New technologies based on the Internet of Things (IoT) are facilitating innovative solutions for the management of office buildings. The benefits include the more efficient use of premises, improved air quality, and better services. In a similar way, IoT technologies are also being used in the development of “smart cities”.
Requirements of office properties are changing
Over the last few years, the digitalization trend has established itself in almost all walks of life. The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent surge in demand for digital solutions have accelerated this trend dramatically. Office buildings have also been affected, particularly as changing work habits are allowing greater flexibility in terms of work location and working hours. Start-ups such as the Zurich-based proptech company Akenza are developing innovative platforms based on the Internet of Things (IoT) for the management of office premises, thereby helping office property owners and managers meet the new requirements being made of office space.
Internet of Things (IoT) offers innovative solutions
The IoT essentially enables almost any physical or virtual object to be connected to and communicate with another object via a network. IoT users have already proved that the use of connected devices opens up new horizons for business processes and models, as well as for smart products and services. The interconnectedness and integration of things facilitate the development of innovative solutions for any number of key challenges of the modern world.
IoT platform as key to integration of “things”
Building an IoT solution is a complex undertaking, however. Akenza has therefore built an IoT platform that allows companies and indeed entire cities to easily develop their own smart solutions. The platform acts as a bridge between the physical world and the cloud. It makes it possible to connect very different types of sensors (e.g. for monitoring air quality, human presence, and temperature) via different technologies (e.g. LoRaWAN, NB-IoT, LTE-M, 5G) and manage the resulting data in a single location such as a public or private cloud (Fig. 47). The corresponding data can then be visualized directly on the platform itself or in an app. This in turn enables users from all kinds of different areas (such as transportation, retail, healthcare) to develop their own intelligent solutions with minimal IT knowledge.
Optimization of office buildings
An area where IoT can deliver numerous efficiency gains is facility management. The management of office premises is becoming increasingly complex for facility managers, particularly as tenants have been seeking greater working flexibility since the outbreak of COVID-19. The installation of occupancy sensors, for example, can help with the management of office premises and provide employees with a better working environment. For example, infrared sensors can be fitted to desks or in meeting rooms. The sophisticated business intelligence module designed by Akenza can read the data from thousands of sensors, and then display this in user-defined office maps to provide a real-time snapshot of both desk and room occupancy, as well as the corresponding KPIs on their usage (Fig. 48). Employees and departmental heads can therefore see where desks are free on the corresponding electronic screens. Tools of this kind are popular with companies as they help employees with the changeover to flexible desk-sharing models. Such models could become more widely accepted and promoted as a result.
Saving on office space
The monitoring of office premises facilitates the identification of unexploited space potential, which can in turn reduce the total amount of space required. Through the tracking of desk and meeting room occupancy, statistics can be produced that can help evaluate optimization potential (Fig. 49). Based on these evaluations, empty or underused meeting rooms or collaborative working areas can be eliminated, and new space usage concepts validated. For example, one client of Akenza had an ongoing problem of insufficient meeting rooms. With the help of occupancy monitoring, it was identified that the company’s meeting rooms were not actually being used in 20% of bookings. This gave the client a crucial insight into the need to optimize internal processes. Another example of the use of Akenza’s IoT technology was the new global headquarters of Zurich Insurance Group. As part of an overall renovation, building monitoring and other facility management functionalities were implemented to increase the convenience and wellbeing of employees and visitors alike.
Air quality important to employee wellbeing
The importance of a healthier office environment for the wellbeing of a workforce has become particularly apparent since the outbreak of COVID-19. Recent studies2 have shown that the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) indoors can impair a person’s wellbeing and ability to perform. Poor air quality due to high concentrations of CO2 has been linked to detrimental cognitive effects such as poor decision-making, a lack of focus, and drowsiness. Humans typically start exhibiting physical effects at concentrations of 900 parts per million (ppm) – by way of comparison, outdoor air typically has a CO2 concentration of around 400 ppm. Indeed, there have been frequent recordings of indoor office concentrations in excess of 1,000 ppm, with peaks of over 2,000 ppm. In order to tackle this problem, companies need to be able to measure air quality on their own premises.
