‘There’s someone at the door,’ pipes up a woman, startling me. I am with Ivano Iannelli in the first-floor rec room of his villa in Dubai, and I look around to see who the woman is who issued the warning. There’s no one around.

Seeing my puzzled expression, Ivano laughs. ‘That’s my Alexa,’ he says proudly, pointing to Amazon’s pint-sized virtual assistant standing unobtrusively in a corner of the room. Fishing out his smartphone, he opens an app that shows a real-time video of his front door — a friend is outside. He taps a few buttons on his phone, there’s some whirring and clicking and the front door opens for the visitor to enter.

Opening doors remotely is but one minor task that the chief executive officer of Dubai Carbon Centre of Excellence — a company that is helping the transition to a low-carbon and green economy — can accomplish in his smart home in Dubai’s Mudon, a residential master community near Dubailand.

Named one of 100 smartest people in the UAE, the 40-something Italian expat, one of the world’s leading experts in the areas of sustainability and carbon emissions management, loves nothing better than walking the talk.

The smart plan of his house
Anas Thacharpadikkal

A vociferous advocate of including smart applications and eco-conservation methods in all areas of living, Ivano has previously worked with United Nations environmental agencies and was the head of operations for the UN Office for project services — an arm of the world body that offers humanitarian and development solutions to help countries achieve peace and sustainable development.

Right now, though, he is showing me around his villa, which he is developing to reflect smart and sustainable ways of living — without compromising on any luxuries. If anything, it is about taking comfort and stress-free living to the next level.

‘This house is powered by artificial intelligence,’ says the jovial man, charged up and excited to explain the smart systems in his home. ‘AI might sound very fancy, but really it is not all that it’s hyped up to be. Essentially the AI in this house learns gadget usage patterns, occupants’ behaviour, among other things, and based on these factors makes a number of improvements on time and comfort for the user.’

It is clear the AI knows Ivano and his family very well. For instance, the moment the car — a Fisker Karma — he is driving enters the perimeter of his house, Alexa’s antenna is up and ready to make her master’s life as comfortable and convenient as possible.

Smart locks mean Ivano doesn’t have to carry around a bunch of jangling keys
Anas Thacharpadikkal

‘The moment my car key enters the Wi-Fi network of my house, some systems are activated,’ he says.

The AC kicks in even before he has opened the front door — which incidentally is keyless and operates by recognising his and his family’s fingerprints. ‘It is a Yale lock with a ring system connected to my phone. So even if I am in Dubai or in [my hometown in] Italy, I will know who has come to my door the moment someone rings the bell,’ he says. The smart benefits are many. ‘If a delivery boy comes with something I’d ordered and I’m not at home, I can open the door remotely so he can drop off the package inside.

‘Another major advantage is that when I go for a jog in the morning, I don’t have to carry around a bunch of jangling keys.’

Running a smart home

Dressed in a white shirt and a pair of jeans, the down-to-earth eco-warrior is keen to show us more of what living smart is all about. ‘My house interacts not only with its occupants but also between the various parts,’ he says.

‘For instance, I didn’t have to turn on the AC manually. When my phone enters the Wi-Fi range of the house, the thermostat recognises me and as a result of my personal settings and depending on the time of the day it will create an ambience that suits me.’

The AI in his villa has learnt that once Ivano returns home from work — around 6pm — he usually spends time in the living room and only much later goes to his bedroom on the first floor. ‘So, the living room is maintained at 24C — my preferred temperature,’ he says. ‘The AC in the bedroom upstairs turns on only when I start to go upstairs.’ In case you are wondering how, sensors recognise his movement and trigger messages to the AC to switch on.

Ivano's son Max charges the Fisker, which has solar panels on its roof
Anas Thacharpadikkal

The biggest culprit in energy consumption is the AC. ‘So the more effort I put in improving the efficiency of the AC, the less I have to pay on monthly bills, and the more comfortable the house is.’

Smart thermostats

As soon as his phone leaves the Wi-Fi of his house, the AC turns up to 28C. ‘This way, the house doesn’t use unnecessary power.’

What aids power conservation in the villa is a set of smart thermostats that Ivano has installed. ‘They are available in most good electric stores but need to be programmed correctly to their best,’ says Ivano. The better ones cost around $500 (about Dh1,840) apiece, but for those who find that steep, he suggests set timers that will also do a fairly good job. ‘The difference between this thermostat and the regular ones is that this is a learning thermostat; it uses AI to learn patterns and based on that produces on-off commands.’

The real brain — Alexa!

