Smart buildings and smart cities – interview with PlaceOS’ Jonathan McFarlane

by Ben Ice
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What Jonathan McFarlane and his team are doing to help Australian businesses get back to the office safely is just the beginning. Talking FM through his work, he explains how truly smart building solutions can unlock sustainability in buildings and precincts – and how Australian cities are poised to become sustainability leaders of the future.

Jonathan McFarlane is co-founder and CEO of PlaceOS. He and his team have been chipping away at the smart building industry for about 10 years, working with clients to identify the challenges faced in their buildings and scope out user experiences to solve them. Globally, PlaceOS works with a number of partners like Cisco but McFarlane feels most people don’t know about his company because it spends much of its time “behind the scenes, enabling everything”.

A big part of his job is using what his business has learned from customers to educate the industry because, he says, “We’re accidental experts in a whole range of things that are beneficial.” Today, this is more true than ever, with COVID-19 presenting new dilemmas to managers of buildings and personnel. Here, McFarlane explains how PlaceOS works and the limitless opportunities the solutions create to empower smart sustainability measures in Australian buildings, precincts and cities.

You’re helping a lot of people get back to the office. There are, obviously, many big changes taking place. Tell us what this new, safe office space looks like.

We have been integrating with location services and elements that power building user experiences for a number of years. We’re in a fortunate position as a platform; we can take those existing integrations and repurpose them for safety and getting back to work safely. So, we’re after two main things to achieve a true smart workplace, it’s knowing who the user is, and knowing where they are in the building. Identifying those two things can allow us to have a context-aware user experience (UX).

That context awareness can be: if you’re in the lobby compared to a meeting room – the automation around you will be based on the educated guess – what happens in that type of space? We can use the Wi-Fi to identify where somebody is, without having to roll out sensors or other technologies. We can use a camera with people tracking or people counting to identify that there are a number of people in a certain area. Then, the desired action can be something like ‘what can we cross reference to get more of this data, so we can make it more context aware, and what do we integrate with to actually trigger something?’

The smart building is moving away from apps and traditional interfaces to having the building itself as the app – so it responds to you automatically. Today, the elephant in the room, the biggest challenge, is COVID-19, but this approach can be applied to any UX in the building and any challenge. With COVID-19, the common challenge is: how do we manage people returning to work? A lot of that can be around limiting access and providing work flow automation around building access.

For example, we’re working with Deloitte and some of the other large consulting firms for approving if [workers are] allowed to be there in the first place. Even today, right now, not everyone can work from home. These companies have projects for which one has to use facilities that are only available in the workplace. So with these consulting firms, users can actually put a reason why they need to be in the workplace, they can be approved by someone in that team, and when they turn up to the building, they only have access to the areas they’ve been approved for. And if they haven’t gone through the approval process, which includes ‘are you feeling unwell’ and ‘have you travelled?’ – all the standard COVID-19 stuff – we can then write or remove access based on that approval process.

So, if you turn up and you haven’t been approved, you swipe your card, the door won’t open, or the elevator won’t be called, and we can actually then send you a Slack notification saying, ‘Hey, it looks like you’re in the building, you haven’t gone through the approval process. Here’s a link for that, once you go through it, your access will work if it has been approved.’ Approval can be completed automatically or manually in cases where a person is needed to approve.

My core message here is ‘context aware’. The context [in the aforementioned case, was] ‘someone’s in the building and they haven’t been approved, so what UX do we deliver them?’ We can take that approach throughout the whole journey of the building, for any tenant, or anyone in the lobby, any visitor, we can work out ‘why are they there?’ And ‘how do we track who and where?’ And it’s about lining all those things up. So, as a platform, we take care of all those integrations that get the data to make that possible. Then, the UX is logic that can be designed with our APIs and user interfaces – if needed, because we’ll try to do as much as we can invisibly. But if a user interface, such as a workplace application, is needed, that’s API-driven as well. We decouple the app from the logic, so you don’t have to depend on the app doing everything.

Is the technology from your company’s background, which has new utility in the time of COVID-19, or is it something new you’re developing in response?

PlaceOS is, fundamentally, an integration platform. For us to achieve a desired action, be it COVID-19 related or just the general UX a workplace comes with, it’s about finding ‘well, what integration gives us that data?’ – ideally, without introducing anything new, so we’re not creating a problem with rollout and security and privacy, and without double handling. All of the possibilities are based on the integrations and many of those integrations are sitting there untapped, waiting to be leveraged.

That whole COVID-19 workflow I discussed, with access control being one of the integrations, we just link three things to make that happen: the corporate identity (technically that’s single sign-on, that’s the login system used by the workplace); then, the specific building access control system (perhaps it’s the HID that’s on every swipe card); and then the location service. Most workplaces are a luxury to work with because they have all of these managed systems that give us location information, such as the Wi-Fi. So the Cisco endpoint can triangulate the device the user has, we then cross reference the login system – who’s logged into that device, who are they, what permissions do they have? Based on those permissions, we send an event to the building access control system.

If we want to extend the UX to new areas – things we haven’t thought of – it really comes back to that process of ‘well, what do we integrate with to get that data?’ If there’s nothing to integrate with, there’s a gap there that needs to be filled with a solution design. That’s where our partners may recommend a sensor or something else. When it comes to workplaces, there are so many records of the truth, there are so many databases, there are so many systems that are sitting untapped and it’s quite frustrating to see people rolling out sensors and apps that need their own login system or replicating data when everything’s just sitting there waiting to be used. There’s a much more secure and private way of doing that so it works well.

