Is interoperability the new magic pill?

What is the next step in Smart Buildings? Making people smarter, right? People always come first, right? And isn’t the promise of interoperability going to improve our lives forever?

Smarter Building, Smarter You? — — — Only if interoperability is about people first, not technology first.

Let’s not forget — being human is okay

One of the mistakes we make in smart building technology is overlooking the human element. To be clear, many smart building technologies are designed to make things easier for us. But is the technology being designed to actually empower us? Or, more to the point, is it making our lives easier?

I’ve worked in thousands of buildings. What I see — over and over — is that in many cases technology in buildings is not necessarily making things easier. It’s true that more information is available. It’s true that we’ve automated many processes, and improved system’s efficiency. But it’s also true that building owners, managers and facility engineers are overloaded, fatigued by our collective failure to take their real-life needs into account.

Will interoperability solve our problems in buildings?

Interoperability is claimed to be the next level of smart in smart buildings. It represents a previously unachievable goal, in part because the technology didn’t exist before now, and in part because we have the skills to overcome daunting complexity.

The basic premise of interoperability is that it allows relationships to be established between automated systems. Ideally, it allows unlimited relationships, including the ability to accommodate third party apps and custom software solutions. To achieve this, standardization is needed.

But this is where an interesting turn occurs in the trail. Because when we talk about interoperability, there is always a fork in the road. And inevitably it seems, we always take the technical fork in the road, while somehow mostly missing the people-first fork in the road. That’s simply not good design.

Is the current vision for disruption the cure?

There is a growing recognition taking place within the built-environment of the need for a new highly disruptive model: a new “intelligent layer to manage assets.”

I believe the key to this particular lock — the grand promises of interoperability — is to back up to that fork in the road. But before we look at the key, let’s look at what’s going on — from the perspective of people who work in buildings.

Documentation & Information

Even something as seemingly simple as facility documentation has grown into a nightmare. According to Dr. Bill East and the National Institute of Building Sciences, “Facility managers have reported that this effort [to standardize] may require man-years of effort to create and review and transcribe hundreds of pages of documents, validate the transcriptions and manually enter data.”

In separate surveys of Facilities Managers, performed by the University of New Mexico and Sandia National Labs, it was revealed that as much as:

2–4 hours per work ticket is being wasted — time used up simply searching and looking for information.

It doesn’t take a great deal of thought to realize that managing information in buildings is out of control, and has been for decades, or arguably for centuries. Yet, where does ‘the interoperability focus’ inevitably go? Exclusively it is machine-based.

The current view — from the Buildings Get a Brain conference

“To achieve this intelligent infrastructure where hardware meets software for the benefit of natural resources, we must bridge the gap between clean technologies and the cloud. In the physical layer, customers are installing solar power, on-site fuel cells, or micro-turbines to generate their own power but aren’t able to share it with their closest neighbors. Customers are also increasingly adding batteries to store electricity, but don’t have the means to participate in demand response, or better manage their energy consumption. We see electric vehicles on the road, but charging points are still not connected to home energy management systems and do not allow users to source and sell electricity to an interactive grid. In order for these emerging systems to communicate effectively with each other, we need to find ways to connect the physical layer with the cloud. We must develop a middle layer — an intelligent layer — of sensors, data, software, analytics, and financing instruments. This new middle layer represents a massive economic opportunity across a number of different markets.”
“Realizing this vision is a challenge. All the elements are in place — renewable energy plants, buildings that are their own micro power plants, storage technologies, a smarter grid, electric vehicles, and decentralized water treatment — but we must develop that intelligent layer to manage these assets in an interactive, integrated, and seamless way.”
— — From an article by Cleantech Group CEO Sheeraz Haji — — [bold emphasis is mine]

I was struck how, predictably, the choice of focus in this quote was on technological prowess. And mind you, I don’t think Cleantech Group is actually wrong in what they are saying. I’m one of their enthusiasts.

Both perspectives can be correct. But I believe the secret — the actual key itself — lies in the phrase that we must develop “a new intelligent layer to manage these assets.” The secret is in realizing that phrases like this have more than one meaning, which means there are deeply disruptive solutions available if only we have the vision and insight to see them.

For much of my career I have been derided for being a champion of people first, and of placing importance on the so-called soft skills of project management and relationships. Perhaps surprisingly to some, one of the nation’s leading project management training instructors, Dr. James P. Lewis, once told me:

The companies who hire me want me to emphasize the three traditional pillars of project management: schedule, quality and budget. And no matter how many times I tell them that effective project management is 90% soft or people skills, they usually only want me to teach the three-pillar hard skills.

So, I understand that when I emphasize the importance of backing up to that fork in the road that, well… I get a lot of condescending stares. I’m told that, “You can’t quantify people, Mark. And to build energy efficient ROI models we need to quantify.” I believe I am addressing that in this short piece. 2–4 hours per work order is significant savings. And we uncovering these types of savings because we are putting people — or users, if that makes it sound better — first.

A more inclusive approach

Interoperability is being recognized as a ‘vital essential’ in moving the yardstick forward in managing smart and even not-so-smart buildings. Interoperability is seen as the next level of ‘smart’, which is all about making things easier, more accessible, and providing instant delivery of information.

The “new intelligent layer” of interoperability, however, needs to be inclusive if it is to truly fulfill its promises. How would that look?. Well, it’s a bit of rewriting the script, but it’s really very simple:

  1. Interoperability needs to be inclusive.
  2. Interoperability should include both smart and not-so-smart buildings.
  3. Interoperability needs to empower people with the tools they need to both manage all this information, and to make their own lives and work easier and hopefully less stressful.

What’s more intelligent than people? Machines are not the new intelligent layer to ‘manage things’. We are.