Property Australia

Why it's time to start spending on smart tech


The smart building of today won’t be smart for long. But that can’t stop the property industry from investing in smart cities technology, says the University of Wollongong’s Dr Pascal Perez.

A world leader in his field, Perez uses advanced data analytics and simulation to explore the interactions between complex social and technological systems.

A keynote speaker at the Property Council’s upcoming Future Cities Summit on 24 May, Perez is also director of the University of Wollongong’s SMART Infrastructure Facility.350x350 Pascal Perez

When it comes to the smart cities race, Perez says Australia is lagging the global leaders, notably Europe, because we haven’t yet connected the deployment of technology to its real-world impact on people.

Analyst Gartner predicts that the number internet-of-things devices in buildings will grow to 20 billion by the end of 2020.

While all these devices, systems and sensors are being deployed in homes, offices, cars, streets and shopping centres around the world, making sure they ‘talk’ to each other is proving a headache.

For a smart building to meet energy, environmental, economic and social targets, it needs a highly-connected building automation system in which different parts can communicate with one another and adjust accordingly. And most buildings are not yet able to do this, Perez says.

Interoperability – bringing all devices together to deliver a seamless user experience – shouldn’t be “black magic”, Perez adds. He’s bringing some European experts to Australia in May to demonstrate how interoperable smart solutions for buildings are possible.

“All the providers selling smart appliances for residential buildings are a fair way down the track in terms of interoperability, regardless of the manufacturer. But now we have to do this at the commercial building, precinct and city scale,” he says.

Perez emphasises the word ‘smarter’ over ‘smart’ when it comes to this technology because “the way we use these devices is not always that smart”.

While consumers are being sold on the liveability-enhancing appeal of smart home devices, the reality is Australia has prioritised “productivity-focused solutions” like “smart lights, smart parking, smart bins – you name it,” he says.

“But if we don’t engage with people and ensure they feel they have control of the invisible systems around them, then we will create paranoia,” he warns.

He says concern around data and privacy continues to “move very fast” and the European Union, in particular, is “very serious” about standards and regulations in the smart cities and IoT world. Several tech titans have been hit with multi-billion-dollar fines from the EU in the last few months for privacy and data breaches alone.

“If we want the smart city to be revolutionary – to be good for people, the economy and the environment – then we need to involve people from the start. A revolution without people or with people who don’t understand what it means won’t work.”

Councils are to a large degree at the coalface of smart cities deployment, and they are beginning to look beyond “tech for tech’s sake” and towards “solving people’s problems”. But the property industry continues to hold off large-scale investment while they wait for the “next big thing”.

“The biggest problem we face is that what is smart now will be dumb tomorrow. We have lots of vendors selling products, most of which will be obsolete within two, three or five years. Unfortunately, the private sector will face the usual tech lock-in and have wasted money in capex.”

This may alarm those holding the purse strings, but Perez says the desire to future-proof shouldn’t hold back investment.

“We can’t wait until the technology arrives that is smart now and also for the next one hundred years – that will never happen.

“So be brave and try new technology, keeping in mind that whatever you invest in today might not survive the next decade. You have to be ready for that. But when you are, you create safety nets and you learn – and when the next new technology comes you are ready.”

Perez points to the rapid adoption of mobile phone technology as an example of this approach in action. “We all started with 2G and now everyone is waiting for 5G. But we all learned together.”

And that’s how property leaders need to think – because “the time to engage is now”.

Pascal Perez will be unpacking the opportunities and obstacles to smart cities at Hilton Sydney on Friday 24 May as the Property Council hosts the first Future Cities Summit. A limited number of tickets are still available.