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Why Smart Buildings Need Open Standards

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As smart building technology proliferates at a faster clip, it’s monumentally important to employ software solutions built and managed in the proper way.

One of the best methods for going about this is deploying and using software built on open standards, standards that are available for public review and developed through a community-based consensus. Doing so enables a high degree of interoperability and insight into the software’s capabilities.

Open Definition

The term “open standards” has a number of definitions, given by governments, technology trade groups, and intergovernmental organizations, but let’s keep it simple for now and use a broad definition to cover the concept and not fret over the specifics.

When someone uses open standards in their products or services, that means they are built using publicly available rules and practices and are generally maintained through a communal, consensus-driven practice. The opposite would be using proprietary standards, in which an entity maintains exclusive control of the system and doesn’t share any key information.

Open standards systems tend to rely on a collaborative environment for maintaining and altering themselves. In the example of a software product, contributors would probably include the creators, major customers, competitors, independent developers, policymakers, creators of adjacent software products, and so on.

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Balance between the interested parties is key, such that no one entity or group dominates the decision-making and the standards move perpetually toward mutually satisfactory outcomes.

All of this discussion and the rules and processes themselves remain in public view, free from obscurity by patent or licensing restrictions. This isn’t to say that companies with open standards don’t make money or don’t have protected intellectual property (as in open sourcing their products), but rather that they offer discussion and collaboration on how their product works.

Open Standards, Open Systems, Open Gains

The smart building ecosystem stands to gain a lot from an industry-wide adoption of open standards. It would lower the barriers to adoption and help future-proof smart movers and shakers.

Software that operates on open standards usually offers insight into its data flow and has an application programming interface (API) to facilitate data exchange. This allows a system feature known as interoperability, which means that different systems are able to work with each other, ideally seamlessly.

This means lighting systems can interact with HVAC, HVAC can work with access controls, access controls can work with elevators, and so on. Setting up and implementing these systems becomes much easier because all of the moving parts can communicate with and control each other. No need for extensive middleware, unneeded custom software builds, or buying more expensive parts from the same company.

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Open standards lower the barrier to entry by enabling this interoperability and greater affordability. If sensor manufacturers use shared open standards, outfitters can optimize their purchasing choices for price, quality, availability and more when installing components in a new smart building.

Upgrading is a lot easier as well, for the same reasons above. A new sensor hits the market, either from an established player or new entrant, and anyone can easily install and use it, so long as it follows the set rules. Further, open standards enable greater and faster innovation, moving the industry forward and creating new jobs in the industry’s future.

This reality effectively future-proofs smart buildings, making upgrades and improvements incredibly cheap and protecting them from obsoletion. The commercial real estate landscape would be much more level under open standards and companies of all stripes can begin benefitting from the many benefits of smart buildings.

Open standards rely on feedback and support from communities, which generates a broad base of input and ideas for improvements. The balanced approach means the standards get the best of the stakeholders’ capabilities and plentiful vetting by them, too.

This is particularly helpful with security companies in that they can get verification from independent security researchers, validating them for the market. Otherwise, the market simply needs to take security companies with proprietary standards at their word, which doesn’t sit well when a prospective buyer considers the incentives game.

Smart buildings will need extremely high levels of security to ensure they don’t end up like the hacked smart home from the popular drama Mr. Robot and taking a company at its word is much too risky when it comes to a building’s integrity. Look at all of the major hacks – Equifax, Yahoo, Sony, Uber – and remember these are merely the publicly known ones.

Open standards help ensure that issues like exploits, backdoors, bugs, and more are caught and fixed early, so the market is less likely to suffer another major attack like WannaCry or NotPetya.

Smart buildings are a smart bet to make. Open standard make that bet smarter by helping to ensure they deliver returns and don’t wind up obsolete.

In the race for dominance, open systems often outpace and surpass closed systems. Microsoft won the PC race, Google caught up to Apple in the smartphone wars, and numerous companies have built empires on open standards. The same can be done with smart buildings.

Jonathan Goodwin