Buildings for a better tomorrow: AI and the workplace

A conversation with ABB about digitalization, artificial intelligence and the post-pandemic work environment.

Recently we sat down with a group of leaders from ABB’s Smart Buildings business to talk about industry trends, in particular with regard to digitalization of building systems and how advances in technology are being used to achieve building owners’ sustainability targets. Participants included:

  • Michael Lotfy, SVP, Buildings Segment, Americas
  • Mike Plaster, EVP, Lead Business Manager, Electrification
  • Julie Petrone, Director of Marketing, Buildings Segment, Americas
Smart Buildings Panel - Lofty, Plaster, Patrone

Following is the first in a series of posts drawn from the conversation and focuses on artificial intelligence and the post-pandemic work environment.

Workplace models



Artificial intelligence & digitalization

QUESTION: AI, machine learning and the internet of things—the so-called fourth industrial revolution—will be seen throughout the commercial building sector. Can you speak to the use of AI in buildings in 2022 and beyond?

Mike Plaster: Yes, I’m quite passionate about it, to be honest. I mean, I think that artificial intelligence is going to be a real game changer especially when it comes to sustainability, because ultimately, we can provide information, which is good. We can provide transparency on consumption, which is good, but then we still depend on human behavior to change, and we all know that’s not always easy.

Julie Petrone: Even if, when we get incentives and motivation, we do it, but maybe not to the degree that would be possible by using technology. Artificial intelligence can help because we can look at how buildings are being used over a longer period of time and then can learn from the behavior of people in the buildings. With that, we can optimize energy consumption and many other parameters too. I think that’s the big difference to systems that rely purely on human intervention and interaction where you don’t get the same optimal result.

That’s why all our systems that we’re developing now at ABB have AI-based components and will be cloud-based to enable the technology to be used on a broader scale.

ABB expert panel discussion on industry trends, new technologies and the future of Smart Buildings in the U.S..

QUESTION: So, the idea of buildings and how they’re being revamped is changing every day based on AI and what you’re seeing?

Julie Petrone: Right, and what we’re trying to do in this industry has two aspects. We have to utilize it, harness the data, aggregate the data, and put the artificial intelligence platform or a stack on top to optimize the various functions in the building and also inter-operate with different systems. The other aspect is that we’re trying to decode AI and cloud services.

Michael Lotfy: We live in an era where everybody is questioning, which is refreshing. People want to know what are you doing with this data? How are you going to use AI? What does it mean? So, we’re also trying to work with our partners, our customers, and the end users (facility managers, operators, asset owners) to say, here is the service, this is what we can do, this is how we can optimize, this is what an AI layer can do for you, etc.

The technology anticipates the needs of the users, but at the same time, it’s decoded for our partners and customers. They learn how to utilize it, how to deploy it, and how to mitigate any potential risks in deploying the technology.

QUESTION: Sticking with AI, how do the building owners and energy managers benefit from it? How quickly will organizations change to embrace more AI-driven operations? And how will industrial companies deal with the issues of trust governance, safety, and cybersecurity?

Julie Petrone: Yeah, I think the last point is probably the one that we need to overcome first, right? Because clearly, we need to educate people in terms of what artificial intelligence can and can’t do, and also address those concerns around cybersecurity, for example. So, I think that’s really important, the educational piece. Once we have that in place, then it really comes down to making the technology available in an easy-to-use manner.

Don’t think it’s complicated just because we talk about artificial intelligence. In fact, it’s actually less complicated than traditional systems that require a lot of specialized knowledge and system integration. They require a lot of work actually to bring all those different sensors and technologies together, and that’s something that AI can do in an easier way.

I think the messaging here is around how the technology is not coming to take your jobs. It’s not taking over your building. It’s really about making your life a lot easier within that building.


Workplace models

QUESTION: A flexible or “hybrid” work model will mean buildings serve a different purpose than they did before the pandemic. They will need to be revamped to be more conscious of the health and wellbeing of employees, as well as becoming better places for collaboration. As more employees return to the office, what will a shift toward a worker-centric model look like?

Michael Lotfy: I think the hybrid work environment is going to really shape the future workplace. And if you look at us addressing this particular need in the market, we are trying to adapt to this coming back to work. So, we will find a lot of solutions around optimizing workplace, booking meeting rooms, people-counting in the office, understanding the pattern and the behavior of the people in the building to drive this optimization. And here, the optimization is not an optimization of energy but rather an optimization of the utilization of space.

