A Smart Campus’ Digital Twin for Sustainable Comfort Monitoring

by Agustín Zaballos, Alan Briones, Alba Massa, Pol Centelles and Víctor Caballero

1. Introduction

1.1. Research Motivation and Scope

Smart cities must be large towns able to sustain their citizens’ incremental needs while promoting environmental sustainability. With the emergence of new information and communication technologies (ICTs), such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and big data, smart cities are closer to this realization. However, the deployment of such an amount of technology in a wide geographical area requires experimentation and testing. Consequently, our research proposes to create smart campuses (SCs) to experiment with the deployment of these ICT technologies [1,2]. The aim is to support the efficient management of a “small” smart city. In the context of an SC, we consider the needs of students and campus staff while improving environmental sustainability.
This way, we narrow the scope of the present paper by focusing on two properties: students’ comfort and energy efficiency. We aim to integrate the ICTs to monitor and manage both of them; therefore, IoT devices are responsible for detecting comfort levels and energy efficiency on the campus and take consequent corrective action. We propose to conceptualize groups of smart devices that could be used to achieve a determined goal by acting as physical-world proxies for agents. For instance, an agent is responsible for improving energy efficiency and comfort in a given classroom, and it senses and actuates on the physical world (e.g., classrooms) through IoT sensors and actuators.
According to Eurostat and the European Commission report in Education and Training Monitor 2019, more than 31% of the European population is currently enrolled in educational programs. This percentage only includes physical-based learning. However, in recent years remote learning and distance education have grown significantly [3]. Hence, more than 138 million European people spend a considerable amount of their time in educational facilities (schools, universities, colleges, etc.). Most of these facilities were constructed a long time ago to rapidly address the educational needs of growing local populations due to the societal changes in which young adults began to complete a full education plan: primary school, high school, and university/vocational training. At that time, educational institutions were large infrastructures to allocate all students, faculty members, and staff. However, little or no attention was paid to the overall comfort of these environments—understood as a measure that balances the wellbeing of all users, the efficiency of the processes involved, and the pro-environmental footprint of their facilities.
Recent studies have suggested that comfort in educational environments is a critical parameter for the success of learning and the evolution of society [4]. Comfort is usually related to individual and isolated parameters such as air quality, temperature, or noise [5]. Measuring these parameters can be tackled seamlessly with unobtrusive equipment as an enabler to obtaining reasonable—yet incomplete—partial conclusions [6]. Indeed, much effort has been made to improve ICT-based solutions in the direction of more accurate and more complete systems (e.g., including more local variables) [7]. However, these recurrent solutions typically fail at quantifying the side effects of measuring comfort involving external parameters to the educational environment that still have a great impact on its associated issues (e.g., overall sustainability, energy efficiency, learning and teaching performance, etc.). For instance, they are unable to address dilemmas such as whether it would be worth increasing the energy consumption to keep the optimal thermal conditions in order to ensure an improvement in the students’ academic output or not.
In essence, current ICT-based proposals to monitor comfort either do not deal collectively with the vast amount of internal and external parameters to measure them, or only provide local (i.e., partial) qualitative views of comfort as they are more focused on keeping the technological paradigm of cost-effectiveness [5]. Hence, existing developments are incremental, concerning a conceptual and technological paradigm that remains unchanged. Understanding, monitoring, predicting, and optimizing comfort in educational environments requires a holistic and cross-layer view able to frame and quantify the dynamic and nonlinear relations of their involved users [8]. Indeed, addressing the comfort in educational facilities cannot be tackled in a linear way since several interdependent parts are continuously changing. Therefore, it is safe to say that comfort in educational environments has remained under-sampled for years mostly due to the complexity of objectively quantifying and acting on it.
Specifically, authors have examined, measured, and analyzed all the potential external (e.g., available open data, weather information, architectural issues, etc.) and internal (e.g., thermal or acoustic data) variables affecting such comfort to (1) quantify, monitor, predict and optimize comfort in physical and, eventually, virtual educational environments; (2) enhance overall sustainability and (3) overcome potential issues in the teaching-learning process. The proposed structural model of our SC will help to predict the impact of the distinct institutional policies on comfort and, as such, it will encourage drivers to address changes such as conducting active learning methodologies, adopting eco-friendly initiatives to reduce environmental footprint toward carbon neutrality, or incorporating renewable energies to save natural resources.
Overall, our research proposes a radical paradigm shift and the use of IoT technology in monitoring and optimizing comfort in university learning environments, where the frame for analysis and modeling of the comfort parameter holistically covers the internal and external meta-dimensions, as a whole, that characterize the socio-environmental interactions of three strategic stakeholders: teaching and learning community, facility management staff, and energy providers.
If these dimensions, and their impact on comfort, were defined, quantified, and validated through innovative scientifically-grounded methods, this would drive the conception of a new technology able to transform the current generation of comfort analysis in physical and virtual educational environments. This achievement will endow them with a completely novel functionality to improve their sustainability while helping to understand, design, populate, monitor, and perceive comfortable learning environments.

