Getting Smarter About Smart Buildings

Intelligent environments can make the workplace safer and improve collaboration.

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An MIT SMR initiative exploring how technology is reshaping the practice of management.
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We’re seeing renewed energy around smart buildings as organizations, their landlords, and developers consider what it will take to facilitate a mass return to physical workspaces mid- and post-pandemic. In particular, they’re thinking about how emerging technologies, beyond garden-variety sensors and apps, can be used to track employees and keep them safe. It’s increasingly possible, for instance, to analyze radio waves, like Wi-Fi, to monitor where people are and how they move — without any connection to a smartphone or other hardware.1 Employers and builders are also reconceiving optimal office design.2 A new global Smart Building Certification process is even underway.

However, in response to all this energy, one must ask: What will come of it? Is “smart” really getting smarter — and taking us where we want to go?

Smart environments have a long, deeply imperfect track record, dating back at least to the 17th century, when Dutch inventor Cornelis Drebbel created one of the first feedback-controlled devices: a thermostat that regulated airflow in a chicken incubator, based on temperature. Progress since then has been impressive, particularly in terms of efficiency (think energy and time savings), comfort or wellness (temperature, air quality, sound, lighting, and so on), and safety (detecting fire, revealing gas and water leaks, and other self-diagnostics).3 In that sense, we have achieved much of the promise of what were originally called intelligent (or automated) buildings at the end of the last century.4 But “smart” has also fallen short of our expectations in this century. We wanted smart homes that would work with us to anticipate and automatically address our day-to-day needs, but we’ve settled for connected homes that we manually control from our smartphones; we wanted smart cities that would run more efficiently by learning, predicting, and responding to our living patterns, but we’ve settled for large, underleveraged data sets.

There’s a pattern here, one that’s perhaps rooted in our dictionary definitions of smart. We use that word in two distinct ways, referring to human intelligence (our mental acuity) and device intelligence (tech’s capacity for predictive and independent, or automated, action).



An MIT SMR initiative exploring how technology is reshaping the practice of management.
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1. A. Khalili, A. Soliman, M. Asaduzzaman, et al., “Wi-Fi Sensing: Applications and Challenges,” The Journal of Engineering 2020, no. 3 (March 2020): 87-97.

2. J. Mudditt, “How Offices Will Change After Coronavirus,” BBC, May 14, 2020,

3. T.A. Nguyen and M. Aiello, “Energy Intelligent Buildings Based on User Activity: A Survey,” Energy and Buildings 56 (January 2013): 244-257.

4. A.H. Buckman, M. Mayfield, and S.B.M. Beck, “What Is a Smart Building?” Smart and Sustainable Built Environment 3, no. 2 (September 2014): 92-109.

5. Z. Belafi, T. Hong, and A. Reith, “Smart Building Management vs. Intuitive Human Control — Lessons Learnt From an Office Building in Hungary,” Building Simulation 10, no. 6 (April 2017): 811-828.

6. E. Bernstein and B. Waber, “The Truth About Open Offices,” Harvard Business Review 97, no. 6 (November-December 2019): 82-91.

7. E. Bernstein, J. Shore, and D. Lazer, “Improving the Rhythm of Your Collaboration,” MIT Sloan Management Review 61, no. 1 (fall 2019): 29-36.

8. E. Bernstein, H. Blunden, A. Brodsky, et al., “The Implications of Working Without an Office,” Harvard Business Review, July 15, 2020,

9. M.B. O’Leary and M. Mortensen, “Go (Con)figure: Subgroups, Imbalance, and Isolates in Geographically Dispersed Teams,” Organization Science 21, no. 1 (January-February 2010): 115-131.

10. S.V. Patil and E. Bernstein, “Uncovering the Psychological Impact of Monitoring: Body Worn Cameras Reduce Employees’ Perceived Autonomy but Also Alleviate Their Sense of Polarization With Evaluators,” Organization Science (forthcoming).

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