Ria Blagburn, technology team integrator at creative technology contractor Vanti, tells Jo Ruddock about the importance of diversity in technology and the opportunity provided by machine learning.
Tell me a bit about Vanti
Vanti was originally founded as an AV company, but over the years our service has developed into something a bit more unique. We blur the lines between AV and IT to create unique solutions for the built environment that support, enable and empower people. Our user-centric approach puts the people using a space at the heart of the work we do, with the ultimate aim that technology will contribute to a much-improved experience.
We tend to work in one of two capacities, with our acting role adapting to the needs of a client’s project. The first of these is the role of Master Systems Integrator, where we co-ordinate the integration of traditionally isolated systems, creating unified experiences for our clients. In line with this, we’ve developed Smart Core, a building technology platform and framework that seeks to standardise the approach people take to integrating systems and make it much more sustainable for the future (after deployment, clients can continue to use us to make changes or can get their internal development team to update what they need).
We’re also increasingly acting as Main Technology Contractor for developments – this role is new to the construction industry, but represents the only real way to get maximum value from the technology present in a building. Elevating the importance of technology design within a construction project creates efficiencies across the board, so we’re working in this role increasingly regularly as the construction and property industries wake up to the benefits of considering technology earlier in project development.
Our thinking is that if a building is designed around the way that people use it, and future potential changes to technology and working style are also considered, then less time and money can be spent on adapting the building further down the line. Clients and people within the industry are only just coming around to the idea that while a building is built to stand for 50+ years, technology systems will nearly all be refreshed on three to ten-year cycles.
What’s your geographic reach?
We’re currently expanding at a pretty fast rate and are now supporting clients across the UK and Europe, and we’ve just onboarded our first client in Singapore too! Being based in Birmingham gives us great access to the UK, but we’ll happily travel further afield to work on innovative and exciting projects.
You were recently named as one of the Midlands’ most innovative businesses. How did this come about?
The Innovation 50 is a biennial report that showcases the region’s 50 most innovative companies. We were delighted to be included when the initiative first launched in 2017, and were even more pleased to retain our spot for the 2019 edition. There are so many interesting companies making the Midlands their home because it’s a great place to start a business, and this is especially true for the tech sector: the number of tech companies that chose to set up in the West Midlands rose by 11% in 2018, and Birmingham is home to more tech start-ups than any UK city outside of London. It’s therefore a huge accolade that the judges behind the Innovation 50 recognised the work Vanti are doing when the competition is so stiff.
You’ve also been prominent of your support for diversity in technology. Why do you think this is so important?
We strongly believe that having a diverse team where everyone feels included makes business sense and is the right thing to do. When you only hire people from a certain background, who look, think and feel the same as you do, you often don’t get the benefit of different experiences and varying points of view. Having a range of voices helps us to consider problems from more angles, which then enables us to make better decisions and build more successful solutions. As a technology company that works closely with the construction industry, we frequently see a lot of gender stereotyping when it comes to roles, but we’re very committed to proactively seeking talent that may otherwise be overlooked, and creating a culture that fosters a strong sense of inclusivity and equality.
You work across a number of verticals, including education, hospitality and commercial. Which ones are particularly active at the minute?
We’re seeing a lot more companies invest significantly in their office infrastructure at the moment, which is a symptom of the changing nature of work. There have been plenty of articles published in recent years around the younger workforce being less motivated by financial incentives, and more by flexibility, company culture and a good working environment underpinned by effective technology.
This is prompting companies to rethink the spaces they inhabit and build to accommodate a more modern way of working that centres around helping people be at their best regardless of whether they’re collaborating in a team, holding a 1:1 meeting in a huddle pod, or doing some focused work in a quiet area of the office. What we do is designed to support those individuals and teams by seamlessly enabling their interactions with technology.
And are there any technologies in that sector that you’re excited about?
We’re very interested in the use of sensor technology and how data derived from sensors can be used in combination with machine learning to predict flows and optimise systems without human intervention. For example, if a building has sensors that are able to monitor occupancy and usage of individual spaces, this data can be automatically fed into software for facilities managers, and machine learning can then define things like cleaning schedules or maintenance reviews.
This removal of the need for human intervention is sometimes interpreted as a danger to society, with some predicting that such automations will render a lot of jobs obsolete. However, we think it’s an opportunity rather than a risk – by using technology to replace a lot of monotonous or data-heavy work (which is more prone to human error), people can spend more time doing the more creative and interesting tasks.
What projects are you particularly proud of?
Informa’s HQ at 240 Blackfriars was our flagship integration project when it opened in 2016, and we’re currently working on an upgrade that will leverage our Smart Core technology. We helped deliver an immersive, inspiring and flexible smart workplace across seven storeys that encouraged real-time communication and collaboration on a global scale. The results speak for themselves: smart floors are 50% more energy efficient that their non-smart equivalents, with the workplace achieving the highest LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating of Platinum (with the second highest score in the UK). Informa also benefited from £1 million annual productivity savings through use of task automation and their ‘Bring it Home’ initiative, designed to encourage employees to bring clients and partners to the new space and to host events there rather than hiring external venues. Finally, and perhaps most impressively, our work enabled the generation of £1.6 million in additional annual revenue achieved by optimising space based on analysis of usage data to achieve a mobility ratio of 1.8 people to every one desk.
