Smart Buildings are defining the future by aligning the building/construction industry with urban sustainability goals, powered by opportunities in digitalization, automation and technology-led innovation.

Balaji Kalluri, our next pathbreaker, Independent Researcher and Urban Innovation Consultant,  specializes in integrated/holistic design of smart and sustainable buildings in urban environments that balances comfort with energy use.

Balaji talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his work as an independent researcher across countries, on low-carbon architectural design, with a focus on ensuring safety, security, health/wellness and sustainability within contemporary urban built-environments.

For students, you have an incredible opportunity to push the boundaries of science to responsibly design advanced technologies, and implement them in real-world complex socio-technical systems such as buildings and cities to create a safe, sustainable and liveable urban environment for all

Balaji, Your background?

I was born to first generation graduate parents and was raised in a typical middle-income family, dreaming of educating their children well. I grew-up in one of the largest metropolitan cities in the country (Chennai). In my early childhood days, I was a studious chap, yet a street-smart fellow. While both my parents are fairly well educated and professionally well settled in government jobs, there wasn’t a great deal of clarity in terms of choices of education and career opportunities lying in front of them to pick for their children. Just like many conservative parents, they did not want to send me far away for my undergraduation, although I had an option of studying in one of the NITs. No regrets. However, the best gift my parents gave me was the freedom to study and support whatever I wished to study.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

During my under graduation, I studied B.E (Electronics and Communication Engineering) from a private college in Chennai (2002-06), following which I pursued M.E in Microelectronics engineering from BITS Pilani, Rajasthan (2007-09). This allowed me to develop a deeper understanding of the semiconductor electronics and manufacturing industry. However, later, my interest shifted from electronics to sustainability. A graduate research scholarship (2013-17) to carry out doctoral thesis, leading to a PhD in Building Science from School of Design and Environment in the National University of Singapore allowed me to make a smooth transition across disciplines.         

Tell us, how did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?

There were many events and people who influenced my decisions along the way at different stages in my career. I have been fortunate to work in the company of knowledgeable, warm and wise people/ professionals all through my career.     

Key People: During my teens, my cousin’s professional journey served as an inspiration for me. However, later during my early professional days, my manager identified my inner personality and guided me towards an academic path. Incidentally, my marriage served as a critical lifeline in the middle of my PhD. It is just to mention that my wife played an important supportive role, having worked tirelessly as an unpaid Research Assistant for 16 hrs a day and 2-3 hrs a day as a homemaker during the first 6-8 months of our married life to help me sail safely through my turbulent research life. Above all, I consider my spiritual guru’s invisible hands and miraculous guidance as instrumental in every step of my personal and professional life. 

Key Events: I could fondly recollect the following key events in my life in their chronology. In 2007, I was admitted into one of the ivy-league schools in the country for my masters. In my opinion, this is the first and foremost event that allowed me to build an identity for myself backed by the BITS Pilani brand and its legacy. Later, between 2009-12, working in the high-tech start-up ecosystem (with bright and passionate people) immediately after my master’s program allowed me to build my professional skills and competencies from the real-world. This is the second event. Furthermore, between 2013-17, an interdisciplinary PhD program in one of the world’s best universities with a fully-funded scholarship is, according to me, the next key event. It served as a doorway for a small boy from Chennai to Singapore and later to Denmark. This gave me the real passport to the world outside home and challenge myself professionally. Along the journey, my induction into spiritual life (Sri Sathya Sai Organization) brought a paradigm shift in the thought process (e.g. deep reverence to people, society, art/culture, environment and sustainability).    

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path. 

A detailed bio sketch: In addition to being a systems engineer turned urban building scientist, I describe myself as a seasoned researcher, innovator and a passionate young educator with a proven track record of carrying out state-of-the art research and innovation in academia and industry settings around the world. Broadly, my past research and innovation activities relate to topics ranging from building automation, digitalization of the built-environment, energy efficiency, urban sustainability, low-carbon transition, innovation and technology-led risk management. My scientific studies in the past 10+ years have had a wide reaching impact on research and innovation, business and strategy, education and outreach largely within the Architecture, Engineering and Construction industry. 

