This article originally ran in the print edition of The Municipal Journal.

At the recent Infrastructure Forum, Microsoft introduced its worldwide programme to help cities, agencies and citizens work together to transform local services, engage citizens and accelerate growth. It’s called Microsoft CityNext and combines all the assets that Microsoft has: technology innovation, social and educational programmes, and solutions from local partners – 34,000 in the UK. But what does Microsoft know about cities’ infrastructure? Quite a lot it turns out given the challenge first tackled in its home town. 

Darrell Smith, Microsoft’s Director of Facilities and Energy, shared his story and gave the room a glimpse of what the future of cities might look like.

Darrell is charged with keeping all 125 buildings on Microsoft’s 500-acre Redmond campus running smoothly. Until recently, that meant sending teams of engineers out to retool buildings one at a time – a process that used to take five years to reach every site. Urgent breakdowns were handled on the fly by riding out in a pickup truck to inspect problems in person. It was slow, difficult, expensive work.

Darrell and his team began looking for ways to manage the building more efficiently. The campus was built over a period of more than 20 years, under different building codes and different technical limitations. The buildings lacked a common set of meters and controls for their various systems, such as heating, lighting, security and electric outlets. The campus contained more than 2,000,000 data points -- but these systems had no way of talking with one another or giving anyone a unified view of how all those systems were performing.

The traditional solution would be to rip out all 30,000 pieces of monitoring equipment and replace them with a single system. The trouble is, installing new hardware can be pricey and takes ages to pay for itself. Darrell estimates that a traditional, hardware-based solution would have cost as much as £36 million.

So Darrell and his team decided not to use a traditional solution. With the help of Microsoft partners and off-the-shelf Microsoft software, they built their own instead. Rather than tear out all the old hardware, they created an “analytical blanket”, software that rested on top of all of the old systems. The team was suddenly able to see and make sense of a unified view of all the old systems such asfault detection, energy management and alarm management.

Some of the gains were immediate. Darrell says that, on average, it used to take the company 8 weeks to compile data on power usage, and spotting problems could take even longer. During the new system’s early days, the team found an exhaust fan in a car park that was left running for more than a year – wasting £40,000in the process. Now Darrell and his team can monitor power usage in real time, so mistakes are easy to spot and correct. Many of these problems can even be solved remotely.

But those are really just the low-hanging fruit. It’s good to fix a costly problem and better still to fix a problem quickly.

But the real value of a system like this, Darrell says, is its ability to prevent problems from happening in the first place. The new system allows the team to spot slight changes, well before anyone complains. The problem can be fixed, often with just a few keystrokes, before anyone is the wiser.

The team began automating certain fault detection solutions. Increasing building efficiency requires breaking down silos between systems. For example, sometimes an air damper in a building’s duct system will get stuck – resulting in the building’s heating and cooling systems running simultaneously. A simple algorithm was developed to spot this problem and the fault is flagged whenever it occurs so that it can be addressed proactively.

When a team begins to automate its workflow, it isn’t just saving time or money; it’s changing priorities across the board. Darrell says that before the new system was launched, the team had to spend most of its time inspecting sites, gathering data and handling emergencies – 80% on diagnosis and 20% on fixing. Now the job list is prioritised by cost saving so they can focus on fixing and improving facilities instead of maintaining them. Staff work to optimise buildings rather than slogging through a five year repair cycle – and this saves on long-term efficiency losses to wear and tear.

And of course, Darrell’s efforts brought down energy costs too. The company lowered its energy costs by £1.2 million – effectively paying for the system’s development in 18 months. The company also experiences fewer facilities faults per day overall, which helps keep productivity high.

Darrell isn’t stopping there, however. He’s taking his story to buildings’ owners and cities around the world. Working with the nearby city of Seattle and partners, he’s helping deploy a similar system to buildings in the downtown business district. They anticipate energy and maintenance savings between 10 and 25 per cent. As the system increases in scope, it will allow building managers throughout the city to compare notes and share best practices that increase energy efficiency and drive sustainability.

 

However, it’s a mistake to think that a city can leap to smart grids without embracing smart buildings first, says Darrell. Buildings are the essential elements of cities and so the work must begin there. The difference between a conventional office building and a smart building is like the difference between a telephone from the 1960s and a smartphone from today, he says. Once you make the switch, it’s impossible to imagine a time when things were any different.

To discuss any aspect of Microsoft CityNext or this solution, please email ukps@microsoft.com.