The Untangling People Flow consortium coordinated by the University of Helsinki has received a total of six million euros in funding from Business Finland for the years 2023–2026. In this unique project, researchers and companies develop digital solutions that help design smart buildings and streamline everyday life.
“The idea is to make moving and residing in cities easier,” says the coordinator of the consortium, Senior Researcher Andrew Rebeiro-Hargrave of the University of Helsinki.
New mobile applications could be used to predict overcrowding and adjust the energy use of buildings according to people flow data. Both citizens and property owners would receive information in real time, for instance, about the length of queues at the airport, how busy it is on different floors on a university campus or whether certain offices are empty.
“When we understand how people move, we can optimise the use and maintenance of the built environment.”
The consortium has great potential to develop the real estate sector in Finland – it can boost the digitalisation of the housing market as well as support urban planning by gathering information about people’s movements in different spaces and sharing it with multiple stakeholders.
Smart solutions for big cities
Innovations related to people flow are needed because the world’s population is growing rapidly. The project intends to generate significant export products for Finnish companies. Demand for digital solutions can come from Europe, which is renovating its housing stock, or perhaps Asia, where population density is high. The solutions can be used by municipalities to limit the disadvantages of mass tourism and prevent disasters which occur when too many people are packed into a small area.
“Finland can become a center of expertise in people flow solutions,” Rebeiro-Hargrave estimates.
The University of Helsinki brings to the project its long-accumulated expertise of distributed measurement systems, which originally have been developed for monitoring the weather but have also been put into use in buildings, where they measure, among other things, air quality. Based on these systems, it is possible to create digital twins and simulate the operation of buildings.
In the Untangling People Flow project, computer science researchers combine the data from the digital twins with sensors that collect real-time information on, for example, the number of people in the premises. Later, they build a system similar to ChatGPT that generates recommendations and forecasts to property owners, citizens and other stakeholders. It can help companies to optimise their services based on people flow data.
“If, for instance, they wanted to open a pop-up store in the airport, they could inquire the recommendation system about the best time and location in the duty-free area.”
Privacy protection is carefully considered when collecting data. Rebeiro-Hargrave says that the devices measuring people flow do not collect sensitive data, i.e., data subject to GDPR, but only recognise moving objects.
The use of communication technology is revolutionising
The people flow recommendation system will first be tested at the Kumpula Campus and at the Helsinki–Vantaa airport. After that, it will be piloted at the Dutch FONTYs University of Applied Sciences and at Istanbul Airport, which 70 million people pass through every year.
Kimmo Pentikäinen, the Business Director of the Elisa corporation, which is participating in the consortium, estimates that the data collected from the built environment and human flows will bring about a big change: it will multiply 5G connections just as videos accelerated the use of 4G, and smartphones the spread of 3G.
“This is the third significant transition in the use of communication technology.”
In the project, Elisa is developing a machine vision that collects data for the recommendation system and other mobile applications. In practice, this means that a mobile phone used as a sensor will be attached to, for example, the ceiling of a room, where it calculates the number of people anonymously. Pictures, videos and other sensitive data are not collected.
“This is a big step forward in how we can commercialise machine vision.”
Elisa customers already use the technology when mapping the use of office spaces, but now machine vision will also be tested at airports and campuses. Pentikäinen believes that the project will enable significant digital business in Finland and internationally.
“This project is very important for Finland’s competitiveness.”
Sustainable urbanisation for the environment and people
KONE, which participates in the consortium as a Business Finland leading company, believes that the project helps cities to grow sustainably. In addition to carbon neutrality and energy efficiency, it is important to consider people’s wellbeing, which can be promoted by smooth people flow, says Juha-Matti Kuusinen, the company’s Head of Digital Innovation.
“Urbanisation must be sustainable both for the environment and for people,” Kuusinen emphasises.
The new digital solutions developed by the consortium help build smart buildings and cities that meet people’s needs. During the three-year project, KONE plans to test its own technologies and bring its own expertise in combining data-based solutions into a seamless whole.
“We can play a significant role, for instance, in simulating what the people flow looks like inside buildings.”
Kuusinen believes that with the help of people flow data, KONE can offer new services to its customers and partners. The project helps to better understand what kind of buildings should be designed.
“The expertise created in this project will have a key impact on the development of future cities.”