Smart spaces: A peek inside Cisco’s innovation lab

Jackie Gill - August 7, 2019 Bill MacGowan (Director of Smart Building Digitization) demonstrates Cisco's customer experience centre innovations in Toronto

Close your eyes and picture your happy place.

Maybe it’s that cozy corner in your house where you love to curl up. Maybe it’s the bustling coffee shop you visit every morning on your way to work. Maybe it’s a workshop, an artist’s loft or an inspiring office where you get stuff done. 

We all have spaces that speak to us and resonate in our hearts, says Bill MacGowan, Director of Smart Building Digitization at Cisco

And why is it? “It’s a combination of design, light, temperature, noise, all these things that come together and create that resonance,” he says.

MacGowan is a self-described “buildings guy,” an expert in what makes happy places happy, and how technology and design work together to create experiences.

Read also: Bill MacGowan writes about smart and connected communities.

Building a happy place starts with one question: what’s the objective?

In Cisco’s innovation hub in downtown Toronto, MacGowan and his team tackle tech that makes our cities and buildings more cost-effective, sustainable, secure, flexible… and enjoyable.

To show you what he means by “objectives”, let’s start with the innovation hub itself. 

“All of Cisco had the opportunity to express what they wanted within the space,” says MacGowan. Topping that list: flexibility to suit their video-on, mobile culture. 

“We wanted multiple choices of where we could work during the day because everybody moves around.” 

You’ll see that goal in one of their large presentation rooms. 20 black and tan chairs face a large, multi-panel screen at the front. Small microphones hang from the ceiling and two cameras above the display make video and audio feel as engaging as possible. 

He walks up to the display and traces a finger across a blank canvas on the screen. A purple line follows. “What I’m doing on the screen will show up on your phone, regardless of distance and separation,” he says.

“High-def allows me to connect across distance with others, and that connection then drives the ability to better solve problems, better collaborate.”

– Bill MacGowan

Down the hall is a smaller room, but no less important. Along the top of the front wall hang a series of clocks, showing the time in other innovation centres around the globe, from Rio de Janeiro to Tokyo. 

“This room here is a high-def telepresence room,” MacGowan says. Everything in it – from the chairs to the cameras – was designed by Cisco to make connection and collaboration across their global innovation offices easy and effective. 

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But it doesn’t stop within their four walls

Cisco primarily thinks about technologies that can empower people, “whether it’s a doctor, a nurse, an educator or a student, somebody that comes to work within a commercial building – what tools could drive their innovation and productivity and health and wellness?” says MacGowan.

For that, you need only to step into their lab space. 

It’s packed with arrays of lights, thermometers, Wi-Fi beacons, occupancy sensors and smart panels. There’s even half of a fire hydrant and a model pig equipped with wheels and a Raspberry Pi. Everything’s hooked up to computers, and everything’s here to solve real-world problems.

“If everything from the vending machine to the light to the thermostat to the elevator and parking are all smart, and they’re riding on a secure network, how can we move that data around to solve problems?”

– Bill MacGowan

The lights? “If I look at the ceiling, I see lightbulbs. But actually embedded in each light, there’s sensing modules that are providing values like temperature, occupancy, where people are positioned,” says MacGowan. 

Some have sensors so precise they can measure your heartbeat, he adds. “So instead of wearing some type of heart rate device or somebody coming up with that stethoscope that’s always cold, the light is actually streaming healthcare data.”

That blue dot on the ceiling? It’s actually a Wi-Fi access point that can triangulate your location down to one metre. “We don’t know who you are, so there’s data privacy, but we know where your device is, and we’re using that information actually to start changing the dynamics within space,” he says. 

That LED screen on the wall? It’s not used for lighting, says MacGowan. Rather, it’s an indicator, and in cases like an active shooting situation in a school, it can not only alert students and teachers, but also signal a safe path of egress.

That bisected fire hydrant? “Fire hydrants want to tell us two things: they want to tell us if they’re frozen, or do I have enough pressure to create the amount of water to come out of the fire hydrant,” he says. The tech they’re developing lets fire departments know where there’s a problem and what kind of maintenance they need, before there’s an emergency.

And Wilbur, the pig on wheels? That Raspberry Pi monitors weight and overall health – an important project for agriculture. 

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Cisco knows a thing or two about using technology for good, too

In its Connected North program, the company works to reduce youth suicide rates and drive up classroom scores in remote and underserved northern Canadian communities, says MacGowan. 

A lot of that work revolves around the easy-to-connect collaboration platforms Cisco produces. “We’re using products like this to connect remote classrooms to other educators in southern Ontario and maybe around the globe, and in real-time, in high-def, bring the kids together,” he says.

Beyond that, MacGowan’s team thinks about technology’s role in energy, water and food supplies around the world. “The minute the water goes, then the food goes,” he says, “so we’ve got some big issues right now, and we’re focused on that.”

“Energy, water and food. We can use technology to address those three key problems. We’re attempting to be part of the puzzle, solve some of these questions.”

– Bill MacGowan

The innovation centre is the perfect place to start tackling issues big and small.

As a separately-funded business unit, it has the autonomy, flexibility and agility necessary to develop solutions while keeping up with the latest trends and technologies. 

“We behave a lot of times like an incubator or a startup. We can move quite quickly,” he says. 

As for MacGowan’s happy place? It’s the Cisco office he helped build. 

“I really love coming to this building. I really do.”

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  • Name: Cisco
  • Solution: Networking hardware, software and service that make powerful connections
  • Owners: Over 71,000 employees worldwide
  • Headquarters: Toronto, Ont. (Canada), San Jose, Calif. (U.S.)
  • Founded: 1984
  • Revenue: $12.96 billion (Q3 2019)
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