The return of Athens and Sparta, or the Rise of the Corporate State?

This blog was written by BSRIA's Henry Lawson

This blog was written by BSRIA’s Henry Lawson

For those of us who have been following the development of smart cities and smart government over the past few years, it has become more and more obvious that it is not only, perhaps not even mainly about the rapid advances in smart technology and the IoT. It is also about the social and political underpinning, who will control the developments and how far they will be allowed to go.

Recently we have seen a few useful straws in the wind. Last month, as some of you may have already noticed, the UK voted, by a narrow but decisive majority to leave the European Union. This will be the first time in its almost 60 years that the EU has contracted rather than expanded, and moreover losing its second biggest economy.

Partly in direct consequence, there is now a distinct possibility that Scotland in turn will leave the UK, which would leave the UK barely half the size physically than it was less than a century ago (prior to the secession of most of the island of Ireland). What is much less noted is how much more fragmented the world as a whole has become.

A century ago Europe was dominated by a few empires. Now, following the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the threatened fraying of the EU, there are a whole swathe of countries that either never knew an independent existence before or did so only transiently, especially in Eastern Europe. From Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus, to Croatia and Montenegro, Scotland could potentially re-emerge after 300 years followed perhaps by Catalonia. In the world as a whole there are almost 200 countries that can claim some degree of independence, and many more seeking it.

What has this to do with the way the smart world is organised? Quite a lot, actually. Evidence suggests that one of the things many people in the UK were voting “against’ was the power of global corporate forces that are moulding our lives, with Brussels seen as their eager collaborator. I Personally take a rather different view, that it is precisely corporate power, which is being reinforced by technological advances that means that if something like the EU did not exist, we would need to invent it, or perhaps more accurately, we need something that moves on from the original vision of the EU to reflect the more complex world that we are now moving into.

Business of course already operates on a global scale. The world’s most valuable corporation, Walmart – which let us not forget, also owns one of the UK’s leading supermarkets, would if it were a country, rank 26th in the world, just behind Belgium, and indeed ahead of 2/3 of the members of the current EU. If we focus in more on direct players in smart technology, Apple would rank 44th, putting it on a level with such a technologically sophisticated country as Finland. And Microsoft, which now only just makes it into the world’s top 50 corporations, makes more money than any of the 10 smallest EU members.

It seems obvious to me that, if such corporations are not to be dominating political decisions, as well as the technology, then a degree of cooperation between governments is needed, something possibly very like the EU, which has at least forced corporates like Google and Microsoft to sit up and take notice.

Another fascinating trend, that takes us perhaps in a slightly different direction, is the fact that so many of the world’s richest and most technologically advanced countries are in fact city states, or something very like it. According to the IMF, the top 10 countries with the highest per capita GDP, included six oil producers (no surprise there),  but also four that could be described as “city states” or something like it, namely Luxembourg, Singapore, San Marino and Hong Kong  – taken separately from the rest of China.

Now of course very small states have the option to attract business through tax incentives that are widely seen as underhand, in a way that simply is not feasible for larger countries. But what is also interesting is that both Singapore and Luxembourg have been to the fore in global smart city developments. There are clearly advantages where a government can focus on the needs of a city and its immediate surroundings and needs. Even in larger countries, cities and their regions are being accorded more power, or are demanding this.

And of course this is not a new trend. You can travel northern Europe, from Flanders to the Baltic States, and admire handsome cities that grew rich as part of the Hanseatic League, essentially a league of cities that dominated much of northern Europe’s trade for several centuries from the late middle ages onwards. Before that, the first major flowering of European civilisation, with huge leaps in philosophical and scientific understanding occurred in a scattering of Greek city states. And of course the discoveries, inventions and creativity of the Renaissance was cradled by Italian city states from Florence and Pisa to Venice and Mantua.

Linked to this, it perhaps tells us something that by and large, the UK’s biggest cities voted very differently in the EU referendum to the small towns and countryside, reflecting a different attitude. There’s a case for saying that Londoners, Parisians and Amsterdamers have more in common with each other in some ways than with their own hinterlands.

Could politics and technology therefore be moving us away from the old fashioned nation state, and perhaps away from massive continental alliances like the current incarnation of the EU, but towards alliances between small states and cities that have common interests and a common culture to protect?

One thing seems clear to me; if we want a future whether the major technology providers work for us, rather than one where we for them, then we need a major shake-up in the way the world is managed.

Have you been blackmailed by your Dishwasher? Who Owns the Smart Future?

