‘Internet of Things’ has pros and cons

4:02 PM Friday November 3, 2017 Colliers International marketing team

The Edge in Amsterdam is one high-tech building that allows users to carry out multiple tasks controlled from smartphones. Photo / Supplied

Office occupiers need to take a good look at what they’re hoping to achieve, before investing in expensive new kit like the Internet of Things, says Chris Farhi, director of strategic consulting at Colliers International.

Farhi says the Internet of Things (IoT) aims to improve the interaction within workplaces — but warns it could also bring costly new risks like cyber-security, obsolescence and poor user uptake.

“The allure of the newest high-tech devices can be tempting, especially when looking at a new office fit-out or a change of premises,” he says.

“However, the latest and shiniest isn’t always the best fit for most offices. Occupiers need to weigh up the potential benefits with the potential risks before making an informed choice on any new technology.”

He says IoT is a rapidly expanding network of smart, interconnected devices that allow users to monitor, control and better understand their environments.

IoT capabilities can be incorporated into a wide range of devices such as security systems, environmental control systems, and appliances. They communicate with each other and can be controlled by other devices over the internet.

Farhi says investment in IoT solutions within offices is still in its infancy, but adoption is likely to increase as the technology matures.

“Some organisations are already ‘working agile’ with high levels of technology, while others are still wired to their desks,” he says.

Farhi says occupiers need to test new technologies in their intended use before investing.

“User experience is critical when evaluating new technologies — it has to be seamless and simple to use,” he says.

“If a technology appears awkward, it probably will be. Steep learning curves are another warning sign. At best, you can expect poor uptake — at worst, you can anticipate instant obsolescence.”

Farhi points to self-scanning whiteboards, which cost a substantial amount when launched. “They were awkward to use and prone to problems. Smartphones mean users find it easier to just snap a photo of the whiteboard at the end of a meeting.”

Another example is screen-casting, which allows users to ‘cast’ the screen of their phone, tablet or computer on to a screen or projector in a meeting room.

“They can be fiddly to use and may require special software. Guests may be unable to access them which is a significant obstacle to working together.”

Farhi suggests occupiers look at simpler, well-adopted technologies, or off-the-shelf consumer devices.

“An HDMI cable that people can plug into, or a consumer screen-casting solution such as Apple TV or Chromecast, could be more cost-effective, easier to use, and better adopted. People are likely to be familiar with the technologies from their homes which minimises the need for training.”

Despite these warnings, Farhi says IoT is already starting to prove its usefulness.

“High-tech buildings like The Edge in Amsterdam allow users to adjust the lighting, find free desks, book meeting areas and even find a workspace with the perfect temperature, all from their smartphones.”

Farhi says IoT devices are also useful for facilities management.

“Issues can be identified and sometimes even fixed by remotely accessing the building management system — a centralised computer that is connected to the air conditioning, lighting, electrical systems, security, fire protection and other systems.”

However, a recent issue paper by Kevin Burman, National Director of Technology Solutions at Colliers International Australia, highlighted some of the potential dangers of widespread IoT adoption.

“The IoT devices in buildings are vulnerable to cyber-attack,” Burman says.

“Their deployment in large numbers, frequently out of sight in plant rooms and ceiling voids, increases the chance of being compromised.

“Cross-connection to centralised building management systems and corporate networks could dramatically increase the scope and seriousness of a successful attack.

“Accessing the IoT devices could for example be used to set off nuisance alarms or interfere with environmental settings. More serious intrusions might result in locking out authorised users or enabling access by unauthorised visitors.

“Data theft and security breaches are of particular concern to corporate and government tenants; ‘Trojan horse’ devices could be installed in the network to eavesdrop and transmit sensitive data to remote locations.”

Burman recommends a collaborative approach between property and information, communication and technology (ICT) teams to manage and control the threats posed by IoT.

To keep their buildings safe occupiers and owners should:

  • update cyber-security policies and procedures to embrace IoT;
  • ensure that IoT devices and systems have been independently tested before installation;
  • recognise risks — conduct regular reviews, penetration tests, password changes;
  • encrypt all sensitive communications;
  • avoid cross-connecting networks and ensure physical and logical separation where possible, and;
  • seek specialist advice, recognising ICT as an essential engineering discipline.