Improving life through the built environment

City leaders are looking at how to better serve residents, businesses and visitors in accessible, safe and sustainable ways. Microsoft technology is key to helping them achieve these goals

Elly Yates-Roberts
Elly Yates-Roberts
By Elly Yates-Roberts on 04 October 2022
Improving life through the built environment

The built environment is growing. According to the National Geographic, there were 28 megacities – urban areas with more than 10 million residents – in the world in 2021. The United Nations anticipates that there will be 43 megacities by 2030, with the number of inhabitants increasing from 2.8 billion today to 4 billion. 

City leaders and planners must adapt to this growth to create urban environments that can not only cope with these new numbers, but also enable people, businesses and communities to thrive. According to Jeremy M. Goldberg, worldwide director of critical infrastructure at Microsoft, the biggest benefits will be realised when the built environment operates as a seamless part of larger systems of infrastructure, which include transportation, public safety and data-based understanding of people’s behaviour and choices.   

One of the key ways that public sector leaders can do this is by creating more accessible experiences for citizens. “For anyone working in or visiting a place, the behind-the-scenes operations should remain invisible,” said Goldberg. “What matters is the experience: how easy and accessible it is getting in and out of a space or building, how comfortable it is to accomplish work, and how seamless it is to visit.”  

Take a sporting event as an example. Goldberg believes there are a few things to consider to ensure a convenient and seamless experience for all. The venue should be well-connected to major transportation systems so that attendees can travel there in the most convenient way. Ticketing and payment systems should be easy to use so that queues are kept to a minimum, helping both visitors and employees. And finally, strong network connectivity is essential to enable the large numbers of attendees to use their devices for various professional, social and personal activities.  

To increase accessibility and also boost operations and improve everyday experiences, public sector organisations must make better use of their most precious resource – data.  

“Daily operations – from security to air conditioning to lighting – come at a considerable cost,” said Goldberg. “The fastest way to efficiency and cost reduction is by using data to make rapid, informed decisions.” 

London Heathrow Airport – the biggest and busiest airport in the UK – has heeded this message. The airport is using data governance and analytics tools in Microsoft Azure to provide data-driven insights that optimise its operations, support continued growth and improve air travel experiences.  

“Better predictive modelling around operations and passenger movements helps us play out a wide range of scenarios,” said Nick Beresford, head of data and analytics at Heathrow Airport. “Our platform on Azure gives us actionable insights to direct investment and planning decisions. And it affords us the freedom to experiment with new ‘what-if’ scenarios – and this is key to pushing the boundaries of innovation and sustainability.” 

Urban environments have a major impact on the way we all live our lives, affecting where we choose to live, work and socialise. Public and private sector adoption of remote and hybrid work has varied widely since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, but with many employees valuing the balance of remote and in-office work environments, it is essential that city and business leaders create workplaces that accommodate these needs. And employee well-being and safety must be at the heart of these decisions.  

For example, Italy’s National Institute for Insurance against Accidents at Work (INAIL) has launched a new virtual badge system using Microsoft Azure IoT Hub smart building technology to safeguard its workspaces, optimise building operational costs and promote sustainability. 

INAIL employees create invitations for visitors from Outlook accounts for each room. The building’s Access Control system – a solution based on Azure internet of things (IoT) technology – interacts with Azure IoT Hub to allow and monitor visitor access. Restricted areas are secured with electronic locks and an IoT sensor that allow only those with current Outlook invitations to enter the room. The system has enabled INAIL to streamline visitor access while ensuring that employees can easily move around the workplace.  

But while city leaders explore the accessible and safe expansion of our built environments, it is essential that sustainability remains front of mind.  

“Whether it’s a new building or the renovation of an old one, construction projects are a major opportunity to ensure focus on sustainability as a strategic priority,” said Goldberg. “Energy efficiency across operations is a high priority in helping organisations achieve their sustainability goals while reducing costs of lighting and running heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. The automation of these systems to respond when buildings, floors or even individual rooms are occupied can result in significant efficiencies.”  

US-based design-build contractor MacDonald-Miller Facility Solutions has helped customers to build energy-efficient buildings, keep them operating at peak efficiency and reduce costs by using the Microsoft Cloud. For example, the firm helped Swedish Medical Center to save $350,000 in energy costs in 12 months, by partnering with automation software provider ICONICS and using Microsoft Power BI to better understand and optimise how the medical centre’s buildings and energy resources were being used.  

“But sustainability isn’t only about energy or carbon emissions,” said Goldberg. “Technology can also help during construction to ensure building placement has a minimal environmental impact, enables more sustainable water use practices and minimises waste. 

“As we implement these solutions at scale, people will benefit from government and other publicly owned spaces and buildings – such as parks, arenas, or stadiums – to help them get the most out of their experience. Better operations help governments save money, and a focus on sustainability will ensure these spaces contribute to a healthier, cleaner future.”  

A variety of Microsoft partners also contributed to this feature: AVEVA, Diehl Metering, isolved, Johnson Controls, Publicis Sapient and Umojo. Read about how they are using Microsoft technology to transform cities.  

This article was originally published in the Autumn 2022 issue of Technology Record. To get future issues delivered directly to your inbox, sign up for a free subscription.

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