Spying On Workers

Tomorrow's Buildings will look at how technology is making our offices smarter, our homes more affordable and even transforming building sites.

Ask someone what they dislike about working in an office and the list will probably be long.

It is likely to include: workload, the boss, colleagues, uncomfortable chairs, lack of light, no decent food in the canteen and Arctic air-conditioning.

Technology may soon be able to ease the last of these, offering a better working environment by allowing workers to control their heating via a smartphone app.

But does that come at a price? Do the sensors that are increasingly making the office environment smarter also mean that workers are under constant surveillance?

Welcome to the brave new world of the smart office.

Research firm Gartner predicts that commercial buildings will have more than 500 million "connected things" during 2016.

The biggest driver for this is to improve energy efficiency - currently commercial buildings account for 40% of the world's electricity consumption.

By embedding hundreds of sensors in walls, ceilings or even lights, the systems that keep the office running smoothly can be connected and in turn these building management systems (BMS) can be connected to the corporate network and the internet.

At Deloitte's headquarters in Amsterdam, workers can control the lights, heating and blinds via an app, while in London building consultant Arup is experimenting with smart desks - embedding sensors in them and hooking them up to smartphone apps to allow people to control lighting and heating.

Smarter systems offer huge potential energy savings - estimates range between 20% and 50%.

"A staggering amount of energy is wasted on heating empty offices, homes and partially occupied buildings," said Carlo Ratti, who heads up the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Senseable Cities lab.

His team is working on a project that measures the number of people in a building and adjusts heating and lighting accordingly - with a view to turning an empty building "off", just like a computer goes into standby mode when not in use.

He is also working on localized heating and cooling systems, which can provide a precise, personal climate for each occupant using "an array of responsive infrared heating elements that are guided by sophisticated motion tracking".

"Individual thermal 'clouds' follow people through space, ensuring ubiquitous comfort while improving overall energy efficiency," he explained.

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