“Smart City” Applications

by Chris Horney

As we addressed in class most recently, the term “Smart City” is inherently vague and unclear as to what that actually means and whom that actually benefits. While I believe that there are many beneficiaries of a said “Smart City” (residents, building owners, utilities, building owners, governments, public health facilities, schools, mass transit operators), each ends up having their own motivations, methods of extracting rent and valuing the benefits. Therefore, I think it is fruitless to analyze the system as a whole, but rather focus on one portion of a “Smart City”, so I am choosing building owners specifically.

Buildings have a lifecycle that begins as a sketch on paper or the computer, transitions to design, through construction, and ultimately through its useful life with its inhabitants. A big reason the design/build process and in turn the built environment has not seen huge gains in productivity and are ultimately inefficient is because of its fragmentation of the market across all segments, in design, construction, supply, and operations. Each segment is implementing technology, but one big challenge is that each segment hasn’t had great interoperability. I believe that is set to change over the next 5-15 years and I believe it will ultimately benefit building owners and the end users as being a “Smart City” application that will help revolutionize how we design, build, and operate buildings.

Autodesk, a design and engineering software company, has systematically become the industry standard in design for many engineering and architectural firms. They have bought many companies over the years and most recently have done a roll-up of construction software companies that makes the integration between design and construction much more seamless (see Navisworks, Vela, etc.). This software now can do complete simulations of energy use, structural analysis, and also then transition into creating the actual design of the building. With the recent construction acquisitions, all trades are using the same software or software that is interoperable, so many of the issues of inefficiency in construction with waste is becoming a time of the past with the prefabrication off-site because of in-software modeling and detailing. Finally, they also have been able to begin the tracking and implementation of the equipment in the building from the construction phase, which I believe will ultimately lead to the operations of the building.

While Autodesk has yet to transition into facilities management software, they are not far away from being able to either design it themselves or acquire a company like FM Systems, which would then allow them to provide end to end software to the built environment that would allow engineers to design something that they know will be kept throughout the process and ultimately used by the operators of the building. If this could happen, much waste would be eliminated from the entire system and would allow buildings to become much “smarter” and be a much more sophisticated part of the “Smart City.” And because Autodesk has the dominant stake-hold at the beginning of the lifecycle, I think they are poised to be able to not only add value to all players along the value chain, but also then extract value for a very long time. Think of this as the Microsoft Windows of the built environment, with each piece of software along the way being analogous to Word, Excel, Powerpoint, or Access.