Johnson Controls is transforming buildings to make them smarter

Firm is working to make buildings more sustainable with the help of data and intelligent digital technologies

Rodney Clark
By Rodney Clark on 14 July 2022
Johnson Controls is transforming buildings to make them smarter

Johnson Controls (JCI) is a disruptor with an ambitious mission to reinvent how buildings work and are controlled, and to make significant inroads into the almost 40 per cent of global climate change emissions embedded in the sector today.

Our mission means that all of you may become JCI partners in future because you too will work for businesses that are under pressure to curb carbon emissions. 

A major part of the building sector’s transformation is built around being able to micromanage assets by developing the ability to gather and act on accurate information in real time to hone operations. Measures of success are nuanced though. Advanced buildings must be ultra-responsive and efficient, but they must also be mindful to ensure they offer the most productive environments and healthiest homes for people. Hitting all these goals requires both clever physical design and the deployment of advanced technology. 

However, simply having the technology available does not necessarily guarantee success. The challenge is to find a way to enable the real-world deployment of new hardware and software solutions to ensure a seamless end point-to-edge-to-cloud approach using the data generated. This is precisely why I joined JCI recently after spending more than 25 years at Microsoft – I’ve seen first-hand how the company is leading the deployment of new technology across the built environment and delivering fantastic results for customers. 

One example is the new headquarters for Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA), which is named Al Shera'a (Arabic for ‘sail’). JCI and Microsoft partnered with DEWA to help create a building that will become the world’s tallest, largest and smartest net-zero energy government office when it opens next year. The technology plan included digital twins and internet of things (IoT) systems powered by artificial intelligence (AI), all backed up with a robust approach to cybersecurity and controlled by a smart building management solution. The building’s energy footprint will be equal to, or less than, the energy produced on-site, and it will be twice as water efficient as comparable buildings. Impressive!  

Reinvention required 
Microsoft and JCI make great partners because we are both focused on transformation. In JCI’s case, we’re more than 130 years old but, at the same time, we are also two years old because of the way the business has been reinvented since the launch of our AI platform OpenBlue in 2020. Indeed, JCI’s OpenBlue epitomises the company’s move into becoming the only pure-play smart sustainable buildings enterprise in existence today.  

Future success for JCI is being built on our rich past and our history gives us an unrivalled depth of knowledge, an installed base of technology, and strong partner relationships. It has also given us a manufacturing capability that is a cornerstone to our technology success.  

Intelligence in buildings relies on harvested data, and that data comes from end-point systems such as those created by JCI, including HVAC, fire detection, and building automation and control units. When thinking about a computing arc, I consider these end-point systems in detail, asking what level of compute devices require, and how they will connect to each other, the network and the cloud. This is where JCI has an advantage. Today we only think about smart and sustainable buildings, and we’re doing it in a data-driven way. 

With OpenBlue deployed, JCI thinks compute-first as a primary design principle. The aim is that all deployed devices are efficiently controllable, rooted in trust, and have a level of compute appropriate to their function. The device layer forms an intelligent base linked into OpenBlue’s AI platform which takes the captured data and turns it into actionable insights. These insights appear as real-time information rooted via cloud apps to field teams, providing intelligence such as predictive and remote diagnostics on system performance. And sitting behind all of this is a horde of software developers and data scientists.  

The device, cloud and service linkage inherent in JCI’s model means we own the technology side of a building’s end-to-end transformation. However, as I said earlier, potential remains potential until it’s fulfilled. My biggest challenge now is helping to ensure computing promise is realised – bringing intelligence and value everywhere it’s useful.  

Making complex building compute processes simple 
As a career technologist, the idea of using digital twins and mixed reality to accelerate change in buildings is exciting, but I’m also a realist. There is no doubt that change in the built environment is going to take time because shedding traditional practices will be a leap of faith for many, so it’s no wonder that we see a degree of decision paralysis in real estate owners and operators. Those taking the leap need expert hands on their shoulders. 

The technologies that underpin our future – IoT, AI, 5G and others – are complex, and they fit into an even more complex picture when you think about how they will work with modern buildings. Today, a building’s architecture must also incorporate a specialised computing strategy and the infrastructure to support it. 

There are many questions to ask, including is it sensible to send all my building’s data to the cloud? How much value can I get by aggregating my enterprise building data and bringing external sources into my information mix? Should you purchase advanced devices that may be more expensive, but can remain usable for longer than cheaper options – where does the investment balance lie? And how much operational separation do I need between my building’s connected systems as part of a robust cybersecurity strategy? 

Honestly, it’s hard for real estate owners to even conceive of all the questions they should ask themselves when commissioning a new or retrofit smart building project. This excites me as I’ve lived and breathed advanced technology for decades, and now that I’m working with a team that is helping customers to translate complexity into simple strategic plans that deliver massive value, I get to take part in yet another revolution. 

The software-defined building 
The future will stretch everyone’s imagination so let me frame my vision in a mental image; the software-defined building. 

JCI’s OpenBlue Platform is a torchlight. It allows buildings to be mirrored, element by element, in the cloud for real-time control, and turned into updatable assets in the same way that cars are becoming updatable, and your smartphone has been for years. The value will be immense. For building owners, their asset will be future-proofed as equipment can remain current without massive hardware replacements. In addition, JCI has reinvented how we charge for our services, focusing on expected outcomes, guaranteed in some cases, and a recurring charge model that offsets heavy upfront investment by clients. It shifts the project risk onto JCI so making it easier for customers to engage. I love all of this – roll on the future!  

Rodney Clark is chief commercial officer at Johnson Controls 

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

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