Integrating Humanity and Technology in Smart City Design

September 21, 2018

By Dr. Steve Griffiths

As the global population continues to migrate to cities, the quality of life for city residents is becoming increasingly influenced by the degree of sophistication, sustainability and user-friendliness that city services and infrastructure provide.

Buildings are key pillars of city infrastructure and a primary focus of smart city developments that leverage technology to achieve high levels of resource efficiency and quality of life for city inhabitants. Buildings today are increasingly capable of displaying truly intelligent behavior by learning the resource needs of occupants, integrating electric vehicle charging and discharging into their energy supply and demand profiles, responding to changing weather conditions, and automatically altering behaviors to maximize resource efficiency.

However, such intelligence for resource efficiency is just one aspect of the ultimate value that smart cities and buildings can create for businesses and consumers.


The concept of efficient and intelligent buildings has progressed quickly, with a wide assortment of equipment, materials and services now available to support very high levels of building resource efficiency. Between 2003 and 2013, the energy intensity of commercial buildings in the United States fell by 10% due to implementation of standards, regulations and supportive energy efficiency technologies.

Building energy management systems now incorporate a wide spectrum of capabilities ranging from building control systems to rapid energy modeling and assessment tools that support high levels of energy efficiency. A number of companies are competing in the building energy management space with novel technologies and business models that have made cost effective energy efficiency readily achievable.

However, the ultimate goal of building intelligence should not be energy efficiency per se. Rather it should be efficiency that supports triple bottom line sustainability, which includes social and economic sustainability in addition to environmental sustainability.

Intelligent building innovations are therefore increasingly being developed to not only improve energy and broader resource consumption efficiency, but also the productivity, health and comfort of people.

According to the World Green Building Council, staff costs, including salaries and benefits, typically account for nearly 90% of business operating costs and so even modest improvements in employee health and productivity from modifications to the work environment can have significantly larger financial impact than savings associated with building efficiency improvements alone.

Hence, the most important innovations in intelligent buildings and cities will derive from a focus on the comfort, productivity and well-being of people in addition to resource utilization efficiency.
Efficient and intelligent cities and buildings must therefore adopt hardware and information technology solutions that simultaneously address resource consumption and the factors that impact the productivity of people.


Solutions designed to simultaneously optimize resource consumption and worker productivity need to provide integrated sensing, analysis and response capabilities targeted at key ambient environmental factors. In homes and offices, ambient environmental factors of significant importance include air quality, temperature, noise and lighting.

Optimizing each of these factors can have a significant influence on the well-being and productivity of people. For instance, the World Green Building Council has cited studies suggesting a 10% reduction in workplace performance when office temperatures are either 7 ⁰C above or below a baseline range of 21 ⁰C to 23⁰C. Similarly, research has shown that office productivity improvements of 8 to 11% can be achieved as a result of building air quality improvements.

Similar quantitative outcomes are found with the impacts of ambient lighting and noise levels. Based on these data, the ability to measure and analyze ambient environmental data and respond automatically with actions that optimize resource efficiency and building occupant comfort simultaneously is needed for intelligent building systems. One of the interesting solutions that has been developed to meet this need is the “Comfy” system from the company Building Robotics.

Comfy utilizes a combination of human and computer intelligence to allow buildings to quickly adapt to individual perceptions of thermal comfort. The system works by providing building occupants with the ability input their ambient temperature preferences via smartphone and web-based applications.

Based on aggregation of these inputs, the system leverages machine learning to optimize temperature for both energy savings and comfort-related productivity enhancements. The same approach of using collective human feedback to guide learning and adaption can be applied to a number of building systems and operations.


At the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, research is being conducted at the intersection of energy and information science to achieve sustainable, smart city innovations for the UAE that take into consideration how resource efficiency solutions interact with people and their wellbeing.

Research programs have been designed with the integration of urban design, building technologies and human interaction at the core. As an example, a large collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is focused on microclimate and urban energy analysis, leveraging data from wide area sensor networks and remote sensing for the development of models that guide building development and adaption in the UAE.

In the UAE, such integrated design is of particular importance because the health and productivity of people inside and outside of buildings is challenged by an ambient environment with high levels of dust, solar insolation, temperature and humidity. Other research projects and programs at Masdar Institute utilize agent based modeling as well as collection and analysis of large and complex data sets from a variety of sensing sources to achieve an understanding of how energy, economics and social well-being converge to realize an optimized built environment.

The underlying paradigm being pursued is that smart cities and buildings must be architected to learn and adapt to the people and environmental circumstances that they are intended to benefit.

Dr. Steve Griffiths is Vice President for Research at Masdar Institute of Science and Technology.
20 March 2016
This op-ed was first published in Issue 24 of Innovation and Tech