Want Big Data and AI to transform your project? Here’s how to start.

By Jeff Carpenter 

Big Data and AI (artificial intelligence) is going to revolutionize your industry. That’s the promise of countless articles, blogs, and social media posts across nearly every sector of the building design and construction industry. It’s common for professionals across the industry to author content on the subject with 30,000-foot views of what we all “need to be prepared for someday down the road.” This includes predictions that: 

  • AI is going to change healthcare forever.  
  • Big Data will make today’s education sector unrecognizable.  
  • The Internet of Things (IoT) is going to cause a disruption in the commercial real estate and corporate office sectors 

Countless project vision statements speak to preparing for these changes or “future-proofing” the building. But how many projects can you think of that end up being truly transformational in the areas of Big Data, IoT, or AI? Probably very few, if any. 

So how exactly do we set about realizing transformational differentiation in our projects? That’s the question clients should be asking their design professionals – i.e., not the “what” but the “how.” 

Before we answer that question, let’s define some terms – not in geeky, computer science terminology, but in everyday terms that we all can understand: 

Internet of Things (IoT): IoT simply refers to equipping “things” in your building with network connectivity. Formalizing the definition slightly, IoT is giving devices (things) the ability to send and receive data over a network. The huge impact of IoT is more easily appreciated when you think about these connected “things” being devices that have never had any kind of connectivity (or intelligence) before and aren’t traditional IT devices. Examples include lighting, window coverings, and a multitude of new sensor technologies. 

Why would you consider IoT-enabled devices in your building? Because of the rise of Big Data and Artificial Intelligence. 

Big Data: Think of Big Data as a large filing cabinet filled with information. In the IT world, that large filing cabinet is typically a “structured dataset” like a database and the information stored in it can consist of the data that comes from all the IoT-connected devices. If you believe that artificial intelligence will play a role in your building someday – and you should – you will want all this data.  

Artificial Intelligence: A good way to think about AI is the use of computers to perform tasks and make decisions that otherwise have required human intervention and human decision making or are beyond the capabilities of human decision making. 

In summary, the IoT devices generate and transmit the data, providing that content to the Big Data repository which organizes and stores the data – which in turn provides the fuel to train the AI algorithms (or analytics) to make better automated decisions to control and manage devices and systems in your building to achieve a benefit that otherwise would not be achievable. 

So, let’s say you’re an owner soon to start a major building design and construction project and the issues of Big Data, IoT, and AI are of interest to you. How do you begin your transformational project? First and foremost, you must embrace the idea that these concepts require a different way of thinking about a building’s infrastructure.  

Historically, we think about technology systems, IT systems, building systems, and clinical systems as distinct silos. This siloed thinking remains part of the current approach to projects. For example: 

  • Clients typically have separate departments or staff responsible for each silo.  
  • Engineering consultants are often selected separately for each silo.  
  • Contractors are hired separately for each silo and the subcontractors for related silos may work underneath different first-tier contractors. 
  • Vendor procurement methods are often done differently for each silo. 
  • The A/E team typically conducts separate user group meetings for each silo, with the experts in each silo focused solely on their individual needs. 

Silos are the single largest reason many projects end up with potentially transformational impacts left on the value-engineering chopping block or “roughed in for the future” (a future which likely never comes). This is because the promise of IoT in a building is wholly and completely unaffordable unless you execute a deliberate process that extracts every single economy of scale allowable from each technology. For example, the traditional siloed approach can result in four or more contractors, each responsible for different systems, all purchasing and installing the exact same CAT6 cable. The inefficiencies of doing this are measurable and meaningful. Countless additional inefficiency challenges exist as well. 

Silos are your enemy. You must abandon them – and you can, because technology itself has converged into a unified ecosystem that essentially has become the third utility in a building – The Technology Utility. Unfortunately, we keep using a siloed approach with converged technology in our design and construction processes. 

When you unify the design and construction process to match the way the technology is unified, however, you can leverage all the economies of scale that this unification offers, resulting in the transformational promises of IoT becoming more affordable.  

Here are three actions that can greatly improve your chances for success: 

  1. Hire a single design and consulting professional with contractual responsibility for all the systems that create The Technology Utility – and who can articulate a convincing vision for helping structure and guide the A/E process away from silos. 
  2. Create a client-side project team specifically structured and enabled to make the decisions that are in the best interest of the project rather than in the best interest of each silo. Expect your A/E professionals to provide leadership in forming this team and incorporating it in a reimagined design and construction process. 
  3. Recognize that both the design and the consulting is equally important. The professional that you select for your project must have the thought leadership to guide the vision, as well as the detailed design expertise to make every detail a reality. 

The promise of the Internet of Things is real. The question is whether clients are willing to take the steps necessary to move away from the status quo and achieve that promise.