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15.11.2017 von: Reinhard Riedl, Leiter BFH-Zentrum Digital Society. Herausgeber online Magazin SocietyByte

Smart homes: what will change for its users?

Smart homes will change our way of living in homes, but it is hard to predict how, because many trends coexist pointing into different directions. This article describes key perspectives of the change ahead of us.

Smart homes are homes that heavily exploit information and communication technology (ICT). They have built in digital sensor, actors, and intelligence, most of which can be accessed and controlled over the internet.  Actually, but we are able to identify three different forms of smart home solutions that will shape our future:

  • Network access to and from home devices – this is the main characteristic of the first generation of smart homes, and it is out there for a decade now
  • IT tools to solve existing problems, that are embedded into our homes and interact with the outside world – this is the main characteristic of the second generation of smart homes and is under development right now
  • Digital transformation of homes, that is driven by solutions rather than problems – this will create disruptive change both for the economy and our social life

Type 1 and type 2 smart home solutions rely mainly on service enrichment, while type 3 solution will lead to demand destruction as it will replace and package real world services with software from the perimeters of large platform based ecosystems. Of course, separations between the types are only vague, as already type 1 provides elements from the fundament of part 3. That is, according to the best of our contemporary knowledge. Naturally, all arguments in this article are based on the reflection of past experience. The future may be totally different with respect to tools and usage forms, but at least there is some evidence that emerging economic patterns – such as platform based ecosystems – will persist.

Type 1 solutions are characterized by the two narratives “online access to home devices” and “intelligent system control”. We shall see in the years to come that they will grow in diversity of functions integrated and in scale of homes providing them.

Type 2 solutions are mostly problem focused and will provide new tools, and ultimately functions, to be added to or embedded into type 1 solutions.  In a first phase, they are likely to address the challenges of life for elderly people, as there are many R&D projects either running or in planning. Later on, we may see new demands popping up.

The difference between tools, functions, and transformations

Many people outside IT have now understood the high potential of ICT tools. They haven even contributed to design principles, such as “platforms plus specific GUIs instead of you-can-do-everything-with-me solutions”. The latter design principle is about recapturing control on software tools by the domain experts that use them. It is a promising mental step from playing with tools to thinking about functions. But still most of the domain experts fail to embrace the potential of digital transformations.

Digital transformations destroy the old ways of doing things. They change the use of software and creatively destroy businesses by eliminating simply the demand for them.  Let us look at what this implies for people living in homes (whatever these may be): For them, transformation will take place in at least two major forms: automated human tasks and new mental lifestyles enabled through ICT.

Think of whatever you have as task related to your home: There will soon be an app to help you do it – from food shopping (which many people already do via apps) to the design of the refurnishing (where apps will take the roles of interior architects). And where the smartphone does not provide enough viewing space, pad-optimized web portals will help. And this is only the beginning, a first step in row of several transformation steps.

Think also about whatever living preference you could have. As long as there is a bunch of people interested in it we shall see it taking place sooner or later. The bounty of lifestyles will significantly increase, whereby all will profit, but to different extents. In that way, evolutionary biology and anthropology will become key disciplines, as there will be many new ways to implement their findings, while on the contrary they may help us to identify all kinds of bullshit bingo smart home ideas.

Beyond all what we know from reality, from literature, and from dreams, we shall see the emergence of artificial home architectures with different types of territories. These homes will no longer be characterized by clear border lines between inside and outside but rather they will show a sequence of more public – or looking into the opposite direction more private – territories. Thereby, physical and virtual access will differ in general. Like in whole districts the interplay between physical space, social space and information space will influence how these places are perceived. It is unlikely that we shall observe new scenes of home being and social interaction, but it is very likely that we shall see new configurations integrated in new compositions. The digitally transformed home will create so far unknown home experiences.

Miscellaneous remarks

You may have been surprised to read about both new demand and demand destruction in one article, but indeed both will happen. The digital transformation shows many couples of contradictory trends. In some areas they are competing, e.g. concerning the transparency money flows, in other areas like the ones addressed here, they are complimentary.

Much of what is described here involves more than the smart home, or does not even involve the smart home at all. This is very typical. For example, data in healthcare may indicate that the shower in the home of a poor patient is broken and urgently needs repairing, as otherwise the patient will not be able to wash himself and his expensive therapy won’t help. Thus there may be smart home functions that are fully detached from the physical home. In more cases, the smart home will be realized through the digital integration of the home and the outside world.

Maybe, you were puzzled by the term users in the title. It partly resulted from my ill command of English language, as I was first not sure which term to use – inhabitant, resident, tenant … – but I think it ultimately demonstrates the paradigm shift: Homes will be used and appropriation (German: Aneignung) will address digital functions and ecosystems. The old home-world will soon be gone. Not in all aspects and instances, but, say, to an extent of 95%.
Prof. Dr. Reinhard Riedl auf DIGITALE SCHWEIZ
Berner Fachhochschule (BFH) auf Cloud-Finder Schweiz

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