Companies are taking advantage of their new ability to track their workers
When Siemens, a big German industrial conglomerate, rebuilt its offices in the Swiss town of Zug, it did not skimp on the project’s green credentials. Water from nearby Lake Zug is piped in and fed through pumps to heat or cool the offices. None of the materials used in the building came from more than 800km away. Rain that falls on its grass-covered roof is used to flush the toilets.
It did not skimp on technology, either, for the buildings were designed partly as a showcase for the firm’s new “Smart Infrastructure” division. High-tech buildings are one of the most common uses of the sensors and distributed computing that make up the iot. gsma Intelligence, a research firm, forecasts that industrial uses of the iot will overtake consumer ones by 2023, with smart corporate buildings leading the way.
Some of the smarts in the Siemens building are there for the workers. An app called Comfy, made by an American firm called Building Robotics that Siemens bought for an undisclosed sum last year, allows workers to adjust temperature and light levels in their offices with their phones. Over time, the system will learn the preferences of individual workers, and automatically warm or cool their offices. The app can also be used to find unoccupied desks, browse the cafeteria’s lunch menu, book meeting rooms and flag up any maintenance that might need doing, such as replacing a broken monitor.
Feeling the heat
Other features are designed for managers. The building is studded with hundreds of sensors made by another American company, called Enlighted, which Siemens also bought in 2018. The sensors are integrated with the building’s light fixtures, which supply power, and come with a low-resolution infrared camera, a Bluetooth networking beacon and sensors to measure energy consumption, air temperature and light levels. Individual sensors can collaborate with their fellows to establish a wireless network.
Such sensors have all sorts of uses, enthuses Christoph Leitgeb, the building’s designer. They can keep track of daylight levels, ramping up the artificial lights on gloomy days and cutting back on sunny ones. The result, reckons Enlighted, can be a 38% saving in energy consumption. Building Robotics claims that better lighting can boost employees’ productivity by 23%. The infrared cameras can be used to track employees—or at least, the heat given off from their bodies.
That information can be converted into a heat map of the building, showing popular areas and less-travelled ones, helping managers make the best use of space. Occupancy data can be fed to the heating systems, allowing energy savings when the building is sparsely populated. “It allows us to quantify things that used to be intangible,” says Mr Leitgeb.
For now, data gathered by sensors in the Siemens building are anonymous. The cameras see heat blooms, meaning they can record only numbers and general circulation within a building. But more personal tracking is possible, says Mr Leitgeb, via the sensors’ Bluetooth beacons, which could track smartphones or building passes. So far Siemens is not making use of that capability—although discussions with its workers “are ongoing”.
One Florida mega-church uses the system to monitor attendance
The firm has big ambitions. “Our goal is to have thousands of buildings like this,” says Peter Löffler, head of innovation at Siemens Smart Infrastructure. There are possibilities beyond simple passive tracking, he says. When people are tracked and inventory is kept up to date by beacons on all of a building’s equipment, a “digital twin” of the building—essentially a high-fidelity computer model—can tell occupants where to find anything they need. For a busy hospital that could be a godsend.
Another option is to track customers rather than workers. Xovis, a Swiss firm, offers a tracking technology based on computer vision that can tell the difference between men and women; this information can be used to see how they move around a shop differently. It can also be used to measure waiting times at airports. One Florida mega-church uses the system to monitor attendance. blip Systems, a Danish firm, offers a similar service using data gleaned from shoppers’ smartphones. Markets and Markets, a research firm, reckons the global demand for such “in-store analytics” is growing by 23% a year and will be worth $3.2bn by 2023.
Tracking need not be confined to buildings. Insurance firms have been enthusiastic adopters of the surveillance capabilities offered by connected gadgets. Many insurers have offered discounts to drivers willing to install a black box that collects data from their car on acceleration, cornering, braking and the like, and relays it back for analysis. These days, such additional hardware is increasingly unnecessary. Modern cars are stuffed with sensors capable of measuring everything from engine revs to cornering speeds. Ovum, a consultancy, reckons that 80-90% of new cars sold in the rich world now come with sim cards fitted as standard, allowing them to stream those data across the mobile-phone network.
The next step beyond monitoring drivers is trying to change their behaviour. Aviva, a big British insurer, offers a smartphone app called Aviva Drive that uses gps to track customers in their cars. Besides offering lower premiums to careful drivers, the app rewards them with cutesy badges (“Fuel Friendly”, perhaps, or “Corner Master”) modelled on the “achievements” common in video games, before rating their driving out of ten. Another possibility, says Jon Hocking, who covers insurance for Morgan Stanley, a bank, might be real-time price adjustment. “It’s fair enough to pay for collision insurance while you’re driving,” he says. “But maybe your premium should be lower when you’re parked up on your drive at home.”
It is not just car insurance. Customers of Ping An, a Chinese insurer that is the world’s biggest, can use the firm’s facial-recognition software when registering accounts. One of the data-points extracted from a face is a person’s body-fat percentage, which is fed into the algorithm that calculates their life-insurance premiums. In 2018 John Hancock Financial, an American firm, said in future it would sell only health-insurance policies that can make use of data gathered from smartphones or wearable devices such as Fitbits, which track how much exercise policyholders are taking. Beam, an American dental-insurance firm, supplies policy-holders with internet-connected smart toothbrushes. Diligent brushers can save 15% on the cost of their premiums.
Creeping me out
The limits of public tolerance for such nudging and nannying are not yet clear. “There’s definitely a crossover point where this goes from helpful to creepy,” says Mr Hocking. Morgan Stanley has done surveys asking people what level of price reduction they would require to share their data. He says respondents in Asia were most willing to trade data for a price cut. Westerners were less keen, and Germans the most wary of all.
But grumpy customers will have to contend with the structural imperatives of the insurance business. Companies that collect more data will be better able to categorise customers as low- or high-risk, says Mr Hocking. In the absence of regulators to stop them, firms employing the latest technology will be able to cream off the lowest-risk business for themselves, leaving their slower rivals to compete for the less profitable clients who remain. That offers a powerful incentive for snooping, no matter how intrusive customers may find it.