Dedicated climate monitoring sensors can be used to track CO2 levels, temperature, and humidity in indoor areas (Fig. 50). An IoT platform monitors air quality continuously and reacts automatically when a set of predefined rules has been met. The corresponding alert can be transmitted via text, email, or visual notification (e.g. change in the color of a connected source of light). In an ideal scenario, the IoT system will be connected to the facility management system that operates the window blinds and ventilation system.
IoT delivers services more rapidly, expediently, and efficiently
As home working and flexible working hours have become more widespread, facility managers also need to adapt to greater fluctuation in the usage of washrooms and common areas. IoT solutions can help here. For example, magnetic sensors can count the number of times a door opens and therefore track toilet usage. This makes it easier to manage cleaning cycles and optimize personnel deployment. In addition, “service-on-demand” solutions are an efficient tool for increasing service quality and efficiency. Service on-demand is based on a very simple piece of hardware: a connected button (Fig. 51): By touching the button, clients and employees can notify personnel and trigger a predefined process. The potential areas of application are almost limitless, extending from cleaning to reporting a faulty printer or triggering an alarm. By integrating buttons of this kind into workflow reporting, processes can be automated, reactions to a delicate situation accelerated, and satisfaction levels of employees improved. To bring this technology speedily to a wide variety of clients, Akenza has teamed up on a long-term basis with ISS, one of the world’s largest facility management companies, to make plug&play IoT applications available to ISS clients.
IoT also deployed in fight against COVID-19
In Switzerland, the Federal Council responded to the growing number of COVID-19 infections by imposing strict measures to contain the pandemic. Companies had to take measures to increase the physical distance between employees, particularly in communal areas such as work canteens and other places where queues form. People-counting is an effective prevention tool for tracking human traffic flows and avoiding overcrowding. This is made possible by counting sensors – such as those developed by the high-tech company Xovis based in Bern, which has grown its business by installing such sensors in airports around the world. This type of sensor counts human traffic and transfers the latest figures to the cloud. The solution does not capture personal data and is compliant with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. Employees and visitors to office buildings are informed about human traffic flows in real time via dedicated signage screens, a web app, or directly on their mobile phones (Fig. 52). While transmission of the virus obviously cannot be wholly avoided through this mechanism, people are sensitized to crowd flows and can adapt visiting times accordingly.
IoT as basis for smart cities
The Internet of Things is being used not just for the digitalization of office buildings, but also for the digital transformation of entire cities. All across Europe, municipalities and utility companies are launching “smart city” initiatives to improve quality of life, manage resources more efficiently, optimize processes, and deliver innovative services. The digitalization of our cities will open up an array of opportunities with numerous areas of application, such as intelligent parking systems, smart energy metering (electricity, heat, water), and outdoor monitoring of air quality and water levels. Another area of application open not just to private companies but also municipalities is asset tracking in connection with mobile infrastructures. For example, the police and other emergency services can pinpoint their vehicles and equipment at all times, and therefore deploy them in an expedient way.
Zurich evolving into smart city
In Zurich, the city-owned utility provider (ewz) has implemented an energy-efficient communication network (Low Range, Wide Area Network or LoRaWAN) as part of its digital “smart city” strategy, the aim being to deploy sensors across the city – particularly in areas where there is no electricity supply or fiber-optic data connection infrastructure. This enables data to be transferred between the numerous sensors installed in public areas (including buildings) and the corresponding computing centers. The application for managing the sensors is produced by Akenza and made available through Microsoft’s local Azure cloud. Users and operators can manage their sensors and analyze data on this scalable platform. On this basis, the city of Zurich has been testing the implementation of a smart parking system for an e-car station that displays the current availability of outside parking spaces (including charging stations). Given such innovative developments, it is not surprising that the IMD Business School ranked Zurich in an outstanding third place in its 2020 Smart City index.