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Obernai, 29th May 2019

[Interview] Smart home, future market opportunities and trends

In April 2019, Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, an expert in the Internet of Things, spoke about the smart home during a conference at Hager Forum. In this interview you will discover her vision of the current state of housing, buildings and connected cities. Geographical and socio-economic aspects are examined later on. Alexandra then sets out the market opportunities and trends that companies and individuals will be facing in 10, 20, or 30 years' time. Explore the future of the smart home with Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino.

"Smart home - state of the art": What is the current situation and how do user expectations vary on the basis of geographical area and income?  

It all depends on the socio-economic area. This will determine whether the smart home concept is received with open arms or with great concern. 

In some African countries where Internet access is limited to mobile phones, the luxury of having a home with a minimum of connectivity, such as a desktop computer (laptop or tablet) limits what can be offered without seeming to be selling a luxury, "western"-style image.

This also implies that the smart home serves the interests of the better-off, who are worried about being burgled or kidnapped. Whether in South America or elsewhere, the smart home can contribute indirectly to significant social anxieties without really addressing the issue in a more permanent and strategic way. 

The recent changes imposed by Airbnb - in connection with protecting the privacy of tenants and aiming to stop owners spying using hidden cameras - show that our uses have moved to a higher level and that the degree of control gained is asymmetrical. We are happy for people to share their homes to help make ends meet, but we want to know what's going on all the same. 

In the big cities in Asia, where space is at a premium (as can be clearly seen through Michael Wolf's photos), the image of the American smart home is also completely out of sync. The products that are increasingly requested are related more to optimising space, or to the air quality in the surroundings and at home. Some families even measure indoor air quality in schools to make sure their children's health is protected. 

Creating bubbles of fresh air in the home therefore helps to privatise key societal problems like urban pollution and the role of the car in countries where governments have underinvested in public transport provision. 

In Europe, the apartments built in the middle of the last century are genuine energy sieves and this poses new problems. 

Ensuring energy efficiency for a tenant does not require the type of refurbishment works needed to actually increase the value of a property (thermal insulation, a battery and solar panels). A smart thermostat can improve the comfort of a home, but will not necessarily help reduce its energy consumption. Efficiency and comfort are often at odds because it is only worth buying a smart thermostat if you intend to stay in the house for longer than two years, but it is obviously much cheaper than to re-insulate the walls, which would have a much more fundamental impact. It should not be forgotten that so-called "smart" products consume much more energy than a less connected home does. Every smart TV is continuously connected to the Internet and therefore costs more than a television bought ten years ago. These are the hidden costs of the smart home. That means everything depends on where you live.

The "minimum viable smart home" will be different in different regions of the world. 

Smart building, smart city, smart village: what solutions can address the issue of poverty? In other words, access to connected/smart housing to serve low-income populations. 

The Smart City is often a beautiful, clean city, without problems of homelessness, drugs or violence. This conceals the many varied and long-standing techniques in the field of "control architecture", where efforts are made to stop people from sleeping on park benches, or the use of police services, etc.

The presence of cameras in visibly public places, which are becoming increasingly private, does not help matters. Finland has decided to offer a basic apartment to its homeless population and continues to reduce poverty levels by providing the base level of needs in the Maslow pyramid.

In other countries, the use of smart objects is used to control the energy consumption of social housing units, or even to offer them various services (often more expensive), which is never very popular. In South Korea, people pay for their compost production, given the waste caused in the preparation of certain dishes (broths and soups). This is one way of doing things that will not necessarily be accepted elsewhere, even though we all need to reduce our per capita waste output. The relationship between the so-called "private" act and the responsibility of a community, city, or country is a complex one.

Our cities face increasing budgetary restrictions, while our civic duties are increasing: more compost, fewer rubbish bins, more optimised electricity use, changes in our means of transport ... the list goes on and on. Cities can finally provide a support role (sensors in public bins to inform when they need emptying, for example) but the hardest task remains to convince individuals to consider any private action as ultimately somewhat public. Most "Smart City" projects - and I studied more than 130 for Nominet a few years ago - are not very well-defined and are often hammers in search of nails.

The city of the future will obviously have access to new tools and a house will be able to participate in sharing data produced in the home but, again, people must be psychologically re-accustomed to living in society, as they did before the arrival of most of the technologies that have cut us off from one another, such as the mobile phone.

A voice assistant that "hears" a woman being beaten by her husband should be able to handle this information for the common good, even if that runs counter to the owner's interests. How we can reach this stage without re-creating "Big Brother" is the key question that many cities are asking themselves. 

What remains to be developed? What market opportunities will companies encounter? What are the future trends of the smart home (in 10-20 years' time)? 

The everyday life of the elderly is a key development issue for many people within the smart home industry. I dare to hope, however, that we are not heading towards a "militarised" type of habitat, where each area of the house has 15 different sensors to predict when an elderly person might suffer a fall.

Adapting our habitats to the daily lives of increasingly isolated people presents possibilities of a completely different kind. Encouraging multigenerational homes as imagined in 1920s Sweden ("co-housing" or "collective housing"), or "kangaroo homes" where micro apartments are designed inside a house to allow a family to care for an elderly parent, are more interesting projects and can actually address issues of social isolation and health and health system impacts within each city. A person living alone in isolation costs the State much more than someone surrounded by friends, close family, enjoying access to transport services and daily exercise because the services are close-by … We already know all of this, but the smart home of the future that can overcome these problems of isolation will remain reserved for the better-off, who will still be young and healthy. 

There is also a backlash against data security issues, involving smart home applications, smart computers, voice assistants, and so on.

We can imagine some people insisting they would rather have a "dumb home" out of fear. Perhaps we will develop the "slow home" as a response, in which data produced by smart objects will remain local, unless some external actor issues a precise request to share them. 

What could a smart home look like in 20-30 years' time? What features would be offered? 

The main problem of the future is climate change and how to combat it on a daily basis. The home of the future will either be fully adapted to more efficient uses notwithstanding personal wishes (the washing machine will start up when there is low collective demand), or a less environmentally friendly decision will be required by default. We could also imagine a world in which these everyday good environmental practices could help to generate a data profile that would give this individual privileged access to lower mortgage rates. In the final analysis, our private lives will not be so private, in view of the impact our actions have on our environment, which is shared by all.

This loss of control on a daily basis could result in collective services that are more efficient (laundries, etc.) and flexible, given the technological services that are now commonly used. The 'green' house will probably also be equipped with a socket for charging electric vehicles, a battery and solar panels that will allow a certain degree of autonomy and will be triggered at specific times of greater demand or when we want to resell our energy capacity to the neighbours, or to their daughter who is away at university, for example.

This implies reassessing our everyday energy that we take for granted in 2019. 

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino
Expert in the Internet of Things