Top smart building trends to watch in 2021

Top smart building trends to watch in 2021

Oliver Iltisberger, Division President, ABB Smart Buildings highlights what to expect next year

2020 saw a fundamental shift in the way we work, live and connect with others. We saw an acceleration of trends that began before the pandemic, for example with remote working, experts now predict that 30 percent of the world’s workforce will work from home at least once a week in 2021. The acceleration of digitalization into everyday working and socialising, as well as the variations in occupancy rates, changing and even increasing security needs and a continued focus on energy efficiency and sustainability, means that the effective use of smart buildings technologies is arguably now more important than ever.

As such, there are several key trends that have been fast-tracked during 2020 that we believe will continue to shape the smart building sector in 2021 and beyond. 

  1. Buildings will become increasingly agile and intelligent

At the beginning of 2020, there was a growing trend for urbanization – more people were moving into cities to live and work which meant that available building space was at a premium. This looks set to continue with the United Nations predicting that 66 percent of the world’s population will live in Smart Cities by 2050.

To cater to this shift to smart city living, smart technology is key to make sure buildings are optimized in the most effective way possible. Couple this with the recent change in working patterns and the need for flexible and adaptable building space and we see a new set of challenges on the horizon. 

With the International Data Corporation (IDC) predicting that there will be 41.6 billion connected IoT devices generating 79.4 zettabytes (ZB) of data by 2025, we expect buildings to evolve to become more connected and offer mixed use, with a variety of spaces adapting and conforming to the needs of the user, self-commissioning and learning over time.  By 2030, intelligent and integrated solutions that proactively react to environmental and personally influence people will be possible in smart buildings – ultimately increasing the quality of life and wellbeing for users.

Fortunately, over the past few years, integrating and automating IoT devices has become increasingly affordable, which means more businesses are able to invest to improve comfort, security and sustainability for users.

The challenge building managers face will be balancing a more flexible workforce with the need to make sure properties are optimally utilized.  For example, offices may need to be adapted to become places where people come to meet and interact once or twice a week, rather than as places for everyday working life.  

This is where smart technology really comes into its own. It allows buildings managers to plan for this connected and flexible future, using IoT devices and automation to create spaces that are agile with connectivity at the core.

In addition, buildings will become increasingly intuitive and will not only be able to respond to the needs of their users – learning that lights, air conditioning or heating need to be switched on at certain times of the day or when people are in the building – they will become truly connected to wider technologies such as electric vehicles and renewable energy sources, becoming more sustainable and self-sufficient. 

  1. A focus on sustainable progress will be crucial

Many countries across the world are setting net zero emissions reduction targets and the decarbonization of the built environment is seen as one of the biggest challenges we need to overcome. ABB Electrification has already put a sustainable approach into practice at its Busch-Jaeger factory in Germany which combines solar power, EV charging points, smart energy management and a highly efficient cogeneration plant to deliver enough energy to power a whole factory and significantly reduce carbon emissions.

While many commercial buildings will already have a certain element of smart technology installed – from centrally controlled lighting and heating ventilation and air conditioning systems (HVAC) to remote management of security and energy management systems – not all managers will be using the data these devices produce to take steps to reduce the carbon footprint of their properties.

Embracing smart technology gives buildings managers access to instant data on how their assets, such as heating, lighting and access control, are performing. This data can be used to gain a thorough understanding of how the different systems in the building interact, and the external factors that may impact them.

By using this insight, buildings managers can implement effective building controls to manage efficiencies, identify maintenance issues, ensure the wellbeing of occupants, and inform future investment priorities. So, if a building is now being used in a different way, the data will show the manager what needs to be done to ensure it is operating as efficiently as possible.

For example, the ABB Ability™ digital platform supports smart buildings with integrated solutions that achieve energy efficiency and reduce electric consumption and costs in industrial, commercial and residential environments.

When fully implemented, these solutions typically deliver a 30 percent reduction in energy costs for heating, lighting and appliances. For example, energy-efficient controls can radically enhance the performance of HVAC systems, reducing energy consumption by up to 50 percent.

  1. Maintaining high levels of security will become more important

The predicted and exponential growth of IoT devices means we are becoming ever more connected.

At the same time, we are also becoming more vulnerable to the threat of security breaches and invasions. Where a property is unoccupied or at reduced capacity – in the US alone, data from Brivo showed that “unlocks” at offices (when someone uses their credentials to enter an office) in late August were down 51% compared to the end of February - security will become even more important.

The use of IoT enabled tools, such as presence simulation, motion detection and remote video access, puts greater control back in the hands of the building manager. Holistic door entry systems now offer easy commissioning and usage for enhanced security and communication, providing interaction between door entry and access control so that distance in buildings is now only a matter of IP connectivity. 

In addition, security technology can monitor the building and warn of unauthorized entry while looking after the wellbeing of legitimate occupants. Systems can also provide total solutions for safety, with an option to supervise safe building evacuation and emergency call stations along with detection alarms for water, smoke and gas leaks.


2020 has been the year of digital acceleration and there is no doubt that the way commercial buildings are used will continue to evolve. Whether it’s an office, hotel or public building, making the most of smart technology will enable buildings managers to embrace the age of the ‘agile’ building, and ensure spaces are used in the most optimum way for a safer, smarter, secure and more sustainable world.

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