I began my professional journey in automation and controls in 2010, when I co-designed an innovative frugal solution to wirelessly light lamps with just ‘a wave of their hands’ which took all delegates at a conference podium by surprise – that was just a beginning. Since then I was involved in co-design and co-development of multiple award-winning automation systems and solutions for urban buildings in different capacities. One worth mentioning is Vidyut – a wireless smart energy metering plug which was featured in MIT-TR35 and secured the DST Lockheed Martin commercialization award in 2010. Later, between 2009 and 2012, I specialized in systems design roles with focus on innovation for sustainability through smart systems for applications in energy metering, indoor climate monitoring and building automation in a wide range of commercial facilities including office buildings, hospitals, and solar farms across India. 

The aforementioned accomplishments plus my academic excellence and a certain ‘degree of luck’ rewarded me with a fully-funded scholarship from Singapore Ministry of Education to carry out my doctoral research (Building Energy Analytics) in Singapore. Later, between 2013 and 2017, a large body of my academic research was devoted to innovation for sustainability specifically in low-power appliances aka miscellaneous electrical loads in buildings. The research thrust has been on data science, machine-learning algorithms, and applied social/behavioral science. This allowed me to develop new skill sets in characterizing appliance energy profiles, carrying out experiments/pilot studies, developing datasets, mining big datasets, identifying energy conservation opportunities and eco-feedback interventions. All this culminated in the development of an improved energy auditing tool for low-power office appliances through load-disaggregation using data-driven algorithms in my doctoral thesis, which earned me a PhD in Building Science from the National University of Singapore (NUS) in 2017. 

Inspired by the opportunity that digitalization, automation and technology-led innovation provides in forging the building industry with urban sustainability, I continued my academic research journey within the broader field of smart and sustainable buildings as a postdoctoral researcher. During my first postdoc project in NUS, I designed, co-developed and implemented an intelligent preference-learning based algorithm that balances comfort and energy-use in a shared office environment. Subsequently, in my next postdoc research project in ETH Zurich (Singapore campus), my role as a systems architect and a data scientist led to the co-development of an innovative cyber-physical middleware. The middleware allowed carrying out energy performance benchmarking and verification of the 3 for 2 office building among the peers in Singapore over a long-term. It is worth noting that 3 for 2 office (allows the construction of three floors within the standard space of two floors, without any impact on perceived floor-to-ceiling heights) is a special office building which won multiple awards for its low-carbon architectural design which is appropriate for high-rise and high-dense urban environments. 

Moving on further, as all new technologies come with new risks, it is expected that the higher degree of smartness and integration of urban socio-technical systems shall not only introduce complexity but also new risks. Such risks either are not yet known or not well studied. The far-reaching negative impact and consequences of digitalization, automation and technological advancements in the design of advanced autonomous building systems, their implementation and integration plan within a more complex urban socio-technical system such as buildings and cities is an emerging research topic of critical importance to our future society. 

Incidentally, I was awarded an industrial postdoctoral fellowship in 2019 from Innovation Fund Denmark worth approximately 1 Million DKK (equiv. to INR 1 Crore). This provided me an opportunity to play an important role in Denmark’s green transition story through research-driven standardization/regulation, guidelines/certification and safety inspection, all of which led to innovation for business transformation. As a principal investigator, I led this research project in close collaboration with DBI ( The Danish Institute of Fire and Security Technology, as industry partner) and DTU (Technical University of Denmark) Engineering Systems group (as academic partner) based in Denmark. In fact, this fellowship is considered a special program with a unique construct, built around individual researchers who want to do breakthrough research-driven innovation at the intersection of academia and industry. Specifically, my research project allowed expanding the horizons on understanding new risks and hazards in achieving fire-safety in future buildings and developing a new body of knowledge required to make them resilient to low-carbon transition risks. In turn, it enabled balancing the risk vs benefits, or in other words, smartness vs robustness through integrated design of several smart systems, services and mechanical installations via Building Management System (BMS) within a large commercial building. This project positioned me as a thought-leader in assessing, managing and mitigating low-carbon transition risks to ensure safety, security, health/wellness and sustainability within the contemporary urban built-environment. 

How did you get your first break? 

To be honest, my first entry into the professional world soon after my studies was unpleasant and rather nasty. This is what most fresh graduates would be exposed to in India. The ground reality is that you will not get the most graceful, respectable positions or jobs as unbaked graduates in our society. Personally, I don’t like to remember this and call it my first break. Incidentally, my first break happened through my internship during my masters program. The internship in a young start-up was a perfect blessing as I’d always carried an entrepreneurial spirit within me.   

