Dumb buildings won’t make for very smart cities

Hobart recently unveiled a “smart bin” trial that could see bins deployed across the city that can advise when they’re full and need emptying outside of the normal schedule.

While full or smelly bins would probably be considered one of the smaller problems smart cities can solve, this kind of application will eventually become part of an interoperable network of connected devices, applications and people that make up smart cities.

When we break down what’s in an actual city, and thus what will be in a smart city, one of the key components is buildings. We need to start thinking more about them if we want to get smart cities right.

We must question, and potentially re-examine, how we design buildings in the lead up to this new wave of Internet of Things-led innovation. After all, dumb buildings won’t be very useful in a smart city.

There’s a lot to gain here – research from McKinsey estimates that the use of office IoT applications could have an economic impact of between A$100 billion to over A$200 billion per year by 2025, with better security and energy management some of the key benefits.

Being able to use these applications efficiently and effectively will require far more bandwidth and IT infrastructure than today’s typical server room.

The Edge

In Amsterdam lies a building known as The Edge, widely recognised as one of the world’s smartest and greenest office spaces. The office building has 28,000 sensors that track movement, lighting levels, humidity and temperature. It can tell staff and visitors how many parking spots are available, prepare coffee the way people like, and even patrol the building at night with a robot security guard.

While we can’t expect builders, planners, architects and everyone else involved in constructing Australian buildings to bring everything to quite such a high standard, there are certain lessons we can learn to ensure buildings are primed to become smart as this kind of technology becomes mainstream.

The foundation

The data centre is the hub of any organisation’s digital services. These are set to become more complex and resource-intensive as smart buildings develop.

At the centre of Amsterdam’s Edge is a humble, yet powerful, data centre connecting all of the sensors and smart applications that make the building so special.

What’s is in the data centre is not that important because there are a multitude and indeed a mix of suitable technologies that can do the job. What’s more critical is where it’s located.

Keeping it close means applications that are designed to provide services and make decisions in real time actually do so. If the data centre is far away, the lag created by the distance can ruin the experience.

This means we need to start thinking about building design that includes – or at least has the capacity for – smart, modular data centres that can effectively power that building’s digital assets. These aren’t the clunky, oversized data centres of old, and making room for them in the design phase wouldn’t actually be very difficult.

The right space

Of course, most buildings we use today weren’t built with smart city applications or data centre capacity in mind. We haven’t always had IT in the workspace and we certainly haven’t always understood how valuable it would be. That means in many cases we need to work with what we have.

Leading architect Charles Fortin published an article highlighting how architects and builders are scouring CBD locations across Australia to increase inner-city data centre capacity and keep this infrastructure closer to the action.

While the idea of just finding available space in CBD areas might seem near impossible, Fortin highlights that data centres can slot in almost anywhere.

There is no need for views or natural light that might be a factor in other real estate decisions. These data centres also wouldn’t be low-rise, sprawling buildings like large data centres we typically find in suburbs or business parks outside the city. They can slot into a series of floors within a high-rise hotel or even above or behind existing office towers.


While this practice may provide some relief as businesses and office buildings seek more IT capacity to power smarter working environments, it’s important that organisations start thinking about putting their own capacity in place so that they can quickly deploy new services and applications when they need them.

Queensland’s Redland City Council, for example, has built a self-contained, eco-friendly data centre as the foundation for IoT and smart city applications.

While the facility has yet to flex its muscles completely, the council has smart apps on its agenda and knows it needs this kind of capacity now to do the fun stuff later.

It’s important that other government organisations and businesses looking to drive smart city applications follow this recipe and consider what resources they have to do so.

The likes of facial recognition, AI-enhanced security, smart heating and running a building with the equivalent of a powerful brain don’t switch on like a light. We’re talking about buildings that can think for themselves, that know at any given time who is walking in or out, that are connected to the five-to-ten devices each person will have on them.

If we want to hold ourselves to this high standard, we need to think and build smarter and include fully integrated data centres in our building design. Approaching development in this way could see Australia create the right foundation for smart cities and cement a leading role in what will soon be a multi-trillion dollar industry.

Robert Linsdell is managing director, Australia and New Zealand for Vertiv, a global provider of critical infrastructure and services for data centres. Robert has more than two decades’ experience across technology-driven industries and is particularly interested in how Internet of Things, smart cities are being developed in Australia and across the globe.

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  1. Great article Fifth Estate. Will point to this in my next article.
    How could we start 2020 without a plan to have all buildings strategically smarter by 2025? Every 5 years we delay this the cost to the economy will be huge – not to mention the users of buildings missing out of 21stC functionality.
    Hopefully a government that gets this by mid-year?