For Hongwei Liu, the problem was always finding the right classes at the beginning of the semester. For others, it's finding the right meeting room, or finding the right aisle in a supermarket.

The seemingly simple science of finding things indoors doesn’t have a digital solution. Yet Liu’s efforts to solve that problem, and the emerging field of so-called smart building technology, are now pushing towards a bigger goal: saving the planet, one building at a time.

Liu, a former University of Waterloo student and the founder of indoor mapping startup MappedIn, joined fellow entrepreneur Ritesh Patel, a University of Waterloo grad and founder of BuildScience, at the #RBCDisruptors event on Jan. 24 to talk about how a new generation of connected buildings are improving the shopping experience, cutting carbon emissions and increasing productivity for Canadians.

Both Liu and Patel cite efficiency as a core purpose for their product—whether that’s the use of space or the use of resources.

MappedIn uses data from property managers to build interior maps of shopping malls, airports, hospitals and more. Using the company’s data, mall owners can direct customers to the right store, airlines can get you to your flight on time, and hospitals can direct you to the right room to get the care you need. In the corporate world, MappedIn helps employees find one another, locate new desks in co-working spaces and spend less time searching for open meeting rooms.

BuildScience offers a software platform that allows property owners to control all of their systems and sensors, like thermostats, security cameras and overhead lighting, through a single interface. The platform breaks down the data by floor and even by room, allowing managers to identify problem areas and inefficiencies as well as customize the environment for different uses.

Thinking through design

For years, Liu said, building management and indoor design was considered unimportant, and managers and architects didn’t think too deeply about how humans use the space around them.

“In the past, space management was always done intuitively,” he said. “Now the digital visitor experience of a physical building, the digital assets of physical assets are suddenly very important to this large industry.”

What changed, he said, is the rise of a different kind of consumer culture and a new knowledge of how buildings affect the environment.

For years, the shared wisdom of supermarket designers everywhere was to put the most frequently purchased items—milk and eggs—as far from the entrance as possible, to entice customers along the way with impulse buys and irresistible deals. The same logic applied to department stores, where labyrinthine layouts encouraged browsing at a leisurely pace.

“Every single bricks-and-mortar business has a user experience problem,” Liu said. “Consumers had all this choice and not much time. Now, the opposite is true.”

With the rise of online shopping and other alternatives, he said, retailers want to make their spaces more efficient—and that’s where MappedIn comes in.

The company can detail interior maps down to the products on the shelves, and stores can use that data to monitor how shoppers actually move through the space.

The key for redesigning interiors, Liu said, is turning that data about customer behaviour and interior layouts into actionable insights. It’s about challenging conventional wisdom by crunching the numbers, like the Oakland Athletics did for baseball, and following where those insights lead.

“We want to ask: how can you make this into Moneyball?” he said.

Building green

As consumer appetites have changed, so too has our knowledge of the impact of climate change.

The Canada Green Building Council says buildings generate more than a third of Canada’s greenhouse gases, more than a third of our landfill waste comes from construction, and nearly three quarters of municipal water usage is in and around buildings.

Patel said the BuildScience platform, because it ties together a building’s sensors and monitoring tools, helps clarify the importance, not to mention the business sense, of cutting energy use.

“The best way to leverage our software is to measure what was previously unmeasured,” he said. “You can’t fix what you can’t measure.”

By networking things like AI-controlled thermostats and lighting systems, he said, building managers can optimize their usage and cut costs and emissions for everyone.

“There’s a lot of waste that occurs because somebody leaves a valve open,” Patel said. “It goes undetected until the utility bill comes in. It’s better if you can find out the day of.”

Smart prductivity

The benefits of smart buildings aren’t simply shorter shopping trips and lower emissions. With rich data, customizable spaces, and 24/7 monitoring, smart buildings can actually improve the work of those who use them.

The latest LEED-certified green buildings already provide a boost to productivity. A UCLA study found a 16 per cent boost for green companies, and the World Green Building Council says its data shows a productivity boost of 18 per cent. Patients in green hospitals built with smart design have 8.5 per cent shorter stays. And a report from Dodge Data & Analytics says green buildings, whether new or renovated, command a 7 per cent increase in asset value over traditional buildings.

Liu said every building manager’s challenge is boosting the productivity of their spaces, whether that’s measured in retail sales, sick days taken, or manufacturing output.

Big companies have amalgamated offices and moved to initiatives such as flexible desk spaces and remote work, he said, but then need services such as MappedIn to help employees find each other.

“They’ve gone from extreme asset inefficiency in terms of space allocation to human inefficiency in terms of collaboration,” he said. “There’s a middle ground, and we’re helping them figure it out.”

Patel said helping to save the planet isn’t the most powerful message for selling his BuildScience platform. It’s that that the efficiency and productivity gains make business sense.

He pointed to Calgary, where the oil bust has left a buyer’s market in terms of commercial space.

“When it comes to marketing your space, making it green, making it customizable, making it more efficient and more productive for your employees is a selling feature,” he said.

While flexible workspaces are the new norm, he said, humans are still most productive when they’re working together—and smart buildings are the best places to do so.

“How we’ve prospered on this planet is collaboration and increased productivity just by being together,” he said. “Office spaces are still the best places to get work done together. And that’s why big companies like RBC will spend lots of money to rent property, because they believe it will help their employees be the most productive they can be and achieve the goals of the company.”

John Stackhouse and Peter Henderson contributed to this piece.

John Stackhouse is a nationally bestselling author and one of Canada's leading voices on innovation and economic disruption. He is senior vice-president in the office of the CEO at Royal Bank of Canada, leading the organization's research and thought leadership on economic, technological and social change. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail and editor of Report on Business. He is a senior fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. His latest book is Planet Canada: How Our Expats Are Shaping the Future, which explores the untapped resource of the millions of Canadians who don't live here but exert their influence from afar.

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