Internet of Buildings: The New Epoch of Computing

Internet of Buildings:
The New Epoch of Computing

by PAUL DOHERTY, AIA | Feb 18, 2015

As noted in 'hacker historian' George Dyson’s 2012 book, Turing’s Cathedral, there are two kinds of bits in the digital universe: bits that represent structure (differences in space) and bits that represent sequence (differences in time).

Digital computers, as formalized by Alan Turing, and delivered by John von Neumann, are machines and devices that translate between these two types of bits, according to definitive rules. All kinds of computers, from mainframes to PCs to today’s Smartphones, derive from this basis of design. This means that we have data (numbers that mean things) and executable instructions (numbers that do things), including instructions to transfer control to another location, and to do something else, like say, define the vast environment of the Internet.

This statue of Alan Turing sits at Bletchley Park, some 50 miles northwest of London. His contributions there during WWII helped break the Nazi Enigma code and are depicted in the Oscar-nominated film The Imitation Game. 

This statue of Alan Turing sits at Bletchley Park, some 50 miles northwest of London. His contributions there during WWII helped break the Nazi Enigma code and are depicted in the Oscar-nominated film The Imitation Game. 

Although this basis of design has brought extraordinary strides in improving the human condition over the past 60+ years since the creation of the first digital computer, it has its limits. The rigidity of the Turing-von Neumann architecture of digital computers leads to logical inefficiency of the machines which, unlike living information processors, can only do one thing at a time. This leaves the majority of the elaborate structure of the Turing-von Neumann architecture idle at any moment in time. 

present at the creation

Due to the limitations of the current state of digital architecture, we are now witnessing the birth of a new architecture, an architecture that sits atop our current reliable substrate, an architecture that takes its form not just from bits and bytes, but from a new breed of bricks and mortar. Welcome to the new age... the new epoch of computing... the world of buildings as computers...

Welcome to the Internet of Buildings!

Google represents a first glimpse of how this new age of is emerging as an “oracle machine,” using its own deterministic states with the non-deterministic input of human queries. It grows in intelligence organically like an organism, a primitive form of Artificial Intelligence (AI). In the way the Turing-von Neumann machines allowed the understanding that numbers could mean numeric values or instructions, our new age creates the understanding that data can be described as a noun or a verb. 

Need evidence? Witness the following realities in the Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC), Facility Management (FM), and Corporate Real Estate (CRE) industries that have emerged in just the past few years:

  • Improved AEC operations that use digital technologies like BIM, 4D and other process improvements in a digital format that creates the Digital DNA of each building;
  • Smart Buildings that can use an array of Building Automation Systems (BAS), building control systems and other operation and maintenance digital solutions (digital work order management, CAFM, etc.) to create authenticated Big Data on a daily basis;
  • Government policies and contractual deliverables that require digital submissions of each building for things like permitting and “As-Built/Record Documents”;
  • The growth and dominance of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to be used beyond mapping and seen as a foundation for other geospatial uses and solutions

The convergence of these realities has produced the initial elements of generated geo-located data that is associated with a building. In fact, individual buildings are using and, in most cases, creating data that is geospatially associated to itself in such a way as to become its own storage container of data (memory = noun), that can be served up on call like a computer server (processor = verb). In effect, every building has the opportunity to become a server. And when you connect buildings that are servers together, you then have a network. And if you connect networks of buildings together, you have an Internetwork of Buildings… or the Internet of Buildings (IoB).

Years from now, we will chuckle at our current state of having to build high-performance buildings to house servers called "data centers" so that our current crop of Turing-von Neumann computers work as efficiently and effectively as possible. In our emerging epoch of IoB, each building will be its own data center, although there is no actual center to the data--only geospatial associations to a physical place on the planet Earth (and, as we move to Outer Space, coordinate-based physical places)

The distributed nature of data that exploded into the consciousness of humanity through the emergence of the Internet is now taking on a new form of existence via the geolocation of this data to specific objects, like buildings, infrastructure and other assets, both above ground and below. This contextualization of data is the basis of design for our new IoB age.

Since the creation and association of the digital DNA of the built environment is based on Turing-von Neumann machines, the opportunity exists to emancipate this data from the limitations of how we know how to compute today into a new state of being… a state that will incorporate computers with buildings and organically use, store, and process their data as an organism. This organism will not be a soul-less application like today’s Google, but rather an AI that will have empathy to its environment and to its inhabitants, focused on safety, security, and a better user experience. The best technologies are those transparent to the process. In the emerging reality of the IoB, technologies are not only transparent but invisibly integrated into the fabric of life, where the worlds of virtual and reality are effectively blurred beyond recognition. 

All things 'cyber-physical'

The U.S. government, through the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), calls this the Cyber-Physical world, which describes the current phase of tech evolution perfectly. The market is calling this emerging age the Internet of Things (IoT), while other companies are calling it the Internet of Everything. Regardless, they will be unmanageable if there is no context, like a geospatial element (building, bridge, tunnel, etc.).

This context provides access to the IoB concept for the masses. Just as people care more about their actual conversations on a Smartphone than the technology that allows them to happen, the IoT needs to move into the background and allow the millions of known and unknown solutions associated with the physical world to provide context and meaning to the masses. The built environment provides this context. It is familiar, it is transparent… it is reality meeting the virtual.

So we have a collision of one of the world’s largest and most populous industries (AEC/FM) with one of the world’s most innovative industries (Tech). When a disruption of this magnitude happens, the shift is seismic. Knowing that this collision is happening provides you with the knowledge to either get run over or to align yourself to it for success. This collision is resulting in the re-alignment of power in each industry.

New paradigms of efficiency

GC business models, PC manufacturers, and proprietary software programmers are about to be tossed into the dustbin of history due to this collision… not because they are bad people or doing a bad job. It’s just that their “Cheese Has Moved” and most of them do not even know it yet. In the past, GCs created power by being the “middle man” between the sub trades and the contract. Today, however, that GC business model is about to be worked around as more and more specialty trades use the Internet and authenticated data to source work, perform work, and maintain relationships with owners of physical assets.

As an owner, if I have the ability to easily source solutions (Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing, etc.) and mandate that they provide me with accurate, up-to-date data, then it is within my rights to inspect that as a performance measure -- especially in the context of revenue and relevance with the potential growth of Smart City policies and procedures.

Once not long ago, this theory of developing the physical real estate world through the implementation of Smart City technologies and solutions that would normally be relegated to the corners of R&D, academia or one-off test bed projects could have been dismissed as just theory.

We are proud to announce that this is not the case.

There are three Greenfield projects ongoing now in different parts of the globe that are implementing a Smart City, design-build-implement procurement methodology and framework. Over the next three years, we will publish the data sets as these amazing Smart City projects become operational. And we look forward to learning, understanding, and repositioning solutions with feedback from those on the ground in these new Smart Cities. Technology, by itself, is not that interesting or exciting… Technology in context with people, places and things, we are only just beginning to explore. With that in mind, to my fellow explorers, I simply say: "Always make something and be innovative… it is your destiny."


A co-founder of the AEC Hackathon, the author is president & CEO of the digit group inc., a senior fellow at the Design Futures Council, and an expert on Smart City solutions. Email:

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