This blog was written by BSRIA's Henry Lawson

This blog was written by BSRIA’s Henry Lawson

Having recently updated BSRIA’s key market studies on Building Automation Controls (BACS), Building Energy Management (BEMS) and Smart Evolution – towards the Internet of Everything, I was struck by a world in a state of flux with  implications for the built environment and technology in general that could be as profound as they are unpredictable.

The structure and make up of our buildings and cities have always been intensely political. The most visible of all human creations, they speak volumes about our abilities, our status and our values and our aspirations. I felt this last month  when viewing the ruins of Ephesus – once the second city of the Roman Empire –  as much as when  I am visiting London or Chicago.

At least since the turn of the millennium there has been a tacit assumption that while technology is the great enabler, much of the change in the way our buildings and cities are designed and organised will be driven by social concerns, typically expressed through politics. In particular, the perception that the threat of climate change requires far reaching action has led to a sustained series of targets, guidelines and regulations to increase both energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy, which naturally impacts on the built environment as one of the biggest consumers of energy.

Is this movement losing momentum? The financial crisis and recession affecting much of Europe, North America and some other parts of the developing world has proved to be the most prolonged since the 1930s. Even countries which appeared to escape the worst impact have since experienced either recession or a dramatic slowdown, including Australia, Canada and of course China.

With falling or stagnating production and rising government debt levels in so many countries, it is no surprise that finances and basic economics have come to the fore. Violent conflicts, especially in the Middle East, Africa  and Eastern Europe, but overflowing into other parts of the world, and in turn fuelling mass movements of refugees and economic migration are also seizing attention in developed countries as well.

All of this has sometimes appeared to leave the “green agenda” somewhat on the back foot. Even in countries like Germany, Austria, Australia and New Zealand, where Green parties have attracted mass support and had a major influence on government, they have seemed to become more marginalised. Britain’s recent elections resulted in a new majority government which has very quickly moved to relax requirements on the energy efficiency of new buildings, and also to phase out subsidies for wind power.

While there is argument as to how far this is simply a question of means, and how much it represents a shift in priorities, there is little doubt that measures to improve energy efficiency or to promote use of smart technology face an uphill path if they cannot also provide a quick pay-back.

Where governments get involved in technology, it tends to be for old fashioned economic reasons.  When  mega-corporations  like Microsoft, Apple, Google and Amazon have been in the spotlight it has mainly been because of accusations of anti-competitive practices or because of their tax policies. Rather less thought has been given to the ways in which companies like these could change the basic structure of society, the balance of power, and the whole environment.

Increasingly these global brands interact directly with a global audience, influencing their behaviour, and in turn being influenced by them. It is no accident that Microsoft, Apple, Google and Amazon, having established themselves as consumer brands, are now all active in the area of smart buildings, ranging from the smart home to, in Microsoft’s case, providing the data crunching to manage and optimise whole campuses of buildings.

Increasingly we can link these to wearable devices and to creators of virtual realities which could radically change our day to day activities and environment. Even the basic blocks  from which buildings are made can have ‘smart’ properties, from ‘self-healing’ bricks to glass that responds dynamically to different levels of light.

threatsWith artificial intelligence already surpassing human intelligence in certain well defined areas – such as chess playing – questions are raised about how far the technology goes, who owns it, and how much power they will have. Even our homes and offices can study, learn and predict our habits and our preferences, in ways that can certainly be useful, but also potentially disturbing.

For over a hundred years there have been fears about the prospect of vital areas of technology  being dominated by a single concern or perhaps a cabal of companies. So far, in practice, it has been innovation itself  that has come to the rescue. Even the most nimble footed technology giants have been caught off-guard by new waves of technology, from IBM, to Microsoft to Nokia. In the case of building technologies the requirements are particularly diverse, and  it is quite unusual to find a country where a single supplier accounts for more than 25%-30% of the market.

Nonetheless as we look to a future where corporations and, by implication, governments have access to information about almost every aspect of where we are, what we are doing, how we feel and what we want and fear.

While you can probably rest assured that your dishwasher probably doesn’t have a motivation to blackmail you (why were those extra glasses washed out at 3 o’clock last Thursday morning?) you can be less assured that it won’t soon have the evidence to do so.

More information about the latest editions of BSRIA’s market studies on Building Automation, Building Energy Management, and Smart Evolution is available here.