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

If you think getting a PhD admit is a real challenge, I bet it is even more challenging to successfully complete it on time and on a high. I have experienced it myself and within my professional circles as well. 

In fact, challenges keep evolving out of the blue. There is no fun or reverence to life without challenges. We have to be innovative and stay composed with perseverance to be able to overcome them at different stages during our professional life. In my case, I had a guiding light within, in the form of a spiritual guru and a partner who gave me courage and strength during low times.   

Can you talk a little about your current role?

The pandemic outbreak has shifted my priorities. I took a career break from any formal association with industry and academia, and decided to return to India and spend some time with my family back home. However, I am staying quiet active by carrying out a handful of research and innovation activities as an independent researcher and a freelance innovation consultant on my own since July’21. 

List of Current Activities: 

As an independent researcher and urban innovation consultant, I am currently carrying out  scientific investigation along multiple lines of research:  

  1. I am currently investigating, how the work-from-home norm post-pandemic has impacted the cognitive performance of working professionals in urban India? I am leading this research-led innovation activity in collaboration with a cognitive neuroscientist.
  1. How to repurpose temples in the 21st century, by studying how temple design and architecture together with a wide range of rituals carried out throughout a calendar year impact local climate, social and psychological wellness, and economic sustainability? In the process, strengthen India’s National Mission on Strategic Knowledge for Climate Change (NMSKCC) by developing both basic and applied research capabilities in climate science by strengthening observational and modeling tools and systems (e.g. a new open public dataset of temples/cultural heritage sites). 

Role: I am leading this exploratory research activity as a vedic teacher and urban researcher 

Collaborators: Prof. Joy Sen (IIT Kharagpur) as subject-matter expert in Indian Knowledge Systems, Dr. Bhuvanesh Awasthi (Orange NeuroSciences, Canada) as expert in cognitive science, and Prof. Mat Santamouris (UNSW, Sydney) as global expert in urban climate physicist.

  1. I am in the process of setting up an independent, not-for-profit Urban Innovation Studio & Hub in India, quite similar in the model as that of BLOXHUB in Copenhagen, where different subject matter experts, stakeholders including Industry and academic partners meet, brainstorm, discuss, ideate and co-design solutions to solve several Urban challenges faced by people, society, governments, nation and planet, especially local to India and thus develop a long-term roadmap for Sustainable Urban development.

Collaborators: I am currently leading this activity along with Dr. Ramanathan Subramanian, an urban researcher in Anna University

  1. During the pandemic, I have co-founded a small, independent research group whose mission is to develop new knowledge and methods that allow collaborative co-design of low-carbon buildings in a responsible manner by aggregating knowledge and insights from diverse subject-matter experts.

Collaborators: This is carried out in close collaboration with Prof. Umberto Alibrandi from Aarhus University in Denmark, Dr. Sabarathinam from Institute for Energy in Norway, Dr. Ashan Asmone from Srilanka, Sumanth from Free University in Italy. 

  1. Last but not the least, I am also building narratives, facilitating dialogues and exploring opportunities to pilot/implement several social initiatives and projects in India that can make our cities much more liveable and bring back happiness to citizen’s in socially inclusive and sustainable ways.  

What skills are needed in your job? How did you acquire the skills?

Interdisciplinarity, agility, creative-thinking, systems-thinking, design thinking, observing systems and their dynamics in the real world are some key skills. 

In my opinion, I developed these skills having been a part of multiple cross-disciplinary, international groups. Some of my recently completed research projects shall give you a sense of what skills you need (to acquire) and how (along the way) during your professional career.  

  1. Project #1: Balancing smartness and resilience in integrated building management system (Completed, 2021)

Project homepage (for more details): 

Collaborators: DBI-Denmark, DTU-Denmark.

  1. Project #2: The Cyber-Security of Future (Completed, 2020)  

Project homepage (in Danish): 

Collaborators: DBI-Denmark, Force Technologies-Denmark, Alexandra Institute-Denmark

  1. Project #3: Energy performance verification and benchmarking of ‘3for2-Beyond Efficiency’ (Completed, 2018)

Project homepage: 

Collaborators: ETH-Zurich, Siemens-Switzerland, UWCSEA-Singapore, BCA-Singapore

  1. Project #4: Data-Driven Intelligent Building Management System (Completed, 2017)

Collaborators: School of Engineering and School of Design and Environment at NUS Singapore, BCA-Singapore.

