December 2019

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The Living, Breathing, Thinking, Learning

 - Human Smart Building
James McHale

James McHale,
Managing Director,

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The analogies between smart buildings and the human body persist reliably in industry media and analysis. While they are, in essence, nothing more than novel comparisons, they serve to help us understand the digital evolution of buildings in the cyber-physical age. By extending these analogies and recognizing their limits, we can wrap our minds around the new and complex features of smart buildings to help us overcome the biggest challenges facing their development.

The latest smart building fašades, for example, adapt to the internal and external environment by activating shading and ventilation features, similar to human skin. The building feeds on electricity and gas to fuel almost all functions, such as heating, cooling, and computation, much like we do with food. The resources consumed can be stored as latent power, via energy storage technology in buildings and through systems like fat in the body. Each entity senses its internal and external environments, sending messages back to a central decision-making system — it is this process that leads almost all active processes in both buildings and the human body.

“In the human body, the nervous system collects fine-mesh and real-time data, and sensory organs ensure that enough useful, valid, and representative data is collected to support important objectives. A smart building functions in a similar way and, employing the collected information, can learn to use patterns and adjust its operations predictively and proactively — just as the human body does,” writes Johannes Nussbaum in an article for the Urban Land Institute (ULI) on smart building implementation.

“In order for a building to do this, the quality, availability, and security of the provided data need to be ensured. Data security, in particular, is critical and serves as a basic need for technology acceptance. Next in importance, data transmission speed and latency need to meet the highest standards if sensors are to provide real-time information and building systems to react to changes in conditions,” the article continues.

Just like in the human body’s central nervous system, the building needs an extensive and accurate network of sensors to provide information that systems can respond to and that decision-makers can rely on. Incomplete networks mean parts of the building will be poorly understood, leading to knock-on effects on overall energy and space optimization, for example. It’s like having no sensitivity in your feet, meaning you don’t think to wear socks when it’s cold, and the dropping temperature in your feet leading to inefficient transfer of heat from the rest of the body. Saving money by not including sensors in the basement may mean you never know where the heat is being lost.

The body does not just put sensors everywhere; however, over millions of years of evolution, the central nervous system has connected to every point that is useful to our success as individuals and as a species. This extensive fine mesh network of nerves sends data to our brains that, for the most part, have learned to filter out unnecessary data to avoid a cluttered mind that becomes ineffective due to too much information. Each individual is different, learning their own way to survive and thrive in the world alongside other individuals. It is these kinds of human-building analogies that can help us appreciate a better approach to smart building development.

“It is widely accepted that lighting is the best physical infrastructure to make a building smarter because lighting is a common requirement throughout a building or campus, and the lighting infrastructure is highly granular,” says Nussbaum, who is managing director at wtec GmbH. “Powering of LED lights with standard network infrastructure, also known as power over ethernet (PoE), has started its triumphal march. Electrical and data bus infrastructures are replaced with network cabling to create a fine mesh network and make a building fully connected, flexible, and intelligent, providing the basis for a truly smart and automated building.”


The smartest buildings are not those that generate the most data, but those that use their data best, able to filter out the noise in order to better understand their dynamic environment.

Sensors need not be in every square meter of the smart building, but sensor architecture must provide feedback from the vast and diverse range of locations that influence the overall performance of the building. System efficiency aside, the performance of a building refers to how well it serves its human stakeholders, namely the occupants. Therefore, the design of a building’s sensor architecture should incorporate more stakeholder input than it typically does today.

There are limits to these types of human analogies, of course. However, even in seemingly uncomparable building elements like cybersecurity, we find insight. In a direct sense, one may see a cyberattacker as equivalent to a physical attacker. In the future, we may also have bio-hacks on connected people. We can also analogize the cyber vulnerability of our connected buildings to our own experience as humans navigating the physical world. By spreading awareness about the dangers of the cyber-world and how to reduce risk, we can improve the cybersecurity of our smart buildings.

“More connectivity certainly means a greater potential vulnerability to attack. Thinking offline for a second, the more time you spend on the street, the bigger the opportunity to get mugged or knocked down on the road. It’s no different online, the more points of connection you have with the internet, the more of an attack surface you present. It’s not inevitable; however, if you’re wary and use pedestrian crossings, you can limit your exposure. It’s the same online,” David Emm, Principal Security Researcher at Kaspersky Labs told Memoori in an interview.

“I would be more concerned by the lack of awareness [than increasing connectivity]. We absorb road safety and city safety information from a young age; it’s almost intuitive. If you grow up in a city, you’re very aware of the dangers. It is not the same with connectivity. Most people think of their smartphone as a phone, not as the fully-fledged computer it is. There’s an attack surface, but people don’t realize it’s there,” Emm continued. “It is as if you bring a Martian to Earth and expect them to be streetwise. They won’t be because they’re from another planet, and it’s the same with the spread of connectivity.”

The perfect analogy is inherently impossible, but they serve to help us understand. As creators of and visitors in this complex new cyber-physical world, the smart building industry can rely on these types of analogy for comprehension, exploration, and inspiration. We call our buildings “smart” because they are more than just connected; they think and learn, they consume and breathe, and there is no doubt that such analogies are playing their part, inspiring many of our best smart building innovations. The building is like a human; what else can it do?


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