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Markets & Geopolitics

Big data, smart cities, and intelligent buildings

Big data offers the opportunity to understand the way both natural and human systems work and the technologies have already entered into widespread use, changing the way the urban realm is being analysed and managed.

Tony Mulhall, Associate Director, International Professional Standards Team, RICS
6 March 2018

Big data, smart cities, intelligent buildings – surveying in a digital world looks at the effect the technology trends have had so far on cities, infrastructure and the wider surveying profession, and how the profession and beyond can seize opportunity and mitigate risk.

Big Data

PropTech, underpinned by big data, is already transforming the urban landscape. Big data operates on a variety of scales from individual people or devices, to buildings and streets, to urban systems and even to whole cities.

At the smallest scale, big data will be used by individuals in apps, such as intelligent maps, which actively guide users through transport networks. At another level, big data gives intelligent buildings the ability to monitor and regulate themselves. This means a building management system can manage heating or cooling and can automatically control light levels in specific rooms. Such buildings are also capable of monitoring their own states of repair, allowing preventative maintenance work to be flagged before serious or dangerous problems develop.

At the highest scales under consideration, big data offers the opportunity for improvements in urban systems such as transport, infrastructure, and urban development. Smart cities will integrate these different scales to deliver new understandings of the interaction between people and their surroundings, and influence how urban systems are used in the real world.

With big data applications at this scale, cities become sentient, taking on a new level of automation, as intelligent buildings and complex information systems gain autonomous functionality. This will allow for greater efficiency in the use of city resources such as energy, transport, water, and the state of repair of crucial pieces of infrastructure. These cities will also minimise the disruption caused by maintenance work as an understanding of how various urban systems interact with one another and their citizens inform planning strategies before any closures effect changes to the system.

A new set of challenges

Aside from the multi-faceted changes that are already being seen as a result of big data, there is also a new set of challenges that must be dealt with. The first of these is the processing and analysis of big data: the amount of information available goes beyond the capabilities of familiar statistical tools, and this means that new systems and tools are needed to handle it.

Next, there are the skills required for professionals to work with big data. While this may come with challenges, and with increased training requirements to augment the new possibilities of big data applications, this also comes with new opportunities. Experienced professionals have the opportunity to combine their expert and existing knowledge with new technology and enhanced data. One key benefit of big data is in the potential to make evidence-based policy decisions.

While big data changes the range of qualifications needed in professional teams, as computing and data specialists take on greater relevance, this also gives industry the chance to work together and cross sectors and disciplines. It is important however, that the risk in the UK given the existing skills shortages, is acknowledged and addressed. There are already skills shortages in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects.

Big data represents a technology that delivers many benefits. It offers an opportunity for those who can successfully navigate and implement the technology landscape, but the risk of professional marginalisation in the face of changing technologies is present professionals need to keep abreast of developments and to embrace new skill sets if the relevance of the profession is to be maintained and strengthened in the future.

The World Built Environment Forum facilitates industry leading discussions harnessing the enormous potential of the 21st century's people and places.