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What Challenges will Smart Environments Face?

The development of smart environments causes a lot of concern for both designers and skeptics. Both want to make sure that such innovations have great benefits that will greatly outweigh the costs. For this reason, it is important to question advancements as designers and engineers continue to research, test and develop smart environments.

A BRIEF DEFINITION

I recently wrote a very brief “smart environment” description as follows:

A smart environment takes the notion of interactive architecture a bit further. With the use of sensing devices and actuators it will be possible to coordinate different objects and materials in a built environment to make buildings more functional and better able meet occupant needs in real-time. One trend is to make smart environments “goal-based” (thus, occupant-centered).

CRITICAL CHALLENGES + CONCERNS

In certain circles the notion of a “smart environment” can be a very hot topic. And yes, although there are many benefits to developing such smart spaces, there are numerous reasons why people get concerned when hearing about this development. The following are a few of the challenges and concerns that I have heard expressed:

- What psychological side-effects might smart environments produce?

- How will smart environments establish a type of transparency that builds user trust by showing “how the system works” to eliminate occupant fear regarding a “loss of control”

- Smart environments must deal with privacy issues if user information is collected.

- How will smart environment technology be environmentally conscious? (Skeptics find that integrating “more technology” is wasteful and ecologically unsound.)

- What backup systems will be in place in case a smart environment has a malfunction? What will be the consequences of such failures?

- Will smart environments serve a “greater good for mankind”?

Such challenges and concerns are completely justified, and it is my hope that researchers are equally sensitive to these topics as they continue to develop solutions that solve such critical points. Nevertheless, it is still important to keep the discussion going.

WHY INNOVATION IS A KEY INGREDIENT

An emerging technology that will ultimately have profound effects on many different aspects of architecture is nanotechnology. In relation to smart environments, “nano-developments” will help to make system devices micro in size (great for embedding technologies and for getting them to communicate). Additionally, nanotechnology will lead to the progress of “new materials”— allowing building material properties to be transient and reactive, as needed. (For instance, nano-materials can make buildings much more energy efficient.)

Why is this important?

Research and technology evolves. This means that there is hope for the research, testing and refinement of smart technologies and systems. By posing the right questions about what we need, many solutions can be found. What we need is the dialogue, the awareness and the determination to integrate new technologies so that we leverage contributing to the solution of as many challenges as we possibly can. (At present, architects and engineers stand in a position to contribute greatly — for the betterment of human life and our planet.)

Nanotechnology is just one example that can greatly help many of the problems expressed above. The key is to continue with innovation.

WHAT CAN BE ACHIEVED

One primary goal is for a “smart environment” to help occupants live healthier, happier, safer and more productive lives. I do believe that such architectural progress is underway in hopes of achieving some major improvements. For instance, smart hospitals could:

- greatly reduce stress as patients go through stages of recovery

- reduce medical error by assisting medical staff with various tasks

- help with patient “activities of daily living” (grooming, etc)

- relieve patient stress while in their hospital room

- transition patients when they are ready to go home

- reduce patient recovery time

- prevent patients from having to return back to the hospital

- provide for better building energy-efficiency…

All in all, smart environments have potential to really help architecture optimize its functions and its aesthetic. The path is sensitive and meaningful application through design.

Image Credit: © Adistock | Dreamstime

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