Smart CitiesSensor solutions for IoT

10 min

Human-centric intuitive buildings

At ITF2018 in Antwerp, we delved more deeply into the how and why of being smarter in the way we live and work.

“Wellness and personalization are important drivers for IoT in buildings”

“The main reason for introducing IoT in buildings – and at the same time the ultimate challenge – is to make whole cities more sustainable and nicer places to live and work in,” says John Baekelmans, Managing Director imec the Netherlands & Vice President at imec. “Think of what we are achieving in the City of Things project in Antwerp, with the possibility of extending it to the whole of Flanders. Buildings consume forty percent of all energy in a city. We live and work in buildings. So to make a city smarter, we need to make changes to those buildings. And we need to start by offering both users and inhabitants a better experience.”

A recent study by JLL, a professional services firm that specializes in real estate and investment management, describes the ten most important trends in corporate real estate: from flex spaces and digitization to innovation culture and a sense of community. John Baekelmans places the emphasis on two surprising aspects: wellness:  creating a context for optimum mental and physical health – and humanization: personalizing spaces to create a people-centric experience.

trends smart building

10 trends in corporate real estate according to a study by JLL (©2018 Jones Lang LaSalle)

That ‘wow’ feeling – every day

“Corporate buildings are increasingly becoming assets for recruitment,” continues John Baekelmans. “You no longer go and work for a particular company just because of what they do, but also because of the building you are going to work in.” And according to John Baekelmans, the most important question in that context always is: “How can a space be personalized so that it’ll give users a ‘wow’ feeling every day?”

Ten or so years ago, when we thought of personalization, scenarios popped up describing spaces with white walls and sophisticated projection techniques to transform them into your own living room... But that’s not what it’s all about, says John Baekelmans. “Each individual has different preferences,” he says. “There’s the light level, room temperature, do you sit or stand to work, etc. Companies are also bringing in flex spaces that have different functions: sometimes they’re used to relax or work in silence, while others are centers for meetings and discussions. Yet in all of these spaces, people want to recognize their own personal preferences.”

“You no longer go and work for a particular company just because of what they do, but also because of the building you are going to work in.” 

The truth is in the numbers

So where could imec do things better in its own building? John Baekelmans: “About a year ago, on the first floor of our building on High Tech Campus Eindhoven, we equipped each space with sensors to measure the air quality. We used commercially available technology, preferably as inexpensive as possible. Trouble is, it’s something of a challenge to obtain reliable data from those cheap sensors. Over the course of time, they tend to generate very different readings. We call these changes ‘drift’ and it’s something we need to correct. This can be done by recalibrating the sensors and using algorithms to compensate for the differences. Now that we know what we need to do, we can also offer our knowledge as a service to the manufacturers of such sensors.”
Holst centre iot sensor measurements

Screenshot of real-time C02 concentrations measured at imec the Netherlands in the Holst Centre building in Eindhoven

It is important for imec to be able to demonstrate that the knowledge it acquires in this way is both scalable and transferable.

John Baekelmans again: “So we set up a similar installation in the HomeLab in Ghent. But in this instance, everything is neatly stored away in the walls. It only took us a day to install the whole system and now it has been giving us reliable data for the past seven months. The next step is to install a network of two hundred sensors in De Krook in Ghent, an innovative multi-tenant building that also includes a public library.

It’s also possible to make smart use of the existing infrastructure. So some twenty vehicles from bpost, Belgium's leading postal operator, in Antwerp have been equipped with our sensors. That’s because driving around the city all day is an efficient way of collecting accurate data with a limited number of sensors. And to make up for any blind spots – for example these vehicles don’t drive at night – we have also installed a number of fixed measuring points on buildings and lampposts.”

At the moment, the imec sensors in Antwerp are measuring the levels of particulates and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). Later this year, the ozone concentration will also be included.
But what do we actually learn from this? And what’s the benefit for the end-user? John Baekelmans: “In this phase we are just measuring and analyzing. But our living-lab experiments have already given us a number of insights for various applications. For instance, I regularly receive a text message from one of my staff to tell me that I need to open my office door because the air quality inside has become too poor.”

