Building whisperer set to help African cities wise up

Experts are saying that South African cities have the potential to be the first truly “smart” cities on the African continent.

February 15, 2013

Experts are saying that South African cities have the potential to be the first truly “smart” cities on the African continent and develop significant competitive advantage in this regard, if the conversation starts now.

According to David Bartlett, head of IBM’s Smarter Buildings initiative, there is a global urgency to create smarter cities, corporate buildings and campuses.

Buildings currently consume over 40% of the world’s energy and emit more carbon dioxide into the environment than cars. By 2025, buildings will be the largest energy consumers on earth with energy costs alone representing about 30% of an office building’s total operating costs. What’s more, up to 50% of energy and water used in buildings is wasted on average. While 85% of companies say they are focused on sustainability, only 30% collect data with enough frequency to make changes needed to improve their building’s efficiency.

In South Africa, World Bank statistics show that 62% of South Africa’s population live in urban areas. This is predicted to grow by 1.2% annually. With more of the population living and working in urban areas across the country, and the energy demand expected to double by 2030, the need to create sustainable cities is becoming non negotiable.

With the unprecedented proliferation of smart sensors and control systems over the last decade, many buildings have the ability to measure, sense and see the exact condition of practically everything in them. But these systems often operate independently; understanding a building from a holistic point of view requires collaboration between facilities and IT organisations at new levels and creates the need for new transformational skills in organisations and business.

“The ultimate smart city, building or campus is one where all the systems share information with each other,” says Bartlett, who adds that smarter buildings can save as much as 40% on energy costs, 50% on water, and up to 30% on building maintenance.

Bartlett has been heralded as the “building whisperer” by the likes of Forbes and Facilities Engineering on account of his insight into smarter infrastructure solutions, how wasteful energy practices affect the bottom line and the enormous potential of sustainability practices for businesses of all sizes. He will be in South Africa next week as a guest of Innov8 Africa, a Cape Town-based IT Consulting and Solutions company and IBM business partner, and the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business.

Both organisations are leading the charge in developing expertise and capacity in sustainable cities and solutions. Innov8 Africa is investing heavily in building a sustainability solutions practice and UCT is the first university on the continent to sign the International Sustainable University Network Charter. The two are in discussions to launch a first-of-its-kind postgraduate diploma in smart building innovation in order to lay the groundwork for an expected surge of interest in this area.

UCT has also recently partnered with Innov8 Africa to make its campuses smarter by building on its existing IT infrastructure to introduce sustainability controls, of utilities and buildings.

According to Innov8 Africa Group CEO Anthony Nartey, recent studies by Pike Research shows that the market for commercial building automation systems will double over the next decade, from 72.5 billion dollars in 2011 to 146.4 billion dollars in 2021 and if South Africa is quick on the uptake in adopting smart building technology it will be at the vanguard of a new global movement.

“We are at the tipping point. There is vast potential in South Africa to become a global hub of expertise in this area,” he said. “The country has the intellectual resources necessary and there is significant investment interest.”

Director of the UCT GSB Walter Baets agrees: “We need to move in this direction if we are committed to sustainability that is also inclusive,” he said. “You can’t have true sustainability unless it involves people, and urban infrastructure is a critical part of this.”

“Smart buildings is not only about saving energy, natural resources and money, but it’s also about improving quality of life. David Bartlett is the perfect person to talk about what exists, what’s available, what is still to come, and to get this very important conversation going,” says Baets.

Bartlett, who has worked with numerous university and cities in the US and Europe to implement smarter systems – often resulting in radical savings and improved quality of life – says that he was inspired to make the trip to South Africa because he thinks there is an opportunity to do the same at UCT and in Cape Town.

“Universities are the natural game changer (towards more sustainable cities) because they are able to think horizontally and they hold a trusted position in cities. Their agenda is to help move things forward,” he said. “I see the University of Cape Town and the City of Cape Town as being the next big story.”