You walk into a room and the lights turn on. You look back and the lights are off in the room you just left. The temperature is perfect. You leave for work and all of your doors lock themselves. Your security system is armed automatically. Have you accidentally stepped through a time warp into the home of the future? Are you on the set of the latest sci-fi blockbuster? No. This is not the stuff of fantasy; this is the reality of today’s “smart” home. And it’s getting “smarter”.
With sensors to detect temperature, humidity, air quality – even carbon monoxide or radon, these buildings are often more aware of their environments than the people that inhabit them.
Of course the “smart” home is one type of smart building, but the majority of smart buildings are not residential; they are commercial or municipal. Today, building automation systems are used to heat and cool individual rooms or spaces, control security cameras and alarms, lights, water distribution systems, elevators – in general, if it moves or changes, it can be automated.
Today, we have numerous buildings full of sensors, controllers, and smart appliances. As the technology is now known to help in reducing energy consumption and controlling emissions, we can all be confident that we will see many more in the future. In fact, we are seeing the emergence of entire “smart” cities.
The Tip of the Iceberg
With the advent of smart building technology, we are at the precipice of a world very different from the one we know. We are soon to see entire smart communities composed of smart buildings, smart cars that drive themselves on smart highways lined by smart street signs and smart billboards.
And why are these smart buildings and smart cities necessary? Haven’t we done just fine without them? While that is certainly debatable, it is becoming difficult to deny that urban areas around the world have infrastructures that are severely strained by ever-increasing populations. The World Health Organization reports that in 2010 more than half of the world’s population lived in cities. They estimate that the number will increase to 60% by 2030. The United Nations estimates it will be over 70% by 2050. With power distribution systems, water management systems, sanitation systems, transportation systems and more encumbered by increased demand, and with the budget constraints that most municipalities face, there is a strong push toward increased efficiency and sustainability in cities around the world. Additionally, many governments are now enforcing laws mandating cleaner technologies and reduced emissions.
The world in which we live is changing, as is the way we live in it. There are some obvious benefits, and as with any change there are some significant concerns.
What’s the Downside?
In the midst of all of the excitement about cleaner, more efficient cities with less waste and lower emissions, a few voices still can be heard crying “Stay out of my business, big brother!”. So, what happens when these technologies become tools for policing the population? Is there a line that has been crossed when some organization decides when your doors should be locked? Or what about whether or not your car will start? What if automation technology can be used to deny services to people based on arbitrary criteria? Are we moving too quickly into the future?
While some of these questions may seem like the unsettled ramblings of a reclusive conspiracy theorist, there are many people who consider these to be valid concerns. These are not new questions, though, and similar questions surface nearly every time a significant technological advance is made. There are far too many benefits to building a smarter infrastructure to think that it may not happen. It most certainly is happening right now, and the benefits are already being measured. While there may be legitimate concerns, the concerns will be addressed. There is more value in preparing ourselves for the reality of what's happening than in denying it.
Consider the Upside
Some of the benefits of smart building technology are cited above, including greater efficiency, reduced waste, less pollution, fewer accidents. These are obvious benefits that can save municipalities a great deal of money, while simultaneously creating a cleaner, more efficient world for us all. These technologies can reduce – maybe even eliminate – our dependence on fossil fuels. These technologies can create cleaner air, safer streets, and healthier, happier citizens.
While there may be some valid concerns, information and communication will help to alleviate many of them. We are living in a time with virtually unlimited access to information. There is no longer any good reason for us to live in ignorance. If we can stay aware of the new technologies that are being introduced into our environments, and stay abreast of any legislation that supports these new technologies, there is no reason for us to fear the future. What’s more important is the type of life we can lead in this “smart” world. Imagine a world of healthy people with more free time and fewer expenses. What new possibilities can come from a life unencumbered by the tedium of performing these simple daily tasks? This can be a liberating experience if we let it.
As our environments become more aware of us and our needs, new opportunities will arise. And these opportunities are not purely financial. There are real opportunities to improve the quality of our lives, and it is happening every day.