Innovation that crosses sector boundaries – software vendors take note: it can be done

Sometimes technological innovation of the kind that transcends sectoral boundaries is the result of chance, and sometimes it is the result of deliberate planning – an intentional ‘lift, drop and port’ exercise where an entrenched way of doing things in one sector is shown to be inefficient by comparison with an analogous situation in another sector.

It is this type of thinking that led to the creation of a machine-to-machine (M2M) platform initially focused on the needs of real estate management companies, property developers, and building owners and designers. And from there, the platform has been generalised into one capable of being extended to multiple sectors that face a common set of technical challenges, though with very specific detailed requirements. Steve Lewis, co-founder and CEO of Living PlanIT, explains how the company’s PlanIT OS came into being.

Buildings are like aircraft and submarines

“When we started in 2006 we looked at the big trends that would affect cities in the future, and tried to imagine what platform could support cities in responding to these. We found a couple of things early on. First, many sustainable city projects are concerned with transportation and utilities, but actually, people spend 90% of their time in buildings and it is buildings that consume the great bulk of natural resources. Second, the urban real estate sector was very conservative, and quite ill-informed about ICT – it takes a proprietary approach to everything,” says Lewis. He adds that smart cities and intelligent buildings have the greatest diversity of data acquisition scenarios, and hence the greatest need for the type of platform that eventually became the multi-vertical PlanIT OS. “Most M2M applications are highly specialized and vertical, with one or two sensor types and simple analytics; we designed PlanIT OS to deal with over 10,000 classes of sensors and actuators, deployed in tens of millions - and the number and diversity of sensor and actuator classes is growing exponentially,” he says.

Lewis’s multidisciplinary team realised that buildings are quite similar in many respects to other large, technically complex, long-lifetime, capital intensive entities – like aircraft and submarines – but that they are designed, built and used differently because of the way that they are valued in the market. “We knew that organisations designing and building large industrial items adopt a ‘product lifecycle management’ (PLM) approach, and that this isn’t done with buildings because the way the market works does not incentivise an end-to-end view. For instance, building designers and developers install proprietary technology for environmental control systems and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, but typically leave the building’s information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure to the tenant. The result is that neither party has a proper incentive to adopt an integrated, technologically advanced approach to building controls.”

Lift, drop, port - Living PlanIT

Living PlanIT developed return-on-investment cases to prove that using PlanIT OS a building with an embedded but distributed ICT-intensive design can both reduce capex and opex, and provide a revenue opportunity from the sale of compute resources and building data that is valuable to third parties beyond the building itself. The PlanIT OS simulation and analytics components enable capex reduction for design and build, and the cash that is freed up can be invested in more sophisticated technology and materials that the platform can orchestrate to reduce opex; increased operating income comes from applications delivered on the platform.

Simple changes to established processes, enabled by ICT

Cost reductions can come from quite simple changes to established processes, enabled through technology: “If a building warms up in one place, a traditional HVAC approach is to move air around in response. But if you know that the warming is happening near a big window facing the sun, then you can simply reduce the amount of sunlight coming through the glass,” says Lewis. This overlaying of sensor data with spatial awareness of the sensor network is one key part of the  PlanIT OS platform – though the contextualising of sensor data to enable better analysis and response is not limited to the use of spatial data overlays.

Living PlanIT has succeeded in the smart city arena – it has established significant technology partnership with very large technology providers, and has several reference cases for its Urban Operating System (the implementation of PlanIT OS for smart cities and intelligent buildings). The Urban Operating System contains adapters for proprietary building control and management systems, turnkey analytics and applications.

But what’s really exciting Steve Lewis and the rest of the company right now is the potential to expand into other M2M applications through the involvement of partners in the company’s ecosystem. The PlanIT OS's key elements are data acquisitions and real-time control, spatial analytics and presentation services (to support applications). Its open architecture, commoditisation of comms and computing infrastructure layers, and technology (in part developed from the motorsport/automotive sector) that can deal with very large amounts of data of multiple types, in real time, is finding application in other sectors.

Two examples of projects that Living PlanIT is working on illustrate the point:

  • laser sensing of geological features by mining companies, using drones, and transmitting data to satellites, and from there to the PlanIT platform for analysis, and
  • stabilization of mineral cargoes on vessels fitted with high densities of sensors.

These applications are a long way from a vision of a smart city enabled through smarter buildings. The systematic approach taken by Living PlanIT – identifying problems, looking for new approaches, building a platform, and looking for opportunities to expand its applicability – is an object-lesson in cross-sector innovation.

Innovation Observatory’s view

  • There are good reasons why things happen the way they do in specific markets – but this doesn’t mean it always has to be that way. If a compelling (financial) case can be made then things can change
  • Horizontal (platform) technologies have great potential to be transformative – but overcoming silo mentality is a barrier to innovation that has to be dismantled for the greatest benefits to be realised in very large, complex segments such as smart cities
  • Even without overcoming such silos, development of horizontal platforms can open up ‘multi-vertical’ opportunities
  • Teams built from multi-sectoral specialists are able to spot and transfer ideas – though the lift, drop, port approach is significantly de-risked by using a partner ecosystem for validation and go-to-market support.


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