It’s not just the individual gadgets that work smartly. ‘My house interacts with the various parts and gadgets,’ says Ivano, who studied disruptive strategy at Harvard, focusing on theories of disruptive innovation and its different applications and strategy.

‘In my home, machines keep learning and are constantly improving,’ he says, adding all switches and gadgets in the house are connected to sensors and to Alexa. ‘I like her. She is the real brain in this house. She understands my Italian accent and makes me feel comfortable not just at home but also when I’m in office and even when I’m overseas.’

Smart thermostats like this one help keep the power consumption very low

Every socket, switch and thermostat is connected to the Wi-Fi and are speaking to each other, learning patterns and behaviour of the house’s occupants. For instance, sensors ‘tell’ the thermostat that the maid is not in her room, which leads to the AC and lights being turned off. ‘This keeps my power bills low.’

The garden’s watering system, too, is connected to Alexa and depending on the temperature and weather reports, it adjusts the amount of water dispensed to plants, while also avoiding watering plants during peak hours when the water is very hot. ‘I don’t like to use the term “intelligent” for the system,’ says Ivano. ‘I’d say “clever”.

Unlike conventional switches that require manual intervention ‘here I can control all of them by voice — such a pleasure and so much easier,’ he says. ‘Often, I don’t even need to speak, sensors do the job of turning on and off gadgets and lights.’

He gives an example: ‘I usually wake up around 6am. The moment sensors in the room detect movement between 5.30am and 7am, and the coffee machine downstairs in the kitchen is triggered to go on. So by the time I come down to the kitchen, my coffee is ready.

‘Likewise, when you wake up in the night for any reason, the first thing you reach for is the switch, but here, I just request Alexa to turn on the lights, and that’s it.’

Lighting, the sound system, curtains and the TV too are all connected and ‘speak’ with each other in Ivano’s living room. ‘The lighting and sound modes in the room change depending on the kind of movie I’ve chosen to play on the TV,’ says the father of a boy – 10-year-old Max.

‘As soon the movie starts on TV, the curtains close, lights dim, the Bose sound system comes alive and the tone setting changes depending on whether the movie is a rom-com or a thriller.’

The smart house goes beyond just light and sound systems. All key appliances in the house are monitored for energy consumption, and data from the consumption can alert the owner if the appliance is about to fail.

‘Every appliance has an energy signature,’ says Ivano, adding he has affixed sensors to each gadget. The sensors are connected to an energy monitor that records the appliances’ energy signatures. The moment there is a deviation of more than 10 per cent from the standard energy signature of an appliance, say a fridge, an email is triggered that says ‘please check the fridge; its energy consumption is abnormal.’

‘This helps me in several ways,’ says the man who was a project manager at the Italian Ministry for Foreign Affairs. ‘For one, I maintain an energy audit and can quickly compare it to the Dewa bill to ensure there are no power or water leakages that have gone unnoticed.

‘For instance, if there is a water pipe leakage in the garden, I don’t want to wait for a month before I realise it when it is reflected in the bill.’ The signature also allows him to gauge the power consumption of gadgets over a period of time.

But Ivano does more than just use electricity. He generates it.

Weighing the cost

Leading us outside to the garden he points to three large panels of solar cells that are awaiting installation on the villa’s rooftop. ‘I have an inverter that connects solar power from the cells to the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (Dewa) grid of my home. So essentially, I am a baby Dewa producing electricity,’ he says with a laugh. The villa has nine solar panels, each of which will provide 400watts of power for every hour of sunlight. Together they will provide about 100 per cent of the base load and about 30 per cent of the peak load.

How expensive is it to install solar panels?

‘It used to be pretty steep earlier, but no longer. When I introduced it in my villa in Arabian Ranches, the structure alone cost me Dh25K,’ he says. ‘Today, for that amount you can install the entire system, get all the required permits, and get ROI in roughly four to five years depending on how fancy the system is.’

Small steps, big impact

It was an article about Masdar that he read in a magazine on board an Emirates flight some two decades ago that brought him closer to working on eco initiatives in the UAE. As chief of projects for the UN in Dubai, he was working on sustainable development in post-conflict areas to bring development to people in a 10-year, fast-forward approach. ‘Rather than having post development countries go through the mistakes of what we all have done, [the idea was to] bring them directly to the new era... rather than going through a developing environment and establishing things like inefficient water distribution, bring them directly to the new renewable wireless communication… basically leapfrog [to the next age].’

