Creating complex urban ecosystems

Demand for buildings that can incorporate advanced technologies are facilitating a new normal in daily life, but what are the challenges for improving user routines in quality and sustainability?

Smart buildings are a reality increasingly present in cities around the world. The concept has evolved mainly due to the development of new technologies, which, when incorporated, enable more intelligent resources and processes expanding the building’s capacity to operate in a more efficient, flexible, interactive and sustainable way. As cities transition towards becoming smarter and more sustainable, smart building development has incorporated changes and extensions over time; to deal with the challenges posed by the way buildings are appropriated and perceived by society. As technology advances, new products and services are developed and desired by the population, thus increasing the demand for buildings that can incorporate them into the routine of their users, facilitating their daily life and improving its quality, together with aspects related to sustainability.

Buildings are part of complex ecosystems with many characteristics similar to those of living organisms, such as flows of energy and matter, flows of information, and interaction with the environment. Considering that smarter ecosystems are the basis of smart cities, the integration of the building’s intelligent systems with the city’s intelligent systems provides a more intelligent urban system, enabling intelligent, real-time decisions at both levels, such as intelligent energy management considering the relationship between availability and demand of energy and times of higher and lower consumption at both levels. However, in several cities, mainly those in developing countries, the increase in intelligence has occurred slowly, through the incorporation of new technologies over time. The focus has been mainly on the optimization of services, accessibility to information and public services, public participation, the integration of aspects of intelligence and sustainability, and improving the quality of life, but without strategically considering integration with smart buildings and among them. In this context, the intelligence of the building is limited, as they have services that manage the building or that help people manage it, but are built in areas without intelligent infrastructure.


Smart buildings are the key block of smart cities and integrating them into the smart built environment also implies integrating them with each other. In this context, the interaction between smart buildings is a fundamental element for the scalability of smart cities. From this perspective, intelligent buildings with common objectives, for example, improving security, when interacting create a small intelligent environment. The benefits generated by this intelligent environment enhance the association of other smart buildings, expanding the range of interconnection solutions and the awareness of the parties involved, creating an intelligent community that can expand and/or connect to other intelligent communities and, thus, successively. This type of interaction is highly dependent on the city’s intelligent infrastructure, especially ICT and smart grids.

In addition to the interaction between ‘individual’ buildings, another situation is that involving a collective of formally related buildings, such as condominiums or university campuses, in which internal networks connect the building systems to a single BAS, or connect the BAS of each building, to optimize the functioning of building systems in an integrated manner. However, in both cases, the connection to the city’s smart infrastructure is essential.


Automation was one of the first features incorporated into smart buildings, enabling the centralization, monitoring, and control of several services such as heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), elevators, access control, closed-circuit television (CCTV), light, water, and power systems, in a shared network that can be automatically managed and remotely observed by internet, besides providing a comfortable working environment for users. Like automation, technology has kept pace with the evolution of smart buildings. The incorporation of new technologies such as ICT was significant progress, although it also increased the risks related to resilience and cyber security arising from the merge of the building systems with computer technologies. The incorporation of more recent technologies, such as the Internet of Things (IoT), has also added value to smart buildings.

When analyzing how smart buildings have been considered over time, it is possible to see that they evolved due to the influence of the context of each on the expectations and needs of owners and users, and on issues related to the environment. These different contexts, in addition to encouraging the emergence of new drivers, also caused the existing ones to evolve. Regarding the set of systems, evolution concerns the maintenance of the capacity of smart buildings to deliver the results that are influenced by these different contexts. The set of drivers concerns the maintenance of the efficiency with which can influence the set of systems to have the necessary characteristics to make these deliveries. Thus, the interests of owners/investors and users, as well as issues related to the environment must be understood from the current context.

The owner has considered smart buildings mainly from the perspective of return on investment and improving market competitiveness, which is made possible mainly by improving the cost-benefit ratio. Although there may be cost savings, for example, due to improvements in the construction process, it is the benefits generated by smart buildings that improve ROI and competitiveness, making the smart buildings more attractive. However, it is essential to emphasize that the cost-benefit ratio must be considered throughout the life cycle of the building. Smart buildings usually have a higher initial cost, mainly due to the technology that is incorporated. However, it is the same technology that makes it possible to reduce costs throughout the life cycle, mainly due to the improvement of energy efficiency, the reduction of water consumption, and the optimization of infrastructure maintenance actions. The integration of systems increasing interoperability between processes, products, and people, the flexibility to adapt and adjust environments and installations, and longevity from the systematic updating of technologies to the maintenance and incorporation of new functionalities to the systems also contribute to the reduction costs.


Another important point that must be considered is the improvement of the project’s attractiveness due to its greater capacity to meet the demands of users. The calculation of the cost-benefit ratio is complex, and its correct interpretation is fundamental for the growth of the smart buildings segment. For the decision-making process of the owner, the main results that must be considered are those related to two factors.

The first concerns which solutions to improve the intelligence of the systems should be made to increase the attractiveness of the enterprise due to the improvement in meeting the demands of users for more intelligent and sustainable services. The improvement of attractiveness helps to anticipate revenue by reducing the time needed to start the project or start its commercialization, which also increases the capacity to anticipate the payment of financed amounts, reducing expenses with fees charged by agent’s financial resources.

Secondly, intelligent systems, able to act automatically and/or report information on constant monitoring of building performance, as well as more integrated and adaptable spaces and infrastructure over time, enable the increase of the useful life of buildings and reduce operational costs related to productivity and maintenance, making them more attractive to owners and investors.

By enabling users to have more control over environments, actions such as regulating natural and artificial lighting, temperature, humidity, and air quality increase the feeling of comfort. The intelligent management of data obtained from sensors and cameras enables the integration of fire, security, intrusion, and access control systems that continuously guarantee the safety of users. Equipment such as those that purify the air, control the entry of fresh air, and monitor the CO2 level, help to maintain the user’s health. All of these facilities collaborate to meet users’ expectations.


Finally, the growing demands of society towards environmental sustainability, mainly from decreasing the consumption of natural resources, emissions, and waste, contribute to the emergence of sustainable buildings. In this category are the driver ecology, which is related to the reduction of consumption of natural resources, emissions, and waste provided by technological and architectural solutions; the energy driver, related to the improvement of energy efficiency, use of renewable energy, and energy cogeneration; the efficiency driver, related to the reduction of environmental impacts from the improvement of the performance of building systems.

Among the sustainability-related issues and climate changes, a topic that has attracted the interest of researchers is human resilience towards climate disruption, which has increased the risk of socio-natural disaster. An important focus is to build more effective mechanisms to protect society and increase well-being. Thus, the performance of buildings is essential for increasing cities’ resilience. The identified set of drivers helps to make buildings more resilient, by reducing their impacts, enhancing their adjustments to the environment, and improving the quality of life of the users, especially those related to health and wellness.