In using their division as a living laboratory, Stellenbosch University's Facilities Management (SUFM) has since 2015 been implementing systems and processes to start paving the way for the Institution to become a smart campus where data-led decision-making will result in solving problems and providing solutions for the future.
Nicolette van den Eijkel, Chief Director at SUFM, says one of their strategic objectives for 2021–2025 is to move to a technology-enhanced campus through a process of digitalisation in collaboration with, among others, SU's Faculty of Engineering.
This directly supports SU's Vision 2040 of being a technology-enabled university.
Within the broader context of the United Nations' 17 sustainable development goals (SDG's)and South Africa's commitment by signing the agreement on climate change, and participation in the Global Alliance for Universities in Climate (GAUC), Stellenbosch University (SU) is following suit by reducing the University's carbon footprint to Net Zero Carbon and ensuring that 50% of all electricity used comes from renewable sources by 2025.
"We can only manage our utilities by measuring it," says Nadeem Gafieldien, Director: Property Services at SUFM. "That is why we've been working hard to put digital systems and infrastructure in place to measure our utilities such as water and electricity. Our smart metering systems provide us with valuable usage data which ensure that we can make effective decisions and react to real-time problems as and when they happen."
According to Gafieldien they have been installing smart metering systems at most of the buildings on SU's five campuses and embarked on various projects, which have already had a significant impact on energy, water and waste saving for the University.
"Our smart metering systems provide us with the agility to react fast and pro-actively plan for the future. It also enables us to verify our usage in terms of checking it against our billing information. This ability has already resulted in large cost savings."
Recently SUFM joined forces with Prof Anton Basson and his team of researchers at the Department of Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering to develop a system that can integrate all the different data sources using a reconfigurable approach to enable data-led decisions by various users.
"Our research deals with handling information in complex systems - systems where there are many different components and interactions. The system is dynamic and evolves over time, which means it changes as the system and needs change," says Basson.
"There are expensive commercial systems on the market, but we have decided to develop a unique system to provide an integrated information system to support SUFM in our decision making and reporting."
The approach taken for SUFM's Smart Sustainable Campus builds on the idea of using “Digital Twins" and “Microservices" to combine information from existing systems, which currently exist as "information silos", to enable detection of anomalies (e.g. to quickly identify water leaks), expedite monitoring and reporting (e.g. of electricity use and carbon footprint), record usage actual patterns (e.g. of lecture room occupancy), and other data-lead decision making.
“Our approach stems from the 'shoestring approach' formulated by Cambridge University to also help small and medium businesses (SMEs) who cannot afford expensive software to manage their information. The approach is that we build a basic framework, and companies can buy more modules to expand the system's capabilities," Basson said.
In this way the system can grow indefinitely as needs grow or new data sources are added.
While completing his PhD, Dr Anro Redelinghuys built the basic architecture for the software and is currently working to implement the system at SUFM, where the first commercial release is nearing completion. "Eventually, the system will be able to provide different users with different dashboards of actual usage patterns of utility information which will assist them with efficient decision-making," says Basson.
Becoming a sustainable university
In the meantime, the sustainability team at SUFM is hard at work to ensure that SU becomes a sustainable institution. "We work arduously to change our systems and processes to more sustainable energy sources and reduce the impact on the environment," says Gafieldien referring to initiatives such as creating their own recycling plant, installing PV panels on the roofs of SU's buildings, consolidating and reducing air conditioning systems and generators, as well as installing greywater systems at residences and faculty buildings on the various campuses – all projects that resulted in further cost savings and contributing towards the institution's sustainability goals.
"We have even digitised our trees to measure, among others, their water usage. Thanks to this information, we have been able to replace some vegetation with water-wise endemic and indigenous trees."