We were also hugely honoured to be chosen to deliver the AV and lighting services for the five performance spaces, control rooms, and technical suites at the brand-new Royal Birmingham Conservatoire – the first of its kind to offer both analogue and digital recording in every performance space. This was a hugely technically challenging project due to the very specific acoustic requirements – for example, we needed to ensure that all the AV and lighting equipment and cabling didn’t have a negative impact on the acoustics of the rooms. Through our work, the Conservatoire boasts performance spaces with specific acoustic tolerances that can produce incredible, consistent audio experiences. These performances can be mixed using advanced consoles and recorded in both analogue and digital to allow students to understand the difference in sound as well as the advantages and disadvantages of each method. This fusion of traditional and contemporary technologies makes the new Conservatoire unique, allowing BCU to attract the very best students and musicians from around the globe.
How important is future proofing spaces and avoiding early obsoletion, and how are you ensuring this with your clients?
We frequently see people thinking about what they want now, rather than designing for the future. Companies evolve all the time, with factors like their reach, size and ways of working constantly changing. We account for this by building as much flexibility as possible into our designs, even when a client hasn’t specifically asked for it. This is especially true when it comes to software – for example, if a client currently uses one videoconferencing tool and needs a system that supports this, we will try to design something that will not limit their ability to change manufacturer in future. Where possible, we recommend the use of open source tools as proprietary software can majorly limit a company’s ability to make significant changes in the future as they develop.
The rate of technological change is extraordinary, so it’s vital that integrators are able to design solutions that scale over time. We’ve created Smart Core with this flexibility in mind – rather than bake technology into the building that then becomes exceedingly difficult to remove and replace, we take a more modular approach so upgrading is far more painless than it has been historically. Different systems depreciate at different rates, so it’s important to understand these timescales and use this knowledge to think about when things are likely to need replacing or updating.
What are the biggest challenges you’re currently facing?
One of our biggest challenges is communicating our capabilities, because there’s still a significant lack of awareness and understanding around integrated systems and smart buildings. It’s hard to conceptualise what we do, because we don’t have a snazzy app or gimmicky product; we do so many things and we often don’t work in the tangible space. This is why we’re striving to help standardise the industry and get everyone on the same page, as it will enable clients and potential hires to better understand the role that systems integrators play and the value we offer.
We also still face a fair few challenges when we work with property developers and investors as it can be hard to convince such people to see the value of technology when they want to sell the building for as much profit as possible. The construction industry has also worked in the same way for decades, so the disruption we represent by encouraging conversations about technology much earlier on in the process is not always welcomed by the old guard. However, we are persisting, and are gradually seeing a change in attitudes as people become more and more convinced that the investment is a worthwhile one.
Why should end users employ an integrator rather than attempt to go it alone?
A big part of what we do is removing the headache; people describe us as the ‘glue’ within their projects. Our experience and the way we work means our clients get the benefit of much more fluid systems that support rather than hinder them. At present, most building technology isn’t designed or built with flexibility in mind. Our approach, which focuses on the use of area control panels, aims to create a flexible, expandable and open modular platform where we can connect any supported in-building technology together for low level integration. This means that technology integration is designed from the beginning, rather than added as an additional layer on top at the end.
The idea is that these area control panels are installed at strategic points around a building, typically in risers or comms rooms, and systems such as such as HVAC, lighting, metering, desk booking, AV, occupancy sensing, access control, etc are all connected to the nearest multi-functional local area control panel. The architecture we use, combined with Smart Core, allows flexibility and future proofing, meaning that everything we connect into the panel is almost pre-integrated out of the box. When clients work with us, they are benefitting from our years of experience, our understanding of integrated systems, and our knowledge of how these can be used to maximise efficiency, value, and positive experience.
What are some of the biggest mistakes made by end users when it comes to AV?
One thing we try to discourage is a demand for very specific devices or software simply because “that’s what they’ve always used”. We encourage people to keep an open mind and not write off systems if they’re new to them; there’s a huge range of technology out there now, which is why we’re agnostic when it comes to suppliers. We’re always happy to review the market, and will incorporate technologies based on what’s most appropriate for the job. We relish the opportunity to go to events like ISE where we can see what’s new – after all, we’re a company full of technologists who love playing with new toys!
Environmental impact is a top concern for many end users. How are you meeting this demand for green AV?
One of our core values is Care – this includes care for the planet and its inhabitants. We’d therefore bake energy efficiency and sustainability into our designs even if there wasn’t a significant cost saving also associated with this. As there is, it makes it an even easier sell to our clients! We think about opportunities to use technology to reduce energy consumption wherever we can – for example, by placing sensors on windows so when one is opened, air conditioning systems shut down.
Finally, what are Vanti’s plans for the future?
Scaling, but doing so sustainably, is high up on our priority list, but this isn’t just a case of more business = more money. We really enjoy what we do, which is why we repeatedly receive positive feedback from clients who see the passion we’ve got, and we also want to make a positive impact on the world; being able to grow as a team and reach new territories will enable us to help more companies get the most out of their spaces.
We’re also very keen to work with other smart companies and industry bodies to bring greater structure to smart building delivery through the development of shared standards and schema. This will help anyone looking to refresh their technology be able to compare different offerings and better understand what would suit them, and speaking the same language will also make it easier for suppliers to collaborate and partner with one another. We hope to open source our own Smart Core platform in order to help with this process – the way we see it, if the whole industry improves, we’ll benefit. A rising tide lifts all ships! www.smart-core.tech