Those of a certain age will remember the 1970s comic books that painted a rather fanciful picture of how a technology-based future might look. It was often a vision of an interplanetary existence, with robots and flying cars all playing a big part in day-to-day 2000AD life.

While reality in 2019 and beyond is somewhat different, in some respects, truth can be just as strange as fiction. In Hangzhou, China, the 290-room FlyZoo Hotel was recently built using the kind of futuristic technology that might once have seemed like fantasy. The hotel utilises many technologies that are already well-established and in use in other hotels around the world. These include self-service kiosks for check-in inside the hotel lobby. But it also puts a new and innovative spin on other technologies, with features that may well be more broadly adopted in coming years. Many of these technologies have obvious benefits in terms of reducing staff overheads and overall operating costs.The hotel uses various artificial intelligence-enabled services that may also enhance the quality of the guest experience. Using a mobile app, travellers can book their stays, choosing not only the floor they want but also the direction their room faces. Once at the hotel guests can use facial recognition rather than keys or keycards to gain access to the elevator as well as to their rooms. Each guest room has a voice-activated smart assistant, similar to other in-room devices that have become increasingly popular. It responds to voice commands to help guests with a variety of tasks, from adjusting the temperature, lights, curtains and the TV to playing music and even answering simple questions about the hotel and surroundings. Robots deliver water and other room service orders and concierge amenities.

A spokesperson for FlyZoo says the goal of the technology is to make hotel services better and easier while also freeing up staff time from tedious tasks so they can focus more on a better service for guests. But such automation is not without its troubles, as a similarly hightech hotel in Japan has found.

The Henn-na Hotel made robots its central feature, with guests greeted by an animatronic front desk humanoid and rooms serviced by bots roaming up and down the hallways with guest room deliveries. At the start of the year, however, it ‘fired’ over half of its 243-strong robot workforce following numerous complaints from both staff and customers.The Nagasaki-based hotel admitted it had let part of its robot workforce go because they were annoying customers and staff by not satisfactorily performing the services for which they were designed. The reception robots were not able to copy passports, the room robots had difficulties understanding simple questions and kept waking up guests who snored, and the porter robots only worked outside in good weather conditions.It may well be that FlyZoo has learned from some of the pitfalls experienced in Henn-na, however. FlyZoo’s owners point out that robots perform better than humans in this environment as they can deliver consistency of service and are not prone to human moods or variations. Perhaps the bigger question is how comfortable users are about their information being shared, although the hotel owners point out that facial recognition scan data is immediately erased once check-out is completed. In any case, at FlyZoo, that technology currently appears limited to Chinese nationals with ID cards, so much of this functionality may still be off-limits to visitors from elsewhere.

Despite the headline-grabbing nature of a robot-operated hotel, subtler, embedded technology is likely to have more significant day-to-day impact, certainly within the office workplace, where businesses are employing a number of smart solutions in areas such as communication and data management. In the future, the office is bound to undergo even more change, as new technology arrives and current innovations improve. New methods of operating a multitude of office functions encompass not only the maintenance of the building but also the way in which its occupants can work most effectively. For example, as much as email and the internet have revolutionised the workplace over the years, emerging smart office tech will have a big part to play, with a focus on efficiency, interconnectivity, productivity and sustainability. Real-time collaboration is becoming key – not just using platforms like Office 365, which enable files to be shared effectively, but through systems that allow multiple people to work on the same projects at the same time, particularly when used in conjunction with virtual reality and augmented reality, both of which are tools that are becoming widely utilised by designers and manufacturers across numerous sectors.

Cloud computing has made a big difference to our thinking about the office of the tomorrow too. Not only does it remove the need for bulky servers and data storage facilities on-site, but it feeds and facilitates the growing trend towards mobile working, ensuring continuity of access and functionality whether a worker is located in the office or out on the road.

3D printing is emerging as having potential way beyond its initial position as the preserve of only the most tech-savvy of industries. It is reaching out from the automotive and aerospace sectors to enable easier prototyping and experimentation in all areas of production, with the potential to encourage innovation and speed up new product development.

And, undeniably, sustainability is working its way up the agenda, and innovative energysaving solutions in the workplace are becoming important for brands both financially and ethically. Office buildings are increasingly integrating renewable energy solutions such as solar and wind to meet their high energy needs, with smart systems able to monitor usage and apply the most effective solutions in improving efficiency.

