Sensor under your desk? Welcome to property technology in smart buildings
The past two years have been a busy time for real estate professionals. As commercial buildings like office towers, shopping malls and hotels sat empty for consecutive months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, building owners and their corporate tenants were considering how to bring people back to their properties. Technology plays a big role in these plans.
As part of their return to work plans, a few European investment banks have decided to improve their employees’ workstations by placing sensors under desks to optimize office occupancy.
The technology is similar to that used to manage parking spaces. Using occupancy-limited sensors seems harmless enough, although it wouldn’t take much to move from a smart office to something potentially more nefarious.
Technologies that can capture virtually every aspect of employee behavior in their workspaces already exist: Employers can determine how long they work, who they interact with and for what purposes, even how they feel.
The list goes on as human behavior can be fully captured by ad-hoc technologies developed by so-called proptech (property technology) companies. These technologies are called background technologies or quiet technologies, which means that they only capture the user’s attention when needed and stay in the background most of the time.
They are ubiquitous although completely invisible to their users, who are oblivious to their presence. When employees walk into an office building or visitors walk into a shopping mall, for example, they are often unaware that they are surrounded by technological devices that are constantly interacting with them.
The rise of smart buildings
Such technology-integrated structures are known as smart buildings. They are the future of commercial real estate and allow unprecedented levels of personalized interactions between a building and its occupants.
Smart buildings are equipped with real-time feedback mechanisms that allow the building to anticipate changes in its environment as well as the needs of its occupants. In the process, the occupants of the building are reduced to being the source of the feedback. They are supposed to benefit from the technology, but their presence is the primary resource fueling the technology through data collection and analysis.
But an important question needs to be asked: In light of recent revelations on Facebook, should we blindly trust those who control smart building technology to have the well-being and best interests of a building’s occupants at heart? If you believe it, then the ubiquity of quiet technology won’t bother you.
Conversely, if you tend to doubt Big Tech’s goodwill towards humanity, one word should spring to mind: Control.
Obviously, behavioral control isn’t something tech evangelists want us to associate with smart buildings. But it’s the elephant in the room that the technological magic of smart building vendors can’t completely hide in plain sight.
While smart buildings have the ability to predict our behavior, they also open the door to ubiquitous control through ever more personalized interactions. Each of us exists in our own spaces of work and life, but with increasingly limited or no control over the experiences designed for us and powered by algorithms.
Since the beginnings of cybernetics, control has always been at the heart of information technology. Etymologically, “cyber” comes from the Greek verb for directing. Control in commercial buildings is part of surveillance, but it goes further by aiming to shape behavior.
In democratic societies, the motivations for shaping the behavior of building occupants are primarily utilitarian, part of a trade-off between individual satisfaction and free will. In less democratic societies like China, smart building technologies can also be linked to policing and social ordering.
But these two visions of controlling the spaces in which we live and work are not conceptually very different. The high moral ground is quite slippery when it comes to technology-based control, and the interplay between control and profit in modern societies is nothing new. It has been mentioned in the context of capitalist economies and the information society since the 1980s.
Behavioral control takes on a whole new dimension with smart buildings, however, because there is nowhere to hide. Extracting behavioral data from building occupants could become a major source of wealth for the real estate sector. To capitalize on this new resource, real estate companies can partner with technology companies and join the ranks of “watch capitalists”.
The path to follow
However, that would be a deal with the devil, as tech companies don’t care whether buildings are occupied or not. They can mine data elsewhere and continue to thrive. In contrast, as the past two years have shown, empty buildings represent the ultimate risk for any homeowner.
So what should be the way forward for the real estate industry? The stigma of smart buildings is not helpful. Smart technologies have clear benefits for building occupants and they are here to stay.
But above all, a regime of property rights over commercial buildings – including those relating to the digital space – should be enacted so that these rights can be shared among all stakeholders. This is especially true for occupants of smart buildings and in all technology-fueled spaces, including metavians, where human dignity is at stake. Their human rights must be legally recognized and protected at all costs.
Patrick Lecomte is a professor of real estate at the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM).
This article is republished from The conversation under a Creative Commons license. You can find the original article here.