René Elfrink, Senior Researcher Solutions4IoT at imec the Netherlands says: “We have noticed that our own behavior can cause numerous undesirable situations. How often do too many of us crowd into a meeting room that’s too small? When we do, it causes the air-conditioning to become overloaded. And people only react when it’s too late. If you get a headache, the harm has already been done. So you need to warn users sooner. But even then we tend to be stubborn. Some time ago, we built air quality sensors into a unit that looked like a traffic light, with a green, yellow and red light. We then saw that people don’t take action until the lights turn red, rather than on yellow. A warning by smartphone seems to work better. And things are even better if the building is able to adjust itself automatically and intuitively to what it has learnt about us. Without any need for a mobile phone or other device. Our recent demo setup in a scale model shows that we are able to maintain the air quality on a continuous basis by adjusting the climate control to the situation in the space. In order to scale up to a real environment, we are looking for cooperation with companies that specialize in air-conditioning.”

Of course air quality is just one part of the equation. John Baekelmans again: “We can also derive lots of other useful information from the readings we take – for example what the volume of a particular room is. And in De Krook we will be using our data to determine where in the building there is still space left over for reading or working, as well as how people move through the building and so on.”

Massage and yoga

But according to John Baekelmans, the real factor that makes all the difference is still people: “Happiness at work is one of the main driving forces for employees,” he says. “So in an ideal situation it applies to every employee, as well as the building manager. Fun, wellness and pleasure strongly define the atmosphere in the workplace. Imagine yoga sessions, or maybe a masseur who comes along, etc. Employers who offer services that are usually part of your private life, can create an unbelievable amount of added value for the welfare of their workforce. Ninety percent of a company’s overheads are invested in people – and they have the greatest effect on efficiency and profitability. So it is very important for this to be optimized and not just traditional aspects such as energy management and process flows. Massages and yoga can certainly help here, but technology can also play a decisive role. Some studies have been carried out in buildings where there has been extreme optimization of the indoor air quality – even more than in existing “green” houses and workplaces. In these hyper-optimized conditions, measurements for example show that the efficiency of employees in responding to stress situations can be improved by seventy-five percent.”

But there are still plenty of challenges that cannot be resolved by technology. John Baekelmans: “It is vital to gain a clear insight into people and their attitude to change. In Flanders we can draw on a community of around 30,000 people if we need test individuals or to gain feedback or insights from them.

It is also important not just to reach the digital natives with these tests.

In the City of Things project in Antwerp, community managers ensure that we work inclusively, which means they also take account of people who seldom or never leave their home.”
community managers
Imec community managers involve citizens in the City of Things project. Here in the St. Andrew's District in Antwerp.

From technology to cognitive psychology

As part of this ITF presentation, Erik van Mossevelde, Director Corporate Technology at Niko, also discussed the parallels between people and systems in a smart building. His basic premise was that they are built out of the same components. People have senses, a smart building has sensors. People have a body, the building has a physical infrastructure. People communicate with language and body language, while interaction is possible with a building via switches, touchscreens, etc. And while people have a brain, a building will soon have artificial intelligence. Erik van Mossevelde also pointed out that we need to develop all of these areas and not just the infrastructure. In his view, cognitive psychology is one of the most important disciplines for the future development of intuitive buildings. This area of psychology investigates the human thought process and more specifically aspects such as problem-solving and information-processing. The results can provide important insights, such as how much control are users willing to relinquish to technology? What aspects can a building adjust automatically for you? And what do you want to keep under your own control?

Where does imec want to go with this? John Baekelmans: “Our aim at imec is to play a leading role in the smart city – and hence also with smart buildings. It’s not just about technology. We can already do a lot technologically, such as optimize solar cell technology or develop the next generation of sensor- and communication technology. But we also want to improve people’s perceptions and their interaction with the technology that’s doing their work for them in the background. That’s why our research in genuine environments is so crucial. If you don’t co-create innovations with the end-users, you don’t have much chance of succeeding.”


Want to know more?

Biography John Baekelmans

John Baekelmans is Vice-President and Managing Director imec the Netherlands. As Managing Director, he is in charge of the daily management and holds operational responsibility for imec the Netherlands. Aside from his role at imec NL, he is heading the research groups Internet of Things and Connected Health Solutions and he is responsible for the topic of Smart Cities at imec globally. John obtained a master’s degree in Computer Science from the University of Antwerp, Belgium and is a Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE). Before imec, John spent 21 years at Cisco where he held various global leadership positions within Engineering, Services and the M&A departments and has authored numerous US and European patents. John was also the co-founder of a Belgian residential solutions startup called Fifthplay. Before Cisco, John designed, implemented and operated large PBX-networks at Siemens.

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