Over the years, the term "smart city" has made its way into the commercial real estate vernacular, but a clear definition remains elusive. With many property professionals still working to implement the latest smart trends, most of which are tech-based, in their own buildings, a potential citywide application raises an entirely new set of implications for the industry to consider.
But, don’t jump into planning out flying car accommodations for your building just yet. Let’s turn to experts on the subject for their perspectives on the most foundational question of all: What is a smart city?
If you’re struggling to find the answer to that question, you’re not alone. In fact, most experts in the field agree that the smart city concept is framed by the professional lens of the individual using it. One insightful interpretation comes from an individual who has led urban design projects across the world. James Moore, PhD, design principal with Jacobs, characterizes a smart city as one that’s able to "optimize the use of readily available, renewable resources to provide a sustainable, high-quality life for all of its residents now and into the future." You’ll notice that Moore’s definition doesn’t specifically mention technology; rather, he believes smart integration—or optimizing the use of data and information—is a means to advancing these goals, no matter what technology is employed.
FROM MICRO TO MACRO
The notion that technology can be used in cities to improve operations and enhance the inhabitants’ experience is similar to the one driving many building owners to implement smart technology within their individual buildings. According to Cleve Adams, CEO of Site 1001, this is because smart integration begins at the property level. He reports that Americans spend an estimated 90 percent of their lives indoors, and, as such, the work done by property professionals to improve the conditions of these indoor spaces is crucial. Through this lens, Adams suggests that a smart city does not exist without smart buildings. And, what is a smart building? To Adams, it means using the power of technology to guide all decisions in relation to occupant comfort.
Moore also identifies how a property professional could employ technology to advance city initiatives and make things, well, smarter. He explains that many cities mandate designated parking for specific uses, which can result in a significant amount of unused acreage when peak parking times have passed. These mandates exist to improve the experience of citizens who visit their buildings; in recognizing this, property owners and managers have the opportunity to make things better. Moore suggests that a data aggregation technology could be employed to monitor and analyze parking usage, which could then lead owners and managers to work with the commercial buildings nearby to borrow or donate spaces as demand changes.
Many modern commercial buildings are already using smart technologies to streamline operations. Popular technologies will gather all kinds of building data—from lighting and water use to repair requests—and use artificial intelligence (AI) to produce predicted outcomes and recommended actions based on that data. Property managers then can view those recommended actions on the platform’s dashboard or set the actions to occur automatically through IoT-enabled (Internet of Things) devices.
Adams proposes other ways buildings can use technology to communicate, not only within themselves, but with other neighboring buildings as well. For instance, he explains that one potential application might involve "a building with a solar roof communicating to other buildings in the community that it has excess power, allowing it to shift energy to a building that needs it." Adams also believes that, if given the opportunity to communicate, buildings could learn from one another to improve their operations.
There are other ways buildings can communicate with neighboring buildings. If given the opportunity to communicate, buildings could learn from one another to improve their operations.
But, commercial real estate practitioners aren’t the only ones called to aid in these smart integration initiatives. Terry Connell, senior vice president of Sales Operations at Comcast Business, looks at smart cities as an "obligation for technology providers to help the entire community get more productive and have access to things that they didn’t previously have access to." He emphasizes the need for solutions that harness the power of technology, specifically the internet, to add value to a person’s life. He believes cities and providers alike should ensure all community members have access to these resources by offering lower-cost internet solutions to those who cannot afford them otherwise.
Many of the smart solutions on the market are derived from the need to improve how buildings utilize the data that they—sometimes unintentionally—collect. Adams feels strongly about the potential value of this information, which data aggregation platforms can transform into powerful operational insights.
But, according to Adams, no ordinary data aggregation platform will do. Rather, an effective system "must collect data into one building operating system," he says, "and that operating system needs to be able to decide the best direction for your building based on that information."
The same is true when you scale up this data collection to the city level—the data needs to be made actionable. Moore breaks down the process that makes this possible, sharing that "data are bits of information; information is this data placed into a collective whole; and knowledge is understanding how to apply that kind of information, which all ultimately leads to what you might even call wisdom: taking this knowledge and integrating it into a purposeful, meaningful, locally relevant continuum."
FROM POINT A TO POINT B
So, how is this technology being applied in today’s cities? Many locales are looking toward smart solutions to improve mobility issues. According to Moore, modern cities should be thinking about how they can move from transportation as a system to transportation as a service. The difference: A system submits to the standard, traditional idea that people move from Point A to Point B by using a single dominant mode—e.g., private vehicles—while a service provides people with a variety of options and empowers them with the information to choose wisely from among them. Moore thinks this represents "the ideal use of information within a city. By giving people a variety of options, you help them make the decision that works best for them."
Many of the smart solutions on the market are derived from the need to improve how buildings utilize the data that they—sometimes unintentionally—collect, which data aggregation platforms can transform into powerful operational insights.
He identifies Sydney, Australia, as one city working to make its transportation network more of a service than a system. The plan includes a smartphone-accessible technology platform to help customers plan their journeys, with the added ride redemption options from their "personal mobility package"—a bundle deal on ride services across traditional and newer mobility modes. This sense of flexibility incentivizes the public to diversify their means of transportation and, in doing so, reduce traffic.
Moore also points to the emersion of e-scooters (see more about e-scooters on pages 8-9) as potentially helpful technologies to improve the "last-mile problem" and provide easier transitions between two points, such as the office and subway station. In this sophisticated age of technology, Moore expects that smarter mobility options will continue to surface, driving the need for cities to remain open to exploring them. Property practitioners should also stay alert to how mobility improvements will increase public access to commercial buildings and the implications within this change.
Technology continues to push the bounds of what can be accomplished both within individual buildings and the cities in which they belong. While there is no definitive guide to what elevates a solution from ordinary to "smart," experts suggest that it might involve a balance of new technology, considering both future and historical contexts and seeking to advance what is currently in place. For certain, the opportunity to enhance the wellbeing of building occupants and the general population alike offers the commercial real estate industry one very smart reason to take the next step.