Real Words or Buzzwords?: The Built Environment

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This is the 31st article in the “Real Words or Buzzwords?” series about how real words become empty words and stifle technology progress.

By Ray Bernard, PSP, CHS-III


In the 21st century, “the built environment” means so much more than it did just two decades ago.

  • All-in-one RWOB

  • As technology advances, so do our capabilities for designing, constructing, operating and evolving built environments. But unless we understand today’s new definition of “built environment”, we risk investing in, designing for, and building fixed and outdated environments.

    The definition below is taken from the first paragraph of the Wikipedia “Built environment” article, but to fully understand Wikipedia’s 21st century definition I’m referring you to WIKI 2, Wikipedia Republished. Why? Because the original Wikipedia format was made for creating and editing Wikipedia content, as well as viewing it, on the computing devices available in 20 years ago. In less than 6 years Wikipedia gained it’s one-millionth article, and in less than 20 years its monthly readership had grown to 495 million monthly viewers.

    However, what hasn’t evolved with Wikipedia’s growth is its well-familiar user interface. As WIKI 2 states on the page linked above: “Imagine, you come to a bookstore looking for some encyclopedia and have two options. One has a beautiful cover with a nice paper and professionally designed and well-readable text. The other one has the cheapest paper, its letters are poorly printed, and its illustrations are of low-quality. Which one will you choose?”

    This analogy explains the essence of the differences between Wikipedia and WIKI 2. However, WIKI 2 adds another dimension to understanding a topic, YouTube videos. WIKI 2 has built “Tubie” – a machine-learning-based robot that adds a carousel of relevant videos to complement Wikipedia entries. If a picture is worth a thousand words, is a video worth a thousand articles? Well, some topics’ video collections seem to be.

    Thus, I’m linking you to my “view” of the Wikipedia Built environment article on WIKI 2. You can change that “view” for yourself by selecting another “Atmosphere” (page style) from the drop-down list at the top of the page.

    The Built Environment

    Note that the definition below of “built environment”, according to Wikipedia, focuses too much on specific examples without explaining their importance to the main subject. Over time, expect this Wikipedia article to be improved; but in the meantime, be assured that the examples provided will significantly expand your concept for “built environment”.

    In social science, the term built environment, or built world, refers to the human-made surroundings that provide the setting for human activity, ranging in scale from buildings to parks. It has been defined as “the human-made space in which people live, work, and recreate on a day-to-day basis.” The “built environment encompasses places and spaces created or modified by people including buildings, parks, and transportation systems.” In recent years, public health research has expanded the definition of “built environment” to include healthy food access, community gardens, mental health, “walkability”, and “bikeability”.

    I hadn’t thought of transportation systems as important built environments – but they certainly are. If you’ve ever taken an 8- or 12-hour flight you are already familiar with the closed-environment feeling of the aircraft.

    Advanced Technology Thinking

    How soon do you think that we’ll see a public high school providing advanced education not only in the regular academic subjects like English, social studies, math, computers and physical education but, beyond the high school diploma to include, for example, an FAA certification as an aircraft mechanic? And then maybe with one more year of schooling, FAA certification as a jet engine mechanic? And what about space vehicles and outer-space built environments?

    Well – such a high school exists already at JFK airport (Aviation High School), and you can watch a less-than-two-minute video about it right here. This high school graduates more certified aviation mechanics each year than any other technical school or college in the U.S. Don’t be surprised if the next evolution in high school advancement includes advanced computer and space technology. After all, their mission statement opening sentence reads, “The mission of Aviation High School is to provide our students with a high quality rigorous academic and technical program that will prepare them to meet the educational challenges of the 21st century and a career in aerospace.”

    We already have two built environments in space, the International Space Station and China’s Tiangong-2 short-term space research testbed, whose successor permanent space station is planned for launch within the next few years. Currently there are several reusable launch systems under development.

    In the next 20 years we’re going to see some very smart built environments, but they won’t be built using the thinking we used to create 99% of the built environments we have on Earth today. That’s why we must put aside, without entirely forgetting, our legacy 20th century security technology thinking and get fully into the 21st century!

    Realize that Aviation High School has been training aviation mechanics for 81 years. For well over half a century they have been dealing with non-computerized legacy technology. Yet look at their thinking now! We in the security industry can and must follow their example.

    Smart Buildings Keep Arriving

    For a look at what is already being done with smart buildings, view the five very short smart building videos on this page: bit.ly/led-lighting-opp and learn about intelligent walls, ceilings and even floors (www.luminous-carpets.com) that building planners, architects and design engineers are using to create a building experience that is healthier, safer and more convenient than ever before. But these buildings are still missing advanced security technologies, and their existing advanced building technologies are under-utilized for security purposes. I know, I’ve talked to the contractors who built some of them.

    Consider that in a fire situation, smoke may inhibit the visibility of eye-level signage and building features, while the floor remains visible. Luminous carpet messages can be seen by even by someone crawling along the floor. We think about such things because we work in security, but major building emergencies happen rarely. That makes security technology that’s capable of making a life-saving difference in rare occurrences, hard to fund.

    Thus, it should be especially important to security practitioners that intelligent carpeting can also display visitor-specific welcome signage and other messaging appropriate for the day or season. When there are other business cases for technology that can be used by security, it’s much easier to fund such technology purchases.

    This is one reason why indoor locating systems, for example, should be of high interest to security practioners. They have multiple business uses, including way-finding, which is a popular application for assisting hospital visitors. Hospital wayfinding phone apps can also provide information about cafeteria meals, gift shop specials, vending machine locations, parking space availability, and so on.

    Smart buildings in Germany have found that when building occupants are given control over the ceiling lighting in their immediate area, they typically reduce lighting levels for their comfort, bringing lighting costs down by an additional 27%. These same intelligent lighting fixtures can hold occupancy and air quality sensors for a very small incremental cost. The use of such sensors can make big a difference in the management of fire emergencies and other building evacuation scenarios.

    Design Thinking

    For most of the 20th century, we considered security technology to be parts, pieces and mechanisms that we placed here and there to secure fixed structures and facilitate human security oversight. We must now incorporate into our thinking the fact that 21st century facilities are intelligent automated environments with a high degree of self-awareness, which work to anticipate and respond to the needs of their occupants. Why exclude personal security and safety from that intelligence? That’s what we’re currently doing.

    Elevating Built Environment Security and Safety

    By expanding our concept for built environments and our thinking about the “built environment experience”, we will help pave the way for the adoption of advanced technologies that can significantly elevate the level of safety and security of our built environments today and tomorrow.

    Ray Bernard, PSP CHS-III, is the principal consultant for Ray Bernard Consulting Services (RBCS), a firm that provides security consulting services for public and private facilities (www.go-rbcs.com). In 2018 IFSEC Global listed Ray as #12 in the world’s top 30 Security Thought Leaders. He is the author of the Elsevier book Security Technology Convergence Insights available on Amazon. Mr. Bernard is a Subject Matter Expert Faculty of the Security Executive Council (SEC) and an active member of the ASIS International member councils for Physical Security and IT Security. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayBernardRBCS.