Deconstructing Construction: Smart Cities, Security And ‘Uberizing’ The Industry

August 30, 2016

[Pictured above: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where TDG is supplying Smart Cities Designs and Solutions as part of the Saudi Arabian National Transformation Programme, also known as Vision 2030, as viewed from space by moonlight; Picture © Anartis | Dreamstime.com, with elements from NASA]

By Kadambari M. Wade

INTRODUCTION: Last week, we ran Part I of a conversation on what safety, security and surveillance would look like in a dramatically different world of intelligent buildings and omnipresent cyber-physical systems. In Part II, Paul Doherty, the quite intriguing Memphis-based President & CEO of TDG [The Digit Group, Inc.] and co-founder of the AEC Hackathon, who travels from China to Saudi Arabia to Australia implementing Smart City solutions, talks to Biometrica on going beyond the concept of the “surveillance state,” and security specifics in a world where architecture and engineering meet — and sometimes, collide with — technology on every front. 

Last week, you spoke about the Jeddah Tower, where you’re doing a whole bunch of innovative security protocols. Is that really a replicable model for regular hotels or retail spaces?

In the case of the Kingdom Tower [now called the Jeddah Tower], we were blessed to have a lot of leeway in the ability to implement a lot of disruptive tools and solutions. Even when you’re on the owner’s side of the table, like we have been, you’re right, you’re not going to do a single hotel, it would be cost prohibitive, but that’s only for the moment. It’s how the implementation of technology always is at first. As more competition comes in, as things evolve, the price of that innovative technology is going to fall.

But we’re changing the business model, and really “Uberizing” and “Airbnbing” the construction industry. We’re being disruptive. We’re not just contracted to do a design and then hand it off to a builder, who then hands it off to a manager like a facility manager, who, again, works for a city manager or the like.

And that helps?

Well, because we’re responsible for safety in a project of this size, we can actually now specify that our own contractors are responsible for the work, the swinging of the hammers, the laying of the cables, and running solutions for things, including, importantly, approaching matters by viewing a building as an organism, rather than as a machine.

TDG partner, Pierre Lo, and Paul Doherty (left) looking over a model of the Guangzhou Knowledge City in Guangzhou, China.
TDG partner, Pierre Lo, and Paul Doherty (left) looking over a model of the Guangzhou Knowledge City in Guangzhou, China.

You mean you look at building a building as an organism, as opposed to a machine? Why is the machine analogy an issue, how is it relevant?

I think that’s been the big problem over the past 150-200 years. We’ve looked at building projects as machines — and even in architectural school I was always taught to look at the building as a machine. The idea behind it was control — so we’re controlling nature to be at man’s beck and call, telling ourselves, let’s leverage it just like a slave. And by doing that, we’ve done such a good job of it, haven’t we? We’ve created pollution, we’ve created terrible global issues that we have to live with, and actually, the layout of cities is awful.

They are quite awful, and rather unplanned, if you think about it.

Since we’ve really screwed it up, we have to think again. Especially in certain matters, where it’s very relevant. What happens, for instance, when we really have to have a security or safety feature that has to be intertwined so it is transparent to the process, so that people don’t think they’re living in an armed camp?

What you’re saying is, that need for not giving the impression of being an armed camp, or in a surveillance state of some kind, is why future builders need the security and safety features of a building, and the building itself not to be a separate part of the environment, like a machine, but to be a functional part of its surroundings?

Yes, that goes back to our whole idea of saying, “Okay, if the building isn’t a machine, what is it?” We’re looking at it instead as a component, a node that is part of a much bigger ecosystem, which lives and breathes, that actually has a conversation with nature, instead of trying to control it. And when you start to think of it that way, there are different ways in which you can take things like sensors and other similar tools, which, in fact, are immediately available, and try to focus them on the management of that safety and security, and getting ahead of certain events through preemptive analysis.

And the analytics part of it is critical?

