The campus infrastructure team at the National University of Singapore was getting frustrated.
The team wanted to refresh the university’s aging buildings and create a smart campus with connected, automated systems and a cooler, more comfortable outdoor environment. But they couldn’t find a way to make the dozens of standalone systems in the university’s 260 buildings — from air conditioning to elevators and fire protection — communicate with each other. They consulted with several vendors and researched possible solutions, but the efforts had led nowhere. Then someone suggested talking with Microsoft.
Chew Chin Huat, the team’s senior director of campus operations and maintenance, was taken aback, but also intrigued.
“We use Microsoft as the computer software to do our work. We always think of Microsoft as a software company,” he says. “We never knew that Microsoft could be an integrator of operational technology systems.”
At Microsoft’s invitation, Chew and several team members toured the company’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington in July 2019 to get a look at its campus renovation and expansion project. Donning hard hats, they walked through older buildings, heard about the challenges and goals of the project, and toured revamped spaces on the 500-acre campus.
Microsoft, Chew realized, got it. It understood what the university was trying to do.
“We saw that Microsoft was going through the same problems we have — planning better use of old buildings, utilizing office spaces more efficiently without intruding into staff privacy, working with architects and engineers to upgrade old systems without creating new boundaries,” Chew says. “We were able to understand how Microsoft faced those challenges. In a way, I think we spoke the same language.”
That meeting led to a collaboration between the National University of Singapore (NUS), Microsoft and Johnson Controls, the leader in smart and sustainable buildings, which provides many of the university’s key building controls systems. The two companies are working with the university to help integrate its systems and create a more sustainable campus.
Microsoft and Johnson Controls recently launched a global partnership to provide their integrated digital twin technologies for designing and managing buildings and spaces. Digital twins are replicas of physical entities such as structures, systems and devices that use real-time data to provide actionable insights and inform planning.
In July, Johnson Controls launched its OpenBlue digital platform, a complete suite of connected solutions and services. Microsoft’s Azure Digital Twins is the newest Azure platform service integrated into Johnson Controls’ OpenBlue platform to enable the creation of next-generation IoT-connected solutions that will model the real world.
The platform enables customers to create a unified digital view of their buildings and systems so they can see what’s happening in real time, head off potential problems and create improved experiences.
Mike Ellis, executive vice president and chief customer and digital officer for Johnson Controls, says the company’s digital twin technology — part of the broader OpenBlue cloud-based platform that uses data for building management — was designed to help customers create more intelligent and efficient buildings.
“It enhances the ability to monitor and manage buildings in a new and unique way that provides better visibility, more real-time monitoring and modeling of how a building runs,” he says. “We are outcome-focused for our customers, and a focus on sustainability, safety, security and customer experience is core to what OpenBlue is all about.”
The buildings industry has always used standalone systems to operate buildings and has long needed a way to unify those systems and platforms, Ellis says.
“OpenBlue is the result of hearing from our customers loud and clear about the high value that could be delivered in creating a unified view of healthy buildings and the systems and technologies that can be harnessed to deliver extraordinary outcomes,” he says.
Johnson Controls, which is headquartered in Cork, Ireland, in September opened a lab at NUS focused on developing solutions for healthier, safer and more sustainable connected spaces. The OpenBlue Innovation Center is housed in the university’s School of Design and Environment net zero energy building and is expected to create customizable solutions that will be tested at the university.
“Our unprecedented focus of co-innovating cutting-edge technologies through collaboration with Microsoft and the NUS will spark greater innovation and true differentiation for our customers,” Ellis says.
“Our OpenBlue solutions, closely connected with Microsoft’s platform and workplace technologies, represent an unbeatable opportunity to help our customers make shared spaces safer, more agile and more sustainable.”
Scott Guthrie, Microsoft’s executive vice president for Cloud + AI, says Microsoft’s partnership with Johnson Controls will enable building owners to better operate and maximize buildings and spaces.
“We have an incredible opportunity to use advances in cloud and compute capabilities to help customers reimagine the physical world,” Guthrie says. “By integrating the power of Azure Digital Twins with JCI’s OpenBlue Digital Twin platform, our collaboration will provide customers with a digital replica and actionable insights to better meet their evolving needs.”
Digital twin technology can be used in buildings for anything from modeling energy usage to creating simulated scenarios and identifying potential emergency or security issues.
NUS, Chew says, sees digital twins as one of the potential planning tools in meeting its goals of becoming carbon neutral and reducing the outdoor temperature on the university campuses by 4 degrees Celsius (around 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2030. Singapore’s average temperature is around 80 degrees F and the island is heating up twice as fast as the world average over the past six decades, according to government data.
NUS has increased its focus on outdoor learning and promotes walking on campus to cut down on vehicle traffic, Chew says, but Singapore’s hot, humid climate can make being outside uncomfortable. The university’s plan for cooling its campus includes reducing the urban heat island effect through intensifying campus greening, special paint coating to cool buildings and pavements, revamping building exteriors to reduce solar load and reorienting buildings to allow breezes to flow through.
Microsoft and Johnson Controls’ integrated platform will be used to create simulations that can help determine how those measures will impact energy consumption and ambient temperature.
“We can’t do it by chance,” Chew says. “We’ve got to do it systematically by computer simulation. Once we’re satisfied, then we will start the physical work. Technology can help us accelerate our transition toward a carbon neutral and cool campus.”
Achieving NUS’ goal of carbon neutrality will also require reducing the university’s heavy reliance on air conditioning, Chew says. NUS is creating digital twins of its buildings and will be analyzing data to find ways of reducing energy consumption and making energy systems run more efficiently. The goal is to create intelligent spaces in buildings that can automatically power off when no one is around, he says, or use air conditioning only in areas that are occupied.
“This collaborative partnership will contribute to NUS’ ongoing efforts to enhance digital capabilities in our Smart, Sustainable and Safe (S3) campus endeavor and industry transformation in the built environment sector,” he says.
Digital twins have been used in the aerospace and manufacturing industries for years, but their application for buildings is relatively new. The technology requires new workforce skills, Chew says, and Microsoft and Johnson Controls have been training NUS graduates and employees to use their integrated platform. The university has started using Power BI, Microsoft’s data visualization platform, for predictive maintenance, and Microsoft is guiding the NUS team on how to use artificial intelligence for monitoring building systems.
Chew describes the collaboration as a true partnership, with both companies’ expertise aligning to support the NUS team’s 10-year vision for a more connected, data-driven and carbon-neutral campus.
“They’re not just selling a product. They’re not just guiding us to use a product,” he says. “They’re helping us to shape the industry as well.”
Top photo: The National University of Singapore’s Stephen Riady Centre. (Courtesy of NUS)