Summary and Opportunities – Smart Cities and Smart Energy


Bill Wright, Head of Energy Solutions, ECA

Bill Wright, Head of Energy Solutions, ECA, briefly summarised the BSRIA/ECA Conference in Dublin on the 11th June 2015 looking at previous papers and highlighting a few areas for further discussion / questioning . A few topics that came to the fore in the presentations were:

Sustainability – what actually is the meaning of this? Is a business sustainable if it is highly energy efficient, uses recycled materials and has a very low carbon footprint, or is a sustainable business about being in business tomorrow? It is best to be a combination of both but what is the best mix? Ethics can also come into this. A difficult question which can be discussed at length!

Another area for discussion is who pays for the infrastructure put in place for these Smart Cities? It is not so long ago that you paid for internet access in hotels and public areas, now it is generally regarded as being free, but is it? The costs are being absorbed into everyday prices as we begin to take internet access for granted. Ultimately we all pay. The installation of Smart meters and their operation will be paid for by higher energy bills, but it is hoped that the cost will be offset by lower energy usage. Time will tell.

Smart meters were discussed and compared between the UK and Ireland. The Irish ‘thin’ meter seems more compatible with major software changes as all the ‘intelligence’ is in a central processor unit, away from the meter. The UK version has its own processor. There is a danger it will be obsolete before the final units are installed.

Smart meters will bring remote monitoring down in price and improve availability of data as well as the reality of being able to monitor peoples’ actions in buildings. Another ethical question – how far do we go in this? Actions such as putting the kettle on or heating can be monitored bringing in the possibility of monitoring care homes – but this could lose the human contact.

There was considerable emphasis on Smart Grids and how the nature of power generation was changing as renewable energy sources at the periphery of the grid network were providing an increasing proportion of the power required for a country. Networks were designed for central power plants distributing electricity to the periphery, not the other way round. Considerable effort has to be put in to keep the system stable as the proportion of renewable or local energy sources proliferate. New standards were being developed as part of the international wiring regulations on how to integrate all these systems together. These may appear in the next edition of the UK IET Wiring Regulations, BS7671.

There was mention of the European super grid where power can be transmitted east to west or north to south to enable power to be generated in the most advantageous places and move to meet peak demands in various countries at different times.

All of this will be controlled by, or use the internet for communication. How secure is this? Many examples are available of systems being hacked into and taken over. How can this be stopped when we become ever more reliant on secure communications? Systems must be designed in such a way so as to be impregnable!

The redevelopment of the Dublin Institute of Technology was given as a good example of sustainable development where many systems, design and construction could be integrated on a new site to give an excellent performing series of buildings. Good initial design and programming the construction is the key to the success of this.

All of this brings the building controls industry into greater importance and our profession must grasp this and ensure that systems are designed and installed to the highest standards. This gives many opportunities to get involved, especially on the installation side where it is deemed to be at present strictly for specialists. New areas of building design such as power over data and LVDC systems should be grasped and brought into use to improve energy use and overall sustainability. The recent announcement by Tesla of the home battery system to enable PV systems to store energy to be used overnight is an exciting development which we can all use.

We are working in exciting times and it is great to be in the Building Services Industry. Let’s keep ourselves at the forefront of technology for the good of all.

The presentations from the Energy and Sustainability Network event are available to download from the BSRIA website. 

Smart Building Conference – The Human Factor

This blog was written by BSRIA's Henry Lawson

This blog was written by BSRIA’s Henry Lawson

On 7th October I attended the SmartBuilding Conference in central London, in the course of which we were treated to the views of a range of industry-experts including BSRIA’s own Jeremy Towler.  Like all worthwhile conferences, it presented a mixture of familiar messages being elaborated and reinforced – such as the all too frequent gap between the vision and the delivery of smart buildings, and the vital role of retrofit in a world where 80% of the buildings we will be using in 2050 have already been built, and some less familiar insights. These are some of the main points that I took away.

While we often talk, rather platitudinously about, buildings, or businesses being “all about people”, we spend less time thinking about what this really means in practice.  An often overlooked fact is that people’s statements of what they want is often a poor guide to how they will actually take to new technology. This is not just because we often lack the understanding and vision of what is possible (as in the famous Henry Ford quote that “What people ‘really wanted’ was not cars, but faster horses.”), but also because (as every psychologist knows) we are much less rational and consistent in our judgements than we like to think we are. This places a premium on observing how people actually use buildings and adapting them and, even more so, future buildings.