Building intelligence

Some of the latest developments incorporate lighting as one of many functions of a building brought under careful, intelligent control by technology. Currently under construction in Cologne, Germany, the developers behind The Ship claim it will be the smartest office building in the country. The modern seven-storey building has a floor space of around 13,000 sq m and space for some 500 workplaces. In addition to start-ups, which will fill The Ship with life on a permanent basis, co-working space is planned, along with space for more than 200 employees of the German brand FOND OF, which will be the largest occupier.

The digital structure of the building includes a network of more than 2,500 sensors, 156 access control points, and 146 beacons. The sensors in concrete ceilings as well as lamps allow the real-time ‘tracking of everything’ – such as occupancy information for desk sharing and co-working – and the access control points and beacons pass this information on to visitors.

Consultancy Drees & Sommer has supported the development of the groundbreaking building with sustainability and workplace advice as well as a digitisation strategy. Its workplace experts carried out a requirements, mobility and building analysis, and a custom workplace plan was then jointly created with the developer.

Klaus Dederichs, head of ICT and associate partner, Drees & Sommer, says: ‘The landscape of offices of the future is a highly flexible one, needed to serve new and fluctuating occupier trends. There is no alternative to digitisation and this applies not only to planning and construction but also to the building’s operation. This applies across the entire real estate industry, but commercial real estate is leading the way.

‘The Ship will be one of the most intelligent buildings anywhere in the world. Its integrated digitisation concept will optimise the building’s every process and extract the maximum possible benefit for its users. The building’s core characteristics of sustainability, functionality, design and quality are all pinned to its digital intelligence.’

Brain power

Elsewhere in Germany, Drees & Sommer has also been heavily involved in another office building attempting to lead the way in how such structures can harness digital technology to operate more effectively.

Due for completion later this year, Cube Berlin is in the heart of the German city. The client, developer CA Immo, is investing around €100m in the smart commercial building, whose dramatic, architectonic shape was designed by 3XN Architects. Drees & Sommer is providing support with the implementation of an integrated digitisation plan, in addition to providing general technical planning services, such as façade engineering, energy design and green building certification. What is special about Cube Berlin is that its operation is based around artificial intelligence. It establishes an intelligent link between all technological equipment and sensors along with planning, operational and user data for optimal control of the processes that take place in the building. Its ‘brain’ learns from the data connected with the operation, the users and the environment, and makes suggestions for improvements. For instance, unused spaces will not need heating, ventilation or lighting and so the system will recognise this and switch off the equipment in these areas.

Tenants in Cube Berlin can also use the specially developed app to operate the airconditioning, access controls, parcel booths and much more. CA Ammo’s head of development Matthias Schmidt says: ‘The question constantly facing us as portfolio holders is how we can continue to meet tenants’ needs and offer attractive spaces in the future. With digitised buildings such as Cube Berlin we are creating added value for tenants. We are providing a management cockpit that gives information on the key data and any changes in it. This includes extensive information on energy consumption, user behaviour, and much more, so tenants experience not only the user interface of the app, but also the operational level in the background, and they can even intervene, for instance, to optimise the use of the space. The software-based digitisation concept is modular in design, so it can be implemented by us at minimal cost in established buildings.’

Sensors are key to this level of ‘smart’ intelligence, and Cube Berlin has around 3,750 of them built in. Drees & Sommers’ Dederichs says: ‘The smart commercial building is a new type of property in which users and their needs are at the forefront of the development process. The digital conceptual design process is modelled on people. While the sensors represent the sensory organs, the artificial intelligenceenabled system platform of Cube Berlin is the “brain”.’

Smart, digital technologies are put together in different combinations depending on the particular building or project, and they make it easier for users to operate the building. They offer possible new uses such as indoor navigation, tracking of people and objects, and access control using facial recognition.

Cube Berlin users will be helped by a special building app created by Thing Technologies, which only employs personal data to the extent permitted by EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) rules. Klaus Berberich, co-founder of Thing Technologies, explains: ‘To maximise acceptance, the app is entirely aimed at creating added value for the user, and offers everyone a wide range of options and simplifications. The fact that the individual users decide for themselves how they are going to use the app is very important.’

Embracing wellness

In central London, another building has been transformed by technology to deliver a highly efficient space designed to work for those who use it. John Robertson Architects (JRA) was tasked with the redevelopment of Bureau at 90 Fetter Lane. Located at the junction of Fetter Lane and Norwich Street in the City of London, the original 1980s building has been stripped back to its concrete frame to create a spacious, contemporary office that places user experience and wellbeing at its heart.