Yes, the analytics part of it is key. We have to understand how the tracking of a physical human being happens, and if you’re living within an organism, now things start to get interesting. First, think of the building as a machine. You’d have to go to the equivalent of a router or the mainframe of a city [to get information]. What happens when the mainframe is distributed? What happens when the security is not inside of an operation center, or the security system goes down and you need information in real time? Now, instead of that, what happens if we examine a bio-mimicry way of looking at nature, and start to see what security features already exist in nature, and how does nature put those things in place? We realize it’s actually a combination of topography, vegetation, and the animal kingdom, and it all tends to balance itself out in the end.

You have a circle of life deal going here.

Yes, even certain things eating other things or things that can harm you. Look at it this way. If you’re in a forest, it has built in protections, to protect itself. So what we need to do is replicate those in our urban environments, and there’s your balance. You cannot go too far with security when you make people feel threatened, even though the threat may be real or imagined.

© Wisconsinart | Dreamstime.com Rendition of a body scanner at an airport.
© Wisconsinart | Dreamstime.com
Rendition of a body scanner at an airport.

Like at airports?

Look at what the TSA does to people. You go in with the preconceived notion that something’s going to happen and it’s going to be wrong. What a way to live! We have to rethink this, especially when it comes to living spaces. When security becomes transparent to the process, when people start to trust that “nature will take care of it,” the implementation in a city of safety and security will take care of itself, now we have a different kind of conversation and can start to get out from underneath this idea of terrorism.

Let’s just back up a bit here. What you’re saying is that in well-planned urban spaces of the future, because security and safety features will be merged seamlessly with the ecosystem, they will be omniscient in a sense, and help us, as a society, deal with issues like terrorism?

Terrorism is also a way of control, isn’t it? It’s a state of fear, both real and imagined because of things that happen. No one wants to get hurt or killed, and that results in our having these controlling, intrusive systems in place. When you start to move into this new world of safety and security, you have to keep in mind that how that [safety and security] gets done is not as interesting as being transparent enough that people feel comfortable with the process of it being done.

You’re saying the fact of those processes being transparent will help us feel safer?

I really don’t want this to turn into what Hollywood or the gaming industry says what the future of cities will look like.

Devastated, and in a perennial state of urban warfare?

Yes, a dystopian police state where everything is very scary and dark. We don’t want that.

What’s fascinating is that we’ve talked at some length, in Part I of this conversation, and now, about transparency. What do you tell the privacy advocates, most of whom are completely fixated on the invasion of privacy?

They’re on the wrong side of history. It’s not me saying it! Just look around. There’s an emancipation that happens when people start to trust that things are okay, that’s when the breakthrough technologies will keep on coming. Like this new technology [Note: “invisible operating systems, mentioned in Part I] — it’s like hide and seek, if you can’t see it, you can’t hack it.

That’s the virtual world. What of the physical world?

That’s where the physical world needs to be smarter. Architects, engineers and contractors, people that are building environments, they have to understand that when these bad guys can’t break in as easily into the cyber world, they’re going to return to try and break into the physical world.

© Radekdrewek | Dreamstime.com Data essentially, wants to get out.
© Radekdrewek | Dreamstime.com
Data essentially, wants to get out.

Right now, the entire security of most companies, governments, even individuals, is to build firewalls to protect your document or your transmission. That’s what stuff like Norton AntiVirus etcetera do — they create walls to make sure your information is not attacked from the outside. What we’ve seen over the past few years, through Wikileaks, through [Edward] Snowden, and those types of folks, is that inherently, your data wants to be free, and it will find its way out. So you’re in a two-front war with security. You have to worry about people breaking in, but more importantly, you have to worry about your internal stuff breaking out.

You’re asking people to change the way they think!

Not really. John Seely Brown [Former Director of Xerox Palo Alto Research Center] wrote a book in which he said, if the data wants to break out, you can’t stop it. It’s a natural occurrence. It’s like oxygen. Yes, you can put it into a package, but it will find its way out again, because that’s how it inherently is. But when we have tools that say it’s okay for it to be oxygen and out there, because it’s protected, or we have sensors out there that say, it’s bad air, or this is good air, so let’s start to take a look at what that really means, it changes things.

So the privacy issue then doesn’t exist, in a sense.