Once this solar panel is up, Ivano’s home will be a mini power plant
Anas Thacharpadikkal

He got the UN entity involved in green projects before working with Dewa when it was setting up what is now known as the Dubai Supreme Council of Energy to establish Dubai Carbon. ‘Ever since, I have taken it upon myself to tangibly test things to see where bottlenecks are.’ To that end, he has tested solar and electric vehicles, recyclables, bio fuels… I make it a point to try as [a consumer] would to identify where things could go wrong.’

He gives the example of a consumer considering solar energy for his house. ‘One of the first questions he will face is what kind of solar panels to go for — poly, mono, thin, film, flexi, double glass, framed, frame-less… This could cause confusion and the possibility of abandoning the change at that time is high,’ he says.

The second element that could throw a spanner in the works is paperwork — getting permits from the electricity department, municipality, insurance firms, the licences, documents, fees.

‘The good news is that the process is now perfectly streamlined,’ he says. ‘If earlier putting up a rooftop solar panel took months, now it can be done in just a few days. All you need to do is submit a request to Dewa. It’s quite like a single-window platform and is so much in favour of the customer.’ Ivano also makes it clear that the reason for the various permits and licences is only to protect the consumer. ‘At the end of the day, this [the solar panels] is a mini power plant. So the last thing you should be doing is using a dodgy piece of equipment that could be a hazard for you, your health and well-being or for the neighbours and the community.’

Kids go green

To drive home the importance of going green and reducing the carbon footprint, Dubai Carbon is also working at the very basic levels — with schoolchildren, encouraging them to learn how to find out the amount of power they are using at home, how to cut/save power, how solar could be a better option… ‘The child has an effect on his household and he can bring the knowledge back home to create change,’ believes Ivano. For instance, Ivano’s son Max too is passionate about sustainable living and promotes these initiatives in his Safa Community School where he is an ‘eco-warrior’.

Dubai Carbon is also planning to work with Etihad Energy services to create a smart home offering. Shams Dubai — Dewa’s first smart initiative to connect solar energy to buildings, a part of the distributed renewable resources generation programme — is trying to create a fit-for-purpose plan for the householder. More than maximising renewable energy production, the idea of using solar power is to remove as much as possible from the red and orange bands from your utility bill, he says.

A one-time investment

What major changes has he brought about in his life?

‘The biggest change is that I have stepped out of my comfort zone,’ he says. ‘I started my career in carbon emission when the globe was emitting 30 billion tonnes a year. Last year, we emitted 37 billion tonnes.

‘We still do not realise how precious our resources are. Resources are finite while our demands are infinite, so there is already a conflict and if I can demonstrate to my peers that I live a fancy lifestyle utilising half the resources, I’ve done my job right.’

Pushing a fancy lifestyle is not his agenda. ‘I want to demonstrate that you can live in comfort with all your bells and whistles and still use less than average non-renewable resources.’ To underscore the point, Ivano highlights numbers: The average utility bill for his four-bedroom villa during summer is around Dh500. ‘This includes water and electricity,’ he says, proudly. His average annual utility bill is around Dh5,000. ‘Compare this to the average of my neighbour’s annual bill, which is around Dh36,000, and you understand why my initial investment is worth it all.’

So why are more people not following suit, I ask, green with envy. ‘Because most people are overworked and do not have access to info,’ he says.

He also admits that the one-time investment could be seen as expensive. ‘Some thermostats are around $500 each plus additional costs to install. But it saves a lot of power and in less than a year, I’d have paid for the thermostat from the money I saved from energy consumption. Same with the smart irrigation system. I have a nice garden at a smaller cost.’

Where to start

How can an individual here follow a more ecologically sustainable lifestyle? And can an apartment dweller opt for solar energy?

Solar panels in apartments are not ideal because you need to have space on the rooftop for installing the panels, he says. ‘Also, ideally the building should be south-oriented. But you can use energy-saving bulbs, thermostats, smart plugs and appliances and once they start “talking” to each other, your house will become more efficient. Dubai Carbon has an initiative where we educate people about solar rooftops simply because we have installed thousands of solar rooftops in the UAE and are able to recommend good products and [good working practices]. We are not selling but only recommending whom to go to, to get a full integrated kit.’

What if you have installed solar panels but are now planning to shift homes or leave the country?

‘Simple, you can take your solar panels along with you. They can be packed neatly or you can sell them,’ he says. The lifespan of the solar cells is on average around 25 years, ‘but I lean on the conservative side and say 20 years.’

Points to keep in mind

• Do not change/replace something unless you absolutely need to. Buy things that will last longer rather than the use-and-throw variety.

• Drive less aggressively. That saves fuel. Choose cars with a good fuel mileage.

• Use public transport as far as you can.

• Avoid wasting food. Apart from everything else, the methane from decomposition seriously affects the planet.