09/18/2013 08:40 EDT | Updated 11/18/2013 05:12 EST

Smartphones? Pshhh. Get Ready For Smart Buildings

Chew on these startling factoids:

  • Toronto has 185 construction cranes dotting the skyline -- the greatest number of construction cranes in the western world today.
  • Toronto leads the world in high rise buildings being built.
  • China will build more in the next 40 years than in the past 4,000 years.
  • By 2030, 5 billion people will live in the world's major cities (out of a projected 8.5B).
  • Every day, 180,000 people move to cities, adding to traffic congestion and housing demands.
  • By 2030, cities will be out of real estate to build on.
  • Buildings consume 48 per cent of our energy, for heating/cooling, light, and elevating devices.
  • Traffic congestion costs U.S. drivers an extra $800 in gasoline each year ($1,400 in Washington D.C.).
  • In the U.S., 35,000 people die in traffic accidents annually. Globally, traffic accidents cause 1.2M deaths each year.

These factoids were shared by speakers and panelists with 375 delegates (representing 17 countries) of the 2013 Meeting of the Minds conference held in Toronto at The Evergreen Brickworks on September 9 and 10. This was the seventh Meeting of the Minds conference and the first time the event was held in Canada, to a sold-out audience.

Each year, the conference deals with the problems -- and fresh solutions -- of cities: creaky infrastructure (and government structures and processes that are obsolete, too), sustainability, technology, and providing ever more services to urban dwellers with shrinking natural resources and shrinking city budgets.

It's the perennial chant: "Do more with less -- and have a nice day!" Old cities are overwhelmed by change; modern cities are overwhelmed with assimilating immigrants.

"Doing 'the right thing' does not motivate big corporations," said Jared Blumenfeld, Administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for Pacific Southwest (Region 9) appointed in 2009 by Barack Obama. EPA Region 9 is home to more than 48 million people in California, Arizona, Hawaii, Nevada, the Pacific Islands, and 148 tribal nations.

"The scrap and recycling industry is now worth $90 billion per year. Things are slowly changing," said Blumenfeld. Twenty years ago, all this would have gone to landfill, period. Today, a solid business argument is always the friend of sustainability; municipalities get revenue from recycling and their landfill costs are reduced, too.

"Imagination is an instrument of survival," said Rogier van der Heide, Chief Design Officer for Philips.

Meeting of the Minds was about the intersection of urban sustainability and connected technology, to make life in cities more pleasant, productive, and efficient. It was not only about cities, but also about regions. Cities rely on their outer rings and suburbs rely on the city's economy.

The 2013 conference was at The Evergreen Brickworks, the repurposed Toronto Brick Company factory dating back to 1889. It now hosts farmers' markets, entertainment and art shows, lectures, and other events, all in a carbon-neutral, Leed-certified complex.

Opening speaker MarySue Barrett, president of the Metropolitan Planning Council in Chicago, shared her insight with the audience: "You must have both short- and long-term focus as the same time."

"Understand your assets. Where is your growth coming from? And, what is stagnant?" she continued.

"Partnerships need to include business, government, and the local community," she said.

"Data is the oil and water of the 21st century. It is the enabler of change," OCAD president Sara Diamond, a self-confessed data-lover for decades, told the audience during a panel discussion.

Crunching data and connecting things is what internet connector Cisco does best. They connect things, data, processes and people, what they call "The Internet of Everything" to improve quality of life and work, increase efficiency, and bring down operating costs.

"We are now in the third phase of the internet," said Nicola Villa, Managing Director, Big Data and Analytics, at Cisco. The first phase was creating the internet; the second phase was email capability.

Currently, only about 1 per cent of devices that could be connected to the internet are, in fact, connected to the internet, said Wim Elfrink, EVP Industry Solutions, at Cisco. By 2020, however, Cisco predicts internet-connected devices will increase by 450 per cent. The real challenge will be this: municipal governments do not currently know how to use or leverage so-called "Big Data."

"The next wave of competition will be between cities. Cities will compete against each other based on the infrastructure they offer," Elfrink told Danielle Bochove during a CBC television interview.

Just two examples where a network of inter-connected sensors could help improve the quality of life in cities: speeding up passport applications and finding empty parking spots through an app. And, here's a way to marshal technology to improve healthcare using remote medical diagnostics for Canada's aging population (it is also handy for Canada's remote communities) -- something that Cisco calls HealthPresence and was demonstrated at the Meeting of the Minds.

Working with partners like Schneider Electric and others, Cisco embeds sensors in everything. Sensors are cheap and more importantly, they talk to each other and the grid. In an office building, for example, sensors can manage heat, air conditioning, office lights, building security, and video concierge service all from one location.

The concept of "smart buildings" has been around for 10 years, but it has now arrived. It's real.

With embedded sensors, software and a dashboard to control all connected elements, the building now becomes a "smart building." Did 25 per cent of employees forget to turn off their computers? No problem; Cisco systems can turn them all off remotely and save electricity.

In fact, Cisco is currently working with realtor Oxford Properties that own and operate millions of square feet of office, retail, industrial and residential real estate.

Here's why Oxford Properties is investing in more "smart buildings": in one example, operating expenses for smart buildings were reduced by 11 per cent annually. When your budget is in the billions, 11% adds up to millions said Rick Huijbregts, VP, Connected Real Estate, at Cisco.

Here's an example of how technology can help to bring down those 35,000 traffic fatalities in the U.S. The concept is called autonomous driving, or cars that drive themselves. Autonomous driving cars always follow the rules: they never speed, tailgate, read, text, eat, smoke or toke while driving.

"Autonomous driving is the future and it relies on big data from a lot of sensors embedded throughout a vehicle," said Jim Pisz, Corporate Manager, North American Business Strategy, Toyota.

Google, Nissan, and MIT's Media Lab are also working on autonomous driving cars. Nissan has stated that it is targeting 2020 for consumers to buy their autonomous driving cars. Costs will be in the $200,000 ballpark, but that's down from $1,000,000 just a few years ago. California, Nevada, and Florida have already passed legislation permitting autonomous driving vehicles.

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