1.2. The Importance of the University in the Promotion of Sustainability

Universities and colleges play a crucial role in the development of knowledge and innovation, especially in more environmentally benign technologies and goods to promote sustainable living [9]. They represent vital places to explore, test, develop, and communicate the necessary conditions for effective and sustainable change [10,11]. Many universities and colleges are similar to micro cities because of their population, size, and the many different types of activities happening on campus. According to the literature, a sustainable university is “a higher educational institution that addresses, involves and promotes, on a regional or a global level, the minimization of negative environmental, economic, societal, and health effects generated in the use of their resources in order to fulfill its functions of teaching, research, outreach and partnership, and stewardship in ways to help society make the transition to sustainable lifestyles” [12].
Although universities acknowledge their roles in our present culture, there is a part of university life that has been rendered a mystery and has never truly been solved universally among universities: sustainable development. Sustainable development is defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” [13]. Since sustainability is an issue of present-day and future societies, it is crucial that places of learning, such as universities, play a critical role in teaching sustainability to citizens who will be the future decision-makers. Sustainability practices begin at the university level by adapting environmentally sustainable policies and expanding to local, regional, national and international levels [14].
Since graduates of any discipline will need knowledge and skills related to sustainability, the challenges and possible solutions should be integrated within the main functions of a university: the development of an interdisciplinary curriculum, environmental literacy, sustainable academic research, sustainable physical operations of the campus, and collaboration amongst universities. The common ground of sustainable practices is the ethical and moral responsibility of universities to be leaders in promoting sustainability [15,16,17]. Campus sustainability has become an issue of global concern for university policymakers and planners as a result of the realization of the impacts the activities and operations of universities have on the environment. Generating more sustainable campus life, including actual innovative campus projects and administrative policies, creates opportunities for students within sustainability [18].
Due to their unique position, universities and colleges play a key role in educating the future generations of citizens who will have expertise in all fields of the labor market. This role includes both the promotion of environmental literacy among students and research in sustainability, as well as a contrived effort to decrease the university’s impact on the environment [19]. Although universities worldwide are constantly improving their vision and curricula to address future sustainability challenges, there is still much work to do. The goal of sustainability education is to give students knowledge and skills and help them find solutions to environmental, health-related, and economic challenges [20]. Another important element in the methodology used for teaching students about sustainability is the need to undertake hands-on projects to ensure the students’ understanding of the challenges and possible solutions. Self-sustainable campuses with many projects (e.g., composting, rooftop gardens and solar panels) teach students about sustainability and require the active work of the students. Students who participate in planning, building, and maintaining these projects will be more likely to develop lifelong sustainability habits.

1.3. The Statement for Our Smart Campus Comfort Challenge

The main goal of the Advanced Training in Health Innovation Knowledge Alliance (ATHIKA) [21] is to use knowledge transfer to duplicate, yet also locally customize, sustainability innovations undertaken by diverse institutions. The ATHIKA project will build a set of advanced training programs involving academia, public administrations, SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises), start-ups, and health business consultants. The variety of profiles of the project partners will provide an overall perspective of the sector and will enable the identification of its most urgent challenges. They will guide and coach students and researchers during the development of novel technical and ethical-compliance solutions to implement ICT solutions in the health sector, especially the solutions related to the smart campus (SC) ATHIKA challenge. Authors envisage that the accurate monitoring, analysis, prediction, and management of comfort will lead to a reduction in the overall environmental footprint of educational environments while increasing the comfort of their users.
In this paper, we present the development and implementation of novel and advanced healthy SC by using comfort as a quality metric, based on ICT that relies on greater interaction between healthcare professionals, education communities, and technological experts. Available SC data are becoming massive, and needs to be handled in controlled environments, under proper ethical criteria. The goal is to establish a challenge-based learning program where teams of students from various disciplines and countries will compete to find solutions for our SC challenge. The devised solutions, or pretotypes, have been developed into prototypes, following a technology coaching (supported by universities) and the application-oriented coaching (conducted by the target company). This program will be used to reduce the learning and experience curve associated with targeting, developing, and implementing sustainability projects in university settings. The current paper introduces the research carried out in the smart campus challenge within the ATHIKA Erasmus+ project [21].
Reaching a comfortable and responsive SC implies focusing on the two interrelated concepts: “smartness”, mainly related to addressing the problems cities face with the aid of information and communication technologies (ICT), and “healthy sustainability”, emphasizing citizens’ inclusion (students and faculty) and social wellbeing (social dimension), ecosystem protection (environmental dimension) and boosting of the local economy (economic dimension) [22].
Nowadays, new ICTs make the real-time monitoring of university campus conditions possible. A variety of sensors and intelligent devices deployed throughout the campus can monitor pollution, noise, natural or artificial risks as well as epidemics, and manage public spaces and facilities to reduce or avoid negative impacts on educational community health. Our SC challenge also aims to build a platform capable of assisting contemporary university campuses in transforming towards sustainable and comfortable campuses by exploiting data from both existing data sets and on-field sensors. The proposed approach is based on an interdisciplinary digital twin modeling that can be integrated into existing decision support systems by providing quantitative hints and suggestions on architecting and ICT engineering sustainable policies. Using novel trends in ICTs—such as cloud computing, big data, artificial intelligence and Internet of Things—to process, visualize and analyze real-time data is now feasible to accurately monitor citizens and their interactions with the physical infrastructures, and thus, identify, learn, and act to improve the future public health conditions.
In fact, ATHIKA aims to (1) explore innovative approaches to contribute to the sustainable campus transformation, employing technologically advanced pedagogy in a multi-disciplinary way through ICT engineering and architecture frameworks, (2) propose innovative good practices for managing a university campus, involving data-driven sustainable products and service outcomes in order to support environmental policymaking and (3) use novel edge computing architectures for advanced submetering and distributed hybrid intelligence algorithms [23].
Nevertheless, in this paper, the authors introduce a quantitative and measurable definition of comfort, together with the first-ever accurate and unbiased measurement of the concept. It includes the development of computational models and low-cost infrastructures for automated, resilient, and reliable data acquisition, storage, processing, and visualization of comfort. The innovative and scientifically grounded technologies of our proposal have been validated in our real-world university campus.

Check out the full paper here.