designation for Bartlett and his approach.

"In today's world, the systems that run in a building are running separately. If you look at construction practices, from architecture, to design to construction to operations, they're all done in silos," Bartlett said. "This lack of holistic management of a building leads to a lot of the inefficiencies we see, in the life cycle from the way it's built and repurposed and retrofitted, to the way it's operated."

He also referred to statistics from The Climate Group's Smart 2020 study, which noted that the ICT sector can cut 15% of global emissions in 2020, largely by pushing energy efficiency into areas like energy, buildings, industry and transport. And another that predicts 50 billion machine-to-machine connections by 2020 – which will provide information that will "make climate change visible" as it monitors impacts and emissions.

"The Smart 2020 study stepped back and said if we could just effectively apply existing communication and IT to the building space, there could be an opportunity to realize as much as $341 billion difference by the year 2020. That speaks to the enormous potential of technology in this space, as well as the business opportunity – which is why we got into it," Bartlett said.

And the building industry has reached a tipping point. The tremendous growth of instrumentation in the built environment  means enormous quantities of data are being generated, from lighting systems, security systems, and energy management systems.

"There is a lot of instrumentation that is enabling this tipping point. The ability to connect it all so you can holistically understand how everything is working together is again at the tipping point, because of wireless technology, so we can do it at a great price point." That data fed through analytics can point the way to maximizing energy, but also maintenance and how to best use space. "If you don't have good visibility of your buildings, and access to that data on a real-time basis, then how do you make decisions?"

While Bartlett sees plenty wrong with how buildings are managed and operated in terms of efficiency, but he's looking forward to a future when that changes. "I'm excited about us leveraging technology that is largely to blame for the problems of the last 15 or so years, and using it in a very positive way to conserve the precious resources we have."

Read more about IBM Smarter Buildings initiatives >>