Building blocks of a smart city


13 / 06 / 22 - 10 minute read

The ambition to build a smart city has been around for many years. Whether backed by central government, city authorities or private enterprise, the vision of a new city or urban neighbourhood rendered idyllic by the intelligent deployment of cutting-edge digital technologies is undoubtedly seductive, writes Philippe Le Fort.

From deliveries made by drones to commuting in autonomous vehicles on gloriously congestion-free roads and paving slabs that turn pedestrians’ footsteps into clean energy, there is no lack of bright ideas for how the sustainable cities of the apparently not-too-distant future will function. The problem is that where it has been tried, disappointment is to be found.

The examples of smart cities that have failed to live up to expectations are many and varied, including the Ordos and Lanzhou urban areas in China, Lavasa in India, Masdar City in Abu Dhabi and Songdo in South Korea.

Thus far, the idea of an all-singing, all-dancing smart city has failed to materialise. This should come as no surprise. Attempting to do something so complex all in one go really is a case of running before you can walk.

The fact is that, however rapidly the world urbanises, the vast majority of people will continue to live in existing cities for the foreseeable future. This would remain true even if there were some Platonic ideal of a smart city waiting to be plucked from the ether and made corporeal. Our energies are far better directed at smartening up the urban environments we already have.

This is the view at PATRIZIA. Indeed, we have flipped the concept of a smart city on its head. Rather than coming up with vast, undefined masterplans, with a laundry list of supporting technologies, we asked ourselves what constitutes the basic building blocks that make up a city. The philosophical answer is people – and that certainly informs our thinking – but the practical and actionable answer is buildings.

For that reason, we have spent time and resources developing a smart buildings team. Currently, the team is busy supporting PATRIZIA’s funds by going into individual assets – no two buildings are the same.We aim to understand how they operate, how they could be managed more efficiently, thereby driving down costs, and how an improved level of service could benefit occupiers, ultimately increasing value.

To do all this, it would have been simplest to engage a third-party supplier and use their technology. However, it rapidly became apparent that this wouldn’t be possible. The proptech market is currently too fragmented, with numerous companies offering innovative products. These may be efficient and do one thing well but that cannot meet our aspirations. As a result, we decided to create our own technology solution.

We may soon take it to market, but we want to learn as much as possible from our large portfolio first. If and when we do so, it could provide a valuable additional revenue stream to the overall business. In the meantime, we are already confident that it will drive significant cost savings, efficiencies and carbon reductions within PATRIZIA’s global portfolio. Again, walking before we can run seems like the sensible thing to do.

THE IDEA OF AN ALL-SINGING, ALL-DANCING SMART CITY HAS FAILED TO MATERIALISE. THIS SHOULD COME AS NO SURPRISE. ATTEMPTING TO DO SOMETHING SO COMPLEX ALL IN ONE GO REALLY IS A CASE OF RUNNING BEFORE YOU CAN WALK.

Philippe Le Fort, Head of Smart Buildings, PATRIZIA

Elevators were a revolutionary invention that enabled the urban density to increase over the last century, boosting economies of scale for big cities and redefining urban life. Artificial intelligence is now helping optimise their use by better anticipating problems and manage the flow of traffic for elevators and escalators, cutting maintenance costs.

Uplifting lift management

To take just one example, let’s look at the costs and inconveniences involved in lift management. I do not doubt that lift manufacturing companies are dedicated to designing and manufacturing products that are as robust as possible. But the fact remains that these companies bolster their profits by selling lucrative maintenance and repair contracts, which typically account for 50% or more of profits. 

The problem is that, in most cases, the lifts do not come with any predictive intelligence. As a result, when something goes wrong, it tends to come as a surprise and resolving the situation becomes urgent, which is expensive. Add to that the well-documented supply chain issues, and it may well be that the part required is not instantly available, or if it is, it comes at a ludicrously inflated price.

However, most of these issues are eliminated by applying predictive maintenance technology. The idea is to use big data and AI to predict when components may be about to fail, allowing for efficient recycling of components such that an asset can stay running almost indefinitely, minimising downtime, unplanned costly maintenance and costs relating to misdiagnosed repairs.

This is typically done by integrating IoT sensors directly into the asset infrastructure. The sensors transmit terabytes of data regarding vibration, speed and similar/relevant metrics to a cloud-based data platform. This
data is then fed into AI-driven software, which uses methods such as neural networks to train itself to detect failures before they occur.

Smartening up entire buildings

If it were just about lifts, that would be one thing. But the fact is that the same arguments hold true for every bit of kit that makes a building work, from heating and cooling systems to plumbing. If a building knows when a room is empty, it can infer that it doesn’t need to be heated in the winter or cooled in the summer. If it knows when electricity is cheapest, it can use that window to recharge batteries.

This latter point is indicative of the next step in the evolution from smart buildings to smart cities. Once a city is largely made up of individual smart buildings, those innovative buildings can start talking to each other and, crucially, to urban infrastructure, including utilities. When this happens, the city as a whole and single office and apartment blocks can function far more efficiently, both from an economic and environmental standpoint.

The point is that by using technology such as that developed by PATRIZIA, we can put in place the building blocks to deliver the smart cities of the future. It will be a step-by-step process, but each step will yield tangible gains. Such a solution may not be as headline-grabbing as trying to build a smart city from scratch, but it would certainly be more practical and effective for our cities today.