Effectively observing and responding to the way people use buildings has wider implications.  One speaker suggested that the general move from a product-based to a serviced-based approach (as exemplified by cloud based solutions and the increasing tendency to lease equipment and facilities) is likely to penetrate from the “easy hits” to the more general areas of building services and smart technology, even potentially to the concept of a “building as a service”, where those who design and construct and configure the building are also those responsible for running it, helping to combat a problem where a building is designed supposedly to be smart, by people who then walk away having handed it to a completely different group, resulting in a loss of understanding, continuity and accountability.

Having buildings that genuinely learn and evolve in response to users’ changing needs over time calls for flexible and adaptable approach to design and construction so that they can cope better with changing needs. One way of achieving this is by using more modular construction techniques, which can at the same time reduce construction costs. Project Frog which has been responsible for a number of modular buildings in the USA was cited as an example of this.

Where an end-to-end approach is lacking, smart technology is too often a late add-on which means that it is not fundamentally designed into the building, and that those implementing it lack a connection with the original concept.

With IT increasingly at the heart of buildings, IT departments need to be involved from the early stages, and if engaged correctly they can help identify and address problems, including some of the most potentially serious challenges such as building cyber security.  Too many organisations still see IT and Facilities Management as separate disciplines to be kept siloed.  This can lead to failures of communication, and worst case, to actual conflicts.
There was also a lot of discussion of the role of more specific types of technology. For example, wireless technology is recognised as a useful backup, and for fixes to problems where the building can’t easily be rewired (historic buildings come to mind here) or where a ‘cheap and cheerful’ solution is sought, but is unlikely to become reliable enough for critical services, owing to fundamental problems of potential interference and obstructions which can arise unpredictably. This reminds us that “You cannae change the laws of physics” is a maxim that extends well beyond grainy back-editions of Star Trek.

There was much discussion of the way in which companies that have not traditionally been thought of as buildings- related, even in the most technological way. BSRIA research has already identified how IT companies like IBM and Microsoft are starting to make an impact in the world of smart buildings, now joined by Google and Apple, especially at the residential end of the market. This raises intriguing questions. On the one hand these companies bring not only deep knowledge of key areas of IT, especially in processing ‘big data’, on the other they  also have massive financial resources and proven commercial acumen, which could help to spearhead and open up  new markets.

However there are also fears that the delivery model typically deployed by companies like Google and Apple may not lend themselves to the more complex demands of building management. Simply buying a “smart home kit” from an Apple or DIY store is unlikely in itself to give you the hoped-for results in terms of improved energy efficiency, comfort and security. This could even lead to a consumer backlash that sets back the technology. There was a consensus that consumers will need experts who can provide advice and also ensure that systems are properly implemented. This in turn requires a range of skills broader than the “traditional” electrician, plumber, heating engineer or security engineer.

We were reminded that major disruptive technologies are normally led by new entrants into the field, posing a challenge to the major established players. Indeed it seems quite likely to me that the companies that are leading the field in 20 years’ time could well be ones that most of us haven’t heard of, or which don’t yet exist.

I left the conference slightly haunted by one further thought: We heard a lot about how buildings must learn and adapt to their users’ actual needs and behaviour. This led me to wonder how far this change, if it emerges and it surely will, will in turn change actual human behaviour.

Since our ancestors emerged from the forests and savannah thousands of years ago, humans have gradually been losing the need to be acutely aware of the physical world around them. First there was the loss of contact with the wilderness, and nature “red in tooth and claw”. Then the industrial revolution alienated us increasingly from the basic processes of producing food and the physical manipulation of nature.

Smart conferenceThe electronic revolutions mean that we need to understand less and less about the way that for example, our cars or heating systems or computers operate and indeed we meddle with them at our peril.

If even buildings and cities come to observe, know and “understand” us and anticipate our actions, will humans then become, physically at least, almost wholly reliant on outside intelligence, and end up, in effect almost leading an artificially controlled ‘virtual’ existence, and what role will human intelligence then play as opposed to artificial intelligence?

This might seem far-fetched, but big changes often tend to occur much faster than anticipated, and often, far from being incremental, can depend on sudden tipping points. There are also of course  formidable barriers, not least the public reaction to the prodigious level of data sharing that would be needed to make all of this even remotely possible.

Nonetheless, I for one find it intriguing that the development of the smart building could just be part of the gradual emergence of a new “breed” of human, in terms of what they think and more importantly how they interact with the world.  Could we be seeing the emergence of a kind of “virtual man” where the boundaries between the human and the buildings, vehicles and cities we use and inhabit are hopelessly blurred?

Building services now look more exciting today and indeed  look closer to science fiction than could have been imagined when BSRIA started out 59 years ago.

