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If you want to find a way to make a city smarter, perhaps the most important place to look at is what makes up the actual foundation of a city—it’s buildings. And the move to create smart buildings, which is underway at full force, is an important part of a bigger movement. According to a recent report, IDC FutureScape: Worldwide Smart Cities and Communities 2021 Predictions, smart city investments will hit $203 billion by 2024 and create a market value of $2.46 trillion by 2025.

As smart buildings evolve, experts are looking at ways to retrofit existing buildings, which make up the vast majority of a city’s landscape, to smart standards, rather than working on developing them from scratch. Laurent Bataille, executive vice president of the Digital Energy Division at Schneider Electric, has been working on helping apply smart principles to existing infrastructure, using sensors, solar power conversion and other tech.

Smart buildings will be the bedrock of next-generation smart cities, he believes, which can have both environmental benefits, getting us closer to Net Zero CO₂, and financial implications, helping save money on things like heating and power. According to Connected Cities USA, buildings are responsible for up to 70% of energy consumption in big cities, and of 30% of greenhouse emissions.

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In his work, Bataille has seen “a transformation on the stock of existing buildings. If you deploy smart technology at the place of new projects, it’s not enough to tackle the issue of CO₂ emissions, for instance,” he said.

Existing buildings pose some challenges, Bataille said, because they are owned and operated by many decision-makers. “If you really want to move the needle on smarter cities,” he said, “there’s the question of regulation, at city-level—because then you can apply the same framework of expected technology on the various building owners.” For instance, NYC requires improvements on the energy-efficiency of buildings.

By forming an ecosystem, smart buildings can not only improve themselves, but they can connect with a greater network of structures—like part of a campus. And the benefits also can extend beyond the existing network, as well. At the Vizelia building in Nanterre, France, for instance, Schneider’s smart building sends back the energy to neighboring villages, Bataille said. In fact, it is precisely these kinds of peer-to-peer discussions that he sees as essential, adding that these developments “cannot come from top-down decisions.”

Existing buildings can be fitted with Internet of Things sensors relatively easily, he said. In EcoStruxure Building Operation, these capabilities on the cloud are “agnostic of the BMS (building management system),” Bataille said. Essentially, they make the BMS smarter through software—they extract data from the existing BMS, “recompute them in a different manner through [artificial intelligence] and new algorithms, and then inject back the insights into the BMS system to make them smarter,” he explained. This kind of cloud-based solution does have some drawbacks: For instance, data bandwith may be limited on existing buildings. Still, Bataille said that you can get two-thirds of the benefits for just a fraction of the overall cost.

So what is a self-healing building? One example Bataille cites is heating and cooling. Smart cloud-based buildings can deliver insights beyond what can be detected by a facility manager. For instance, even if the temperature is right, the structure may be heating and cooling simultaneously, using twice as much energy as required. A “building advisor” platform that Schneider offers uses an integrated web-based management system to create work orders and generate a hypothesis. Better yet, “all of that can be automated,” he added, and the solution “can resolve 60-70% of the issues remotely. The building is almost correcting itself.”

COVID-19 has dramatically altered the way we live and work, with a huge shift to the hybrid work environment. As a result, Bataille believes we will see more mixed-use buildings and campuses. “The idea of a building that is purely residential, or a hotel, is progressively going to morph,” he said. “Developers and building owners want to have an efficient infrastructure.

“Still, the attractivity of cities,” he added, “is here to stay.”