Image credits: istock (Jackie NiamWhitneyLewisPhotography - elevator and boy)

Philippe Le Fort

About the author

Philippe leads the Smart Building Team at PATRIZIA. His team is building a business that advances how buildings perform, including running health checks on buildings to uncover ‘smart opportunities’ for digitalisation and decarbonisation to dial-up value while mitigating cost. Harnessing the power of this data, the team select and integrate the best combination of technologies into a high-calibre stack, unique to each building for maximum impact.

The fact is that, however rapidly the world urbanises, the vast majority of people will continue to live in existing cities for the foreseeable future. This would remain true even if there were some Platonic ideal of a smart city waiting to be plucked from the ether and made corporeal. Our energies are far better directed at smartening up the urban environments we already have.

This is the view at PATRIZIA. Indeed, we have flipped the concept of a smart city on its head. Rather than coming up with vast, undefined masterplans, with a laundry list of supporting technologies, we asked ourselves what constitutes the basic building blocks that make up a city. The philosophical answer is people – and that certainly informs our thinking – but the practical and actionable answer is buildings.

For that reason, we have spent time and resources developing a smart buildings team. Currently, the team is busy supporting PATRIZIA’s funds by going into individual assets – no two buildings are the same.We aim to understand how they operate, how they could be managed more efficiently, thereby driving down costs, and how an improved level of service could benefit occupiers, ultimately increasing value.

To do all this, it would have been simplest to engage a third-party supplier and use their technology. However, it rapidly became apparent that this wouldn’t be possible. The proptech market is currently too fragmented, with numerous companies offering innovative products. These may be efficient and do one thing well but that cannot meet our aspirations. As a result, we decided to create our own technology solution.

We may soon take it to market, but we want to learn as much as possible from our large portfolio first. If and when we do so, it could provide a valuable additional revenue stream to the overall business. In the meantime, we are already confident that it will drive significant cost savings, efficiencies and carbon reductions within PATRIZIA’s global portfolio. Again, walking before we can run seems like the sensible thing to do.

THE IDEA OF AN ALL-SINGING, ALL-DANCING SMART CITY HAS FAILED TO MATERIALISE. THIS SHOULD COME AS NO SURPRISE. ATTEMPTING TO DO SOMETHING SO COMPLEX ALL IN ONE GO REALLY IS A CASE OF RUNNING BEFORE YOU CAN WALK.

Philippe Le Fort, Head of Smart Buildings, PATRIZIA

Elevators were a revolutionary invention that enabled the urban density to increase over the last century, boosting economies of scale for big cities and redefining urban life. Artificial intelligence is now helping optimise their use by better anticipating problems and manage the flow of traffic for elevators and escalators, cutting maintenance costs.

Uplifting lift management

To take just one example, let’s look at the costs and inconveniences involved in lift management. I do not doubt that lift manufacturing companies are dedicated to designing and manufacturing products that are as robust as possible. But the fact remains that these companies bolster their profits by selling lucrative maintenance and repair contracts, which typically account for 50% or more of profits. 

The problem is that, in most cases, the lifts do not come with any predictive intelligence. As a result, when something goes wrong, it tends to come as a surprise and resolving the situation becomes urgent, which is expensive. Add to that the well-documented supply chain issues, and it may well be that the part required is not instantly available, or if it is, it comes at a ludicrously inflated price.

However, most of these issues are eliminated by applying predictive maintenance technology. The idea is to use big data and AI to predict when components may be about to fail, allowing for efficient recycling of components such that an asset can stay running almost indefinitely, minimising downtime, unplanned costly maintenance and costs relating to misdiagnosed repairs.

This is typically done by integrating IoT sensors directly into the asset infrastructure. The sensors transmit terabytes of data regarding vibration, speed and similar/relevant metrics to a cloud-based data platform. This
data is then fed into AI-driven software, which uses methods such as neural networks to train itself to detect failures before they occur.

Smartening up entire buildings

If it were just about lifts, that would be one thing. But the fact is that the same arguments hold true for every bit of kit that makes a building work, from heating and cooling systems to plumbing. If a building knows when a room is empty, it can infer that it doesn’t need to be heated in the winter or cooled in the summer. If it knows when electricity is cheapest, it can use that window to recharge batteries.

This latter point is indicative of the next step in the evolution from smart buildings to smart cities. Once a city is largely made up of individual smart buildings, those innovative buildings can start talking to each other and, crucially, to urban infrastructure, including utilities. When this happens, the city as a whole and single office and apartment blocks can function far more efficiently, both from an economic and environmental standpoint.

The point is that by using technology such as that developed by PATRIZIA, we can put in place the building blocks to deliver the smart cities of the future. It will be a step-by-step process, but each step will yield tangible gains. Such a solution may not be as headline-grabbing as trying to build a smart city from scratch, but it would certainly be more practical and effective for our cities today.

Image credits: istock (Jackie NiamWhitneyLewisPhotography - elevator and boy)

Philippe Le Fort

About the author

Philippe leads the Smart Building Team at PATRIZIA. His team is building a business that advances how buildings perform, including running health checks on buildings to uncover ‘smart opportunities’ for digitalisation and decarbonisation to dial-up value while mitigating cost. Harnessing the power of this data, the team select and integrate the best combination of technologies into a high-calibre stack, unique to each building for maximum impact.