One thing that you’re going to find is that medium- and smaller-size companies are not going need all the office space they’ve contracted for. So, as an asset owner or as a building owner or facility manager, you will need to offer a flexible workplace, perhaps where you rent the tenant a booth or a meeting room and you can charge them by time. And you can calculate your actual cost, not actual cost of the land that you are renting them, but you can understand how much energy they’ll consume in those hours. You also run a more profitable business.

You get the return on investment, not only by optimizing energy, but by two additional factors. One is that you have actual control over your cost and the other is that you have happier tenants, because you offer a better experience.

Julie Petrone: Completely agree with you, Michael. One real-world example is our office in Switzerland. Post-COVID, we thought about we’re going to do, and we said, “Okay, let’s move the furniture. Let’s have hot desks instead, let’s change the meeting rooms, let’s have more huddle rooms, et cetera, where people can sit and just talk and have a coffee.”

That was the fitting out of the building, but then we realized, well, now the lights are actually at the wrong spot. They’re not where they’re supposed to be, and they’re not as bright as they should be. The HVAC is actually not bringing enough heat or cooling to a certain area of the building because it’s being used differently now. So, use really becomes a technology question as well. It’s not just the fitting out of the building, but what else you need to do in order to make people feel comfortable and have the highest level of productivity, for them to want to come back to work.

Michael Lofty, Michael Plaster and Julie Petrone sit down with ABB Conversations to discuss the future of Smart Buildings and the post-pandemic workplace.

QUESTION: That brings us to the safety issue. Contactless technology, for example, is set to play a bigger role in the part of re-entry into the workplace. Can you talk a little more about how ABB is developing contactless technology for the built environment?

Julie Petrone: We have a fantastic roadmap that we developed before the pandemic with respect to getting a really easy-to-use, easy-to-install technology based on IoT sensors that are placed strategically in the building. Then we use cloud-based technology to read all the data, make sense out of it, and help control the building. Looking at what’s changed post-pandemic, we’ve added certain elements like an air sensor that measures air quality, for example. That was less of a focus two years ago, but now it’s a big topic.

Michael Lotfy: Access control, too. How do you manage access to the buildings without having to go through a difficult check-in process involving lots of manual work and interaction with others? How do we move to a more seamless way of entering a building and still have the right level of security? You really have to think through all the use cases, the patterns of how people move through the building. Where are the meeting rooms, where’s the kitchen, et cetera? Those are all things that you have to think through, and we’re working on the technologies to make sure that buildings can be used in a safe and secure manner.

QUESTION: Human behavior basically is what you’re following and seeing how you can help your employees be safe and comfortable in their work environment.

Mike Plaster: Yes, and I agree with Michael. I think, in the past, it was a nice to have, right? The door opened on its own, but now it really is more about the health and wellbeing of employees or whoever’s in the building. If you can have that touchless environment, then there’s one less risk in having a contact with a virus or any type of illness.

Julie Petrone: Some of the digital technologies that we’ve come out with recently allow you to secure a meeting room and then set the temperature, the lighting. It’s very human-centric. There’s a time in between the next meeting so that the room is cleaned and it’s sufficient for the next group of people to come in. So even small things, I think, are very important to what we’re developing.

Michael Lofty summarizes the utilization of data in creating efficiencies for non-traditional usage patterns in the workplace.

QUESTION: How do you see the optimization of data within buildings in a post-pandemic world?

Mike Plaster: Well, I think when we look at the consumption data, it is really about this changing pattern. I can say, in my own experience 10, 15 years ago, you went to the office at 8:00, you left at 5:00, maybe 6:00, but there was a pattern and everyone was there at the same time. Today, if I go to an office on a Wednesday, I might see five people and then, say on a Tuesday or a Thursday the following week, it could be 50 people. You have to be able to optimize around that to ensure the efficiency.

Michael Lotfy: If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we need to be able to adapt to different use cases. Before the pandemic, onsite activities were the default, especially in service and engineering areas. When the pandemic hit, I remember I had customers—retailers, especially—calling me, “Oh, I want to switch off all my stores because of the lockdowns.”

Only the customers that had invested in digital technologies and remote monitoring were able to really optimize their assets, save cost immediately and also improve the safety of the facility.

Making sure that the doors are closed, that the HVAC is off, that the refrigeration is running so they will not lose product—optimizing this at just a click of a button was a massive added value for those organizations that invested in the digital transformation.

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About the author

Bob Fesmire

Bob Fesmire is a Content Manager at ABB, based in Cary, North Carolina. He has written more than 150 articles and white papers on a variety of topics including energy efficiency, industrial automation and big data. In addition to his work at ABB, Bob is also the co-author of Energy Explained, a non-technical introduction to all aspects of the energy industry.
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