As we continue to worry about the impact of global warming, we try to make an impact by reducing our plastic usage, recycling, refusing to use straw, but does that really work?

One major factor that isn’t being factored into our efforts is the buildings that we live in. How sustainable are our commercial offices and apartment blocks? To see if there is anything that we can do, we thought it best to find an expert about this topic to find out if there’s anything we can do.

With that we in mind, we spoke to Deb Noller, Co-Founder and CEO of Switch Automation. Their smart building platform integrates with traditional building systems as well as IoT technologies to automate and control assets in real-time. They aim to help property owners reduce operating costs, improve energy efficiency and deliver exceptional occupant satisfaction.

With over 20 years in real estate and technology, Deb is in the perfect position to give us insight into the future of the smart city industry. Here’s what she had to share about Switch Automation and the growth of the industry in general.

The Energy Performance report

What do you see as the future of Smart Cities in Southeast Asia in the next five years?

Adoption of tech has been something Asia has excelled at for more than 20 years, with growth levels of research and development, and technology company revenue leading every other region worldwide. Looking at the real estate industry in particular, perceptions of Asia trailing behind the West with tech adoption are becoming less common with every year that passes, which is testament to the acceleration of proptech in Asia. 

Companies in Asia understand the circular economy of manufacturing and consuming technology. It creates highly skilled jobs. So I expect Asia to lead the way on smart cities – data, mobility, IoT, and sustainability – and that includes Southeast Asia.

Could you elaborate on how Switch Automation improves energy efficiency and reduces wastage through automation?

Our company develops enterprise technology for digital and low carbon buildings. The obvious efficiency gain is in energy but it is much more extensive than that. Real estate and all of the services in real estate are well overdue for a digital transformation because of the sheer inefficiency in the business operations. There is a lot of overlap across vendor services. Take data collection as an example. It is not uncommon across a portfolio for many large vendors to be collecting the same data but for different services and programs. Once the real estate owners and operators realize the amount of efficiency they can gain from contract consolidation, this sector will accelerate.

The number one issue across real estate is that owners and operators are lacking enough accessible data to make data-informed decisions. Identifying a building’s detailed energy footprint makes it possible to benchmark and make improvements. Data-driven maintenance will save millions by avoiding technicians in vans driving around buildings and doing quarterly inspections. The impact to carbon emissions in that element alone is enormous.

How we can reduce energy is by connecting to building equipment that is already installed and collecting real-time data for energy use, environmental conditions and equipment metrics. Digital tools such as analytics can surface problems in buildings such as equipment running when it should not be, or equipment that is broken. A digital building engineer can then work with onsite teams to fix that equipment or adjust controls schedules. Automating your building management allows you to adjust operations based on occupancy, keeping indoor air quality high when occupied and not wasting energy when spaces are unoccupied.

Besides Singapore, are there markets in Southeast Asia that have the potential to become Smart Cities?  

Definitely. There is strong potential right across Asia – right now, cities in East Asia, including China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan are leading in technology adoption at the city level. Eventually, as GDP in Southeast Asia grows, urbanisation accelerates and cities begin adopting the same levels of tech that East Asia has now, we will begin to see similar innovations taking place at the heart of Southeast Asia. 

Many governments in the region have already announced plans to transform their capital cities into smart cities. They have already been piloting smartphone apps with features ranging from simplifying city parking to providing easier channels for feedback to city councils, allowing for problems to be addressed quickly. There is strong government support even on an international scale as evinced by the ASEAN Smart Cities Network, so we will be seeing exciting innovations very soon especially with information sharing within the region. 

What are the biggest challenges with getting buildings to move past their legacy systems?

Building owners and operators are only now realizing that adoption of tech is much more than merely saving energy. They have been slow to the adoption curve because the ROI was not clear and the incentives were not necessarily aligned. An investment in saving energy may have resulted in savings that went to tenants. The savvy operators now realize that energy savings can lead to compounded operational savings and this has the potential to create new revenue models. 

As Singapore looking to build their smart nation, we look at how digitalisation is working for the island nation

Large industries often take a while to start change but then the adoption rate speeds up dramatically as they catch up with their peers. This is where the industry is at today and it is becoming mainstream.

What segment of the market (in terms of buildings – high rises, residential etc) do you see the most potential for growth in Singapore?

Commercial Grade A offices and shopping malls are first and foremost the target sector for us, but this is closely followed by commercial buildings that are not as obvious for smart building programs. This includes heritage buildings, logistics infrastructure, and commercial buildings without sophisticated building management systems. These buildings can easily be added to a smart building program because of the vast array of plug and play, cost effective IoT technologies available. These technologies are very suitable to retrofit these less likely targets.

What’s next for Switch Automation?

Expansion. Our team grew from 46 to 65 this year and we opened offices in the UK and Singapore. There is a strong appetite for proptech driven by a number of tailwinds: increased focus from governments and investors on ESG factors, the post-Covid stimulus targeting smart and digital job growth in many countries, the global transition to clean, green energy, and the generational change in leadership. The next 3-5 years in digital building transformation will be exciting.