How can smart buildings help an ageing Asia?

Artificial intelligence, the internet of things and other smart technologies can help to make buildings smarter and more efficient, but can they make cities better places to live for the elderly? 

Can smart technology make cities better place for the elderly?
Like other countries in Asia, Thailand's population is growing older quickly. Can smart technologies make cities easier for the elderly to navigate and live in? Image: World Bank - East Asia Pacific, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The technology of the fourth industrial revolution could make cities smarter than ever. But are smarter cities better for the environment and its residents?

This was a central theme at the International Green Building Conference held in Singapore in September, where two panel sessions were dedicated to the topic of smart technology, which includes the internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI), among others.

Digital technologies can help people live more comfortable, convenient lives, but they can also be a hindrance if not used well, said speakers. With the built environment responsible for between 30 and 40 per cent of global emissions, smart ways of managing facilities and energy consumption through the use of technology can not only reduce a building’s carbon footprint, it can also improve the occupant’s experience of the building.

Here are three ways that smarter, technologically enabled buildings can fight climate change and create better communities.

1. Data analysis can guide sustainable measures

A building with a management system that collects the right data and highlights areas of possible improvement in energy or water efficiency is a straightforward way to lighten a building’s environmental footprint.

A hotel in New York managed to reduce its energy use by 14 per cent and save US$140,000 in energy bills a year by analysing the data it had collected, shared Haps Dhillon, general manager of EcoEnergy, which worked on the project. The company operates a proprietary AI and IoT platform called Cortix that provides insights into building management by crunching data.

Technology can reduce the need for manpower. Singapore real estate developer JTC’s director of building management, Jason Foo, said cleaners’ productivity improved by 80 per cent after smart bins were installed in different buildings and estates. The bins send a message to cleaners only when they are full and need to be emptied.

Franklin Tang, chief executive officer of smart living system Habitap, told Eco-Business that occupant tracking functions can map how people are using the building. Underused spaces can be used for other purposes, he explained.

2. Open systems will make energy efficiency the norm

In order to drive adoption of efficiency measures and help buildings cut their environmental footprint, the costs of implementing these smart systems must come down. This can only happen when building management systems are open and interoperable, Dhillon told Eco-Business on the sidelines of IGBC.

One barrier is the cost involved in fitting smart systems to each building. If building systems were open—that is, interconnected and interoperable—there would be less time and cost in getting the necessary data for analysis. Dhillon said: “If the system [was open], you could plug the solution in, run analytics and it would deliver value straight away.”

Tang agreed. “As long as there is no data risk or security breach, being open to sharing platforms will allow economies of scale to take effect.”

For instance, if the managers of two buildings were to collaborate and share a platform, an access pass for the first building would allow a visitor to enter the second without compromising data privacy, said Tang. Less manpower would be needed as well.

3. More care for the elderly

Smarter buildings could mean more caring buildings, especially when it comes to the elderly.

In response to a question from the audience, Joe Keen Poon, managing director, smart city solutions, for urban development firm Surbana Jurong, said elderly-friendly cities are top of mind in territories like Singapore, Hong Kong and China where the pace of ageing is “alarming”. 

By the middle of the century, Asia’s population of seniors will reach nearly 923 million, according to the Asian Development Bank.

“There are many practical ways to infuse technology in design and buildings to suit the needs of the elderly,” he said, citing examples of motion sensor lighting in corridors, elevators that stop on every floor, and sensors that can detect if someone needs help.

“None of these technologies are rocket science, and they are already commercially available. But whether they are commercially viable across communities is a question that city leaders and developers have to ponder,” said Poon.

But Simon Carter, director of Sydney-based consultancy Morphosis, said technology is not at a stage where it can meet the needs of the elderly. “Every year, the gap between technology and my mother gets bigger and bigger,” he remarked.

“We’ve got to simultaneously work a lot harder at technology, to quickly develop it to a stage where it is user-friendly for the elderly, who tend not to be digitally literate. At the same time we have to slow down [and not invent] technology that is full of complexity.”

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