Smartening up the City

This blog was written by BSRIA's Henry Lawson

This blog was written by BSRIA’s Henry Lawson

There are some leaps in technology that seize the mind and imprint themselves indelibly on the memory. There can hardly be anyone over the age of 50 who doesn’t recall their grainy view of the first man on the Moon, and people who are quite a bit younger will remember when, say, paying a bill or booking a holiday online was still a novel experience.

There are other changes which, while they are already having far more impact on our lives than the Moon landings, seem to have crept up on us, almost by stealth. The advent of the Smart City looks very much like being one of the latter.

The Seminar Smart Cities and the Internet of Things, which BSRIA attended on 16th July, helped to flesh out some of these. One key factor is of course the sheer all-encompassing variety and complexity and scale of a modern city, as reflected in the technology required to support it. This was underlined by the presentations on the range of “smart” cities, from major building consultants, to companies working closely with utilities, to data analytics companies.

This points to a pluralistic approach where different companies collaborate, each contributing their own particular skills, rather than one where a mega-corporation tries to orchestrate everything.  As one speaker pointed out, the smart car alone is likely to involve motor manufacturers, battery and power specialists, grid utilities, digital IT specialists, and the advertising and public relations industry (interestingly, two of the three first people I spoke to represented public relations companies). And that is before one gets on to the subject of the role of city and national authorities.

While the seminar focussed, understandably, on the elements that comprise the “Internet of Things”, making up ‘the nuts and bolts’ of the smart city, it also convinced me that we need to pay more attention to the wider social, political and economic context.

What makes a city smart? Given the combination of complexity and subjectivity, that is always going to be a hard question to answer. Nonetheless a group of academic institutions did rank 75 smart cities across Europe based on the “smartness” of their approach to the economy, mobility, the environment, people, living and governance.

When I measured the ranking of smart cities in each country against that country’s average income, I was struck, but not that surprised, that there was an almost linear correlation between a country’s wealth, and the ranking of its ‘smartest’ city. Thus at one extreme Luxembourg, easily the richest country in Europe, and second richest in the world, was also judged to have the smartest city. Lowest ranked was Bulgaria, which also had the lowest per capita income of all the countries on the list. Most other countries were in a ‘logical’ position in between.

Smartening up the city

One can of course argue whether smart cities are mainly a cause or a consequence of a country’s wealth. Up until now I suspect it is mainly a matter of richer countries being able to afford more advanced technology, not least because the relative economic pecking order has not changed that much in the past 25 years, i.e.. since before the smart city era really got underway, indeed if anything the countries on the bottom right of our chart have been catching up economically, which could be why countries like Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia are doing better in the smart city stakes than their income might suggest.

Luxembourg is of course unusual in one other significant respect. In terms of size, and population, it is about the size of a city, and is politically and economically very much focussed on its eponymous capital city. This raises a question sometimes posed in other contexts: Is the “city state” making a comeback, and could this have a bearing on the development of the smart city? In this respect it surely speaks volumes that Singapore, probably the closest entity to a city state in the modern world is not only highly productive economically but frequently cited in the history of the smart city, going back to the days when it pioneered road pricing more than a generation ago, and one of the cities mentioned in this seminar.

If you are laying down the guidelines for a smart city then there are clearly advantages in having an authority with the resources and powers of a government, combined with the local knowledge and accessibility of a city.  But given that splitting up the world into hundreds if not thousands of new ‘city states’ does not look like a viable option, what can be done to create a framework in which smart cities can flourish in a way that is responsive to their citizens’ needs?

Even in larger countries, the Mayors of major cities are often heavyweight national figures, enjoying wide ranging  powers. This applies to cities like New York, Berlin, Paris and, more recently London. One of the most interesting developments in Britain is the growing recognition that while London is already in effect a global economic power, other cities have been struggling to keep up. While this problem long pre-dates the smart city, it speaks volumes that, with a general election due next year, all of the major parties are now committing to giving more powers to major cities outside of the capital, possibly with more directly elected mayors.

Given the nature of democratic politics there is still no guarantee that this will happen, especially given governments’ traditional reluctance to hand over power, but with Scotland likely to enjoy greater autonomy even if it votes to remain in the UK, the pressure to devolve more power to cities and regions in the rest of the UK will be that much greater.

Even this would not of itself promote smart cities, but it would mean that city mayors or leaders seeking to promote and coordinate smart city developments, and companies and interest groups looking for partners, would have much more powerful instruments within their grasp.

BSRIA’s Worldwide Market Intelligence team produces an annual report into Smart Technologies. To find out more go to our website

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