However, the fundamental to all this has been cultivating an open mindset to accept new challenges, willingness to travel and explore new worlds outside your comfort zone, heart to embrace new culture, adaptation to new environments, ability to learn and develop new skills/trades, and above all, having a warm and pleasing personality. My colleagues have been startup co-founders, architects, computer scientists, data scientists, urban planners, safety and security professionals, structural engineers, risk managers, leaders in strategy and leadership, sustainability and innovation gurus and so on. They represent diverse cultures and demographies including Cyprus, United States, Canada, Switzerland, Denmark, Russia, Sweden, Germany, and Singapore. You can immediately observe that working with such a diverse international group of researchers can provide opportunities to learn and absorb a thing or two.     

What’s a typical day like?

Work-from-home during and post pandemic has brought a conscious change in my typical work day. Personally, as a researcher and creative thinker, I believe in spending some time with nature to be able to relax my mind, and draw some inspiration from natural things around me (e.g. jogging in the woods, bird watching, gardening). As a researcher, I have a fairly good autonomy on my work schedule, and daily activities. This allows me to also balance work and family life.   

What is it you love about this job? 

A career break from a full-time profession is little rewarding in terms of inner satisfaction. To be honest, as an independent freelance research & innovation consultant, I am currently able to give myself some space and time to reflect and observe systems, and things around me. This provides me with the ability to do several things which are otherwise a little difficult to carry out during a fulltime job.

How does your work benefit society?

My professional activities have a direct impact on our society in many ways. To mention a few, my recent and future work is motivated to provide scientific insights required: 

  1. To collectively transform the design of our urban homes and workplaces in a liveable, sustainable, responsible, and resilient manner.
  2. To train next-generation professionals to think responsibly and out-of-the box to be able to solve some of the pressing challenges of the future.
  3. To build an innovation driven ecosystem that facilitates us to partner and work together with a purpose and with true spirit of collaboration.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

Every project that I was involved is important to relevant beneficiaries and thus memorable to me in its own way. So it’s not fair to single out one project. However, for other reasons listed below I can strongly say that my recently completed industrial postdoc research project in Denmark was the most memorable one among all.

  1. This research project was set-up nicely to bring out the best between three cross disciplines, namely building science, fire-safety science, risk and reliability engineering, in order to scientifically investigate a pressing research question which has a vested business interest in it. 
  2. The industrial postdoc fellowship provided the impetus to carry out collaborative research in mutually synergetic ways – for business, science and society. In particular, it allowed looking at the tension between technological trends (e.g. proliferation of wireless, Internet-of-Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence(AI), Machine Learning), paradigm shift in industry (e.g. digitalization, automation), standards, certifications, guidelines, people (e.g. safety, privacy, security), society etc. in the rapidly transforming Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) industry worldwide, with Danish outlook towards responsible design and innovation of technology and business for people & society.   
  3. The overall project experience, including collaboration across disciplines and Danish society at large not only allowed me to build my aptitude (e.g. critical reasoning), but also shaped my attitude towards the natural and man-made world around me (e.g. observational and reflective skills to build the connection between vedic rituals, cosmic sounds, contemporary facade engineering, urban microclimate impact). In the process, it allowed me to craft a niche at the (a) nexus of technology, society and urban development; and (b) nexus of science, spirituality, sustainability, and climate change.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Dream big, think wild, challenge your abilities, stretch your limits, be agile and embrace continued life-long learning, be kind and humble, and be responsible. The real world needs nice people more than professionals. 

Future Plans?

There are a number of strategic things that I am exploring, as evident from my current (ongoing) list of activities. However, I am quite passionate about educating the next-generation of people and professionals with appropriate knowledge, attitude, skills and creating institutional frameworks required to build a peaceful and harmonious society. Thus, my professional work and activities in future shall revolve primarily around research, innovation and education with a clear emphasis on laying the foundation to responsible, just and sustainable society for all. In other words, educating the next-generation of people and young professionals about grand challenges of the world, collaboratively pushing the boundaries of science to responsibly design advanced technologies, and implement them in real-world complex socio-technical systems such as buildings and cities to build a safe, sustainable and liveable urban environment for all. I believe a faculty position in an institution which provides me the ability to balance between my personal interests and professional aspirations, and the impetus to carve a niche and create an impact is where I am heading towards.