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The difference between futurism and the future

Is an Intelligent Building utopia or dystopia? Steve Gale asks the question.


2 min read

In commercial real estate, the concept of the intelligent building is enjoying a revival. Technology can extract economic efficiency from buildings, and make us happier and possibly more productive at work. Has its day arrived, or has the intelligent building yet to come of age?

The optimism of 30 years ago was summarised in a paper by workplace consultancy, DEGW, called ‘The Intelligent Building in Europe’. It described how buildings would move and breathe according to the demands of its occupants, and predicted lifts arriving when needed, shades adapting to the position of the sun and air conditioning cranking up automatically in busy areas.

DEGW saw programmable buildings; they could not see occupants interacting directly. This was before smartphones and cloud storage. The age of big data and machine learning was yet to dawn. Just like Fritz Lang in his 1927 film, Metropolis, the future turns out different to the futurist vision.

Smartphones, broadband and cloud applications now allow systems to be democratised, and cheap reliable sensors generate data for machine learning algorithms. Building occupants are actively and passively involved. How will they accept their place in its evolution?

The technology that helps us find and book parking spaces, meeting rooms, or a vacant desk, is an easy sell, as long as it works and is user friendly. The same goes for recognising meeting participants and painlessly starting video technology, just as car owners are happy when their vehicle unlocks the door and adjusts the seat before they get in.

However, can automation and remote control improve all work activities? Here are three points of potential failure.

Humans seem to be more analogue than digital, and interacting through a smartphone is not always the answer.

Communal environments are always tricky, like temperature, window blinds and shutters, lighting levels, or even music playing in the background. Who decides? How do we make everyone happy with the outcome? Democratised tech on your phone does not solve this problem.

Another area is space monitoring. Sensors record the use of meeting rooms and desks, but it’s not always welcomed if people fear it might be used to ‘engage low performers’, as Barclays Bank stated four years ago. And ask the Daily Telegraph employees, who literally threw out their monitoring system days after it was switched on. Trust was not installed with the kit, and it failed. Completely.

Finally, there is pleasure in being able to act directly. Humans seem to be more analogue than digital, and interacting through a smartphone is not always the answer. When you walk into a stuffy meeting room it can be rewarding to fling open a window, which is not the same as using an app to adjust the air conditioning, or issuing voice commands. Will you always be happy to order food through your phone, if you prefer to wander up to the cafeteria to smell the cooking and see what others are eating?

The line between a useful AI application and a dehumanising experience has not yet been drawn. After a million years of dealing with variety, we might not be ready to have our environment made quite so predictable and effortless.

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