How can these solutions be used to make buildings more sustainable and how can they help Australian cities become sustainability leaders?

With sustainability, it’s all about efficiencies and workflow automation on top of these core elements I’ve touched on. Knowing who someone is and where they are, and also knowing where everybody is, means we can automatically trigger things based on what’s happening in real time. So, rather than programming building systems, access, lighting, mechanical services, we can have them react in real time.

It’s something as simple as, if there are 100 people on the west side of a certain floor and there’s hardly anyone on the other side, we can change the lighting and the climate control settings. When we start to scale something like that out to global deployment – some of our clients have rolled out our solution to more than 190 offices – these simple efficiencies stack up and equal energy savings and cost savings.

They improve the UX at the same time, because then the user doesn’t have to do anything to have the building react the way it should based on what’s happening. That’s a really simple approach; it’s the same integration we’ve already spoken about, integrating into location services and understanding who people are, and maybe what people want, based on their profile information.

But if we extend that further, throughout the whole building and the whole journey to the building, and make efficiencies along the way, that equals building efficiencies that can equal energy reductions and savings. We’re doing a lot of work in the US market now with our partner Cisco. In certain states, the US is introducing mandates about environmental use in commercial buildings. In New York City, for example, there are regulations [regarding] which buildings must reduce energy emissions. That’s one of our opportunities and, I think, something we’re going to see more globally. New York’s just focusing on that initially because it’s obviously such a densely populated city, particularly with commercial buildings. The impact of environmental buildings in such a dense city will be quite high if it can solve some challenges there.

The scale helps as well. If you have a platform where the more you stack up the integrations, the more opportunity for automation and the better the efficiencies – that will scale out and provide a number of energy efficiencies. Just using things when you need them based on real time information is better than taking a guess and getting it wrong and overusing everything in the building. Then there’s tying into everything and monitoring it so you can start seeing trends with analytics. Then plug that analytics and data back into the conditional logic, so you can make things improve. It’s sort of a feedback loop. You keep making improvements, monitoring them, seeing more opportunities for improvements and plugging them into the system to continue to improve on an ongoing basis.

Australia is really primed to be a smart city leader for a number of reasons. First, our cities are dense, more dense than a lot of people realise outside this market. That’s for obvious reasons because everyone lives in the city, mostly, and the city is where everybody works. Other markets have a lot more sprawl, where the city is wider and not as centralised, which makes it harder to introduce smart city solutions.

The other thing happening in Australia is we are already focusing very heavily on smart precincts. Again, in overseas markets, ‘precinct’ is sort of a new word and they’ve only started to design multiple buildings and connect everything together recently. Even in some of these large markets like New York City, there are very few precincts compared to the way we do things here. We’re small enough to be flexible, but large enough to see value in smart cities. What we are doing with smart cities is the same that we did in smart buildings. We started our smart building journey by automating meeting rooms.

We then saw the opportunity to zoom out to automating tenancies and work floors. We then started bridging the tenancy to the building and then we started bridging the building to the precinct. The city is the next step for us. We’re starting small by integrating any publicly available data from the city, so a lot of transport here in Sydney, for example, we can tie in. We can provide information to visitors on how to get to the building and along the way we can get them to preregister so they don’t have to go through a visitor kiosk; they can automatically enter the building. Tying into that transport system could be the starting point for the UX and the user journey, but there are a number of technology trends that are going to make the city as easy to work with as a precinct.

Currently, to do a smart precinct is easier than a smart city because everything’s managed by the one real estate company. So there’s no process, there’s only one major stakeholder there, so you can link things quite easily in terms of processes. We could do a complete smart city today, but there are a lot of processes in the way. The technology’s not in the way. How do you convince the building owners and the city and the government at the same time?

It’s notoriously hard to work with councils and government, and it’s got to be a long-term focus. There are so many challenges there. The technology that’s right around the corner to solve that [requires] everything – every endpoint, everything we can integrate with – essentially being on one network rather than lots of separate networks. That’s through a combination.

I warned, when I started going through this earlier, that this is maybe a little bit too technical, but the two main technologies here are: IPv6 (internet protocol version six), making everything a publicly assignable address, where there are trillions of available addresses that you can have every endpoint on. That removes the challenge of integrating with anything – so every system, every device, every sensor can all be on the public internet, essentially. And then, there’s 5G, basically the other technology that can help with this, the connectivity and the bandwidth to have all of these devices.

As well, 5G can run mesh IoT (Internet of Things) networks, so it’s got more resilience. Basically, all this adds up to mean we can integrate with anything in the city as easily as we do anything in the building. We’re starting to see companies embrace this technology, have these technologies embedded in their products, and we’re starting to see cities understand this, starting at that precinct level. I think we’ll naturally break out of the precinct into the city eventually. We’re just dabbling in that right now.

My main takeaway is: make everything context-aware and move away from the limitation of an app. So many people think a smart building is ‘having an app for the building’, but that doesn’t do anything except shift the challenges to an interface rather than solve them in a smart way. It’s not really a smart building if the user has to do everything on an app. That’s what we’re solving; it’s what we are learning and, because of that, the market’s steering us to new challenges that need to be solved, because we’re not saying, ‘here’s an app that does six things’; we’re saying ‘what can we integrate with to solve your problems?’ Their problems are unique. Every workplace has its own culture and unique set of challenges, and we find every major project has at least one new challenge we hadn’t thought of. But our platform’s here to integrate with it and solve it for our clients.

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