It takes on a different aspect. People are worried, for instance, about their data being corrupted from the outside, someone swiping their identity. But what happens when the data that’s inside of you wants to get out? It’s a double-edged sword and we’re only just starting to realize it. When people are more concerned about privacy they should really be having a different conversation. I can follow you on Facebook for a week and learn whatever I want to learn about you because you’re giving it away.

True. And it’s not just Facebook or Twitter, or LinkedIn, or other social media, it’s also through sites like Amazon, because of the convenience.

Exactly. You’re happy to put your card on Amazon and keep it there, because it’s convenient, and you trust them, and it makes life easier for you.

Here’s a question about a company like Biometrica, where we look at security and surveillance in both the physical and digital worlds. We spot a thief or a suspicious character, grab his photo from the surveillance stream, create a file on a known or unknown subject, put it in our database, send it out on our SSIN, the Security and Surveillance Information Network, on a one-to-one level, one-to-many level, or put it out globally on a network, or build a Blacklist etc. Now someone looking at it might call it a surveillance state. But what we’re really doing is using the data to create a system where we can help you anticipate threats, and track events or incidents as and when they happen. How would that, or the nature of what we now do, change in a Smart City environment or ecosystem?

I’m not sure things would change, as such, and I don’t think that’s needed. I think what would happen is that certain tools could be augmented as technology begins to take better control of its interaction with the physical world. Here’s an instance. I think if Biometrica had been implemented with the federal government, I think a major situation, like the one at the Washington, D.C. Navy Yard a few years ago, or others, could have been resolved better perhaps, and almost certainly quicker.

Think about it. A phone call comes in, there’s an active shooter and he’s killing people. They don’t have an immediate description for this person. Several different law enforcement units were deployed, some had uniforms on, others didn’t, there was a lot of confusion. Everyone had their guns drawn and they were all pointing at each other, the perpetrator was someone with access to a “secure” building. Now with Biometrica, imagine this. Cyber-physical systems start to do things better and faster than human beings.

Here’s one scenario: If your technology had been implemented down there, you’d have had eyeballs for the CCTVs, you would have had control over what’s called lockdown lockout, which is a process that most buildings have, where you can send signals out to doorways and they can lock automatically and unlock, it’s used for crowd control. If you want to push people away from a dangerous situation, you keep certain doors locked, until they find an open one and they flood out.

It’s like putting a tourniquet on a bleeding vein or artery — you put temporary pressure on it to divert flow elsewhere. Now, imagine the situation where a phone call comes in, that there’s an active shooter. But even before that phone call comes in, let’s say the building also has this technology called ShotSpotter Technology, or some other gunshot detection technology, and it “hears” a gunshot. Immediately, the CCTV cameras you have data access to start looking out for that perpetrator.

And that real time data access is what matters?

Gunman aiming his target with an automatic russian AK-47 rifle
Gunman taking aim with an AK-47.

It means that you can get a lock on him through your “eyes in the sky.” You, and therefore, other people, have access to what he’s doing, as he’s doing it. Let’s say he runs east, toward Building Two. In our scenario, he’s going into a doorway that has two doors, an outside one, then an airlock, and a secondary one leading inside. You don’t lock him out, because you need to catch him. So you let him in, but suddenly, the secondary door gets locked, as does the outside one. Once he’s inside, the building senses him, and he’s trapped in that airlock.

So, hypothetically, even before that 911 call is finished, that entire process could be over in under a few seconds. So now, when the police or other law enforcement bodies come in, it’s resolved, rather than being a standoff, a search-in-the-dark operation, and potentially having people in law enforcement be killed. But again, it’s a process of getting smart and having that trust that we have these processes and protocols for certain situations in place.

The situation you’re talking about requires a building system to be quite advanced. What happens in existing buildings?

Some building systems may not be very sophisticated, but perhaps that could be built into the building code, as a baseline. Building codes evolve, and things are put into place at different times. What’s the cost of not doing it to safety and security of the people that live and work in it? Building codes need all kinds of things. Like crash bars on doors in emergency exits that need to swing outward. All buildings in the United States need to have that. So why not add an extra layer? It’s really now about political will.