Control or be controlled: the tension of a smart home future

It’s hard to escape smartness these days. Embodied in devices, equipment and infrastructure, smartness tracks us from our pockets, links us to the lights, TVs and thermostats in our homes, counts our electricity and gas use, and learns our preferences and routines. For service providers, utilities, and cities, smartness is about shining light on the otherwise opaque goings-on of end-users who demand useful services but give no forewarning as to when and where. For the end-users, smartness is all about connectivity, new functionality, and ultimately, control.

In our new book, Smart Homes and Their Users, we trace where these two perspectives collide. We use the home as a locus of smartness as it’s where potential and promise is most sharply confronted by the messy practicalities of everyday life. And it’s also where energy-efficient smartness rubs up against energy-intensive domestic routines.

The outlook for smart homes is laden with optimism. Policymakers from the UK to the EU and beyond enshrine smart home technologies in their strategies for clean growth, clean energy, and industrial development. Market seers forecast global demand growing exponentially to top $100 billion within the next five years. Public opinion is also onside. Our own findings from new UK survey data are in line with other studies from Europe and the US: the majority of people expect smart home technologies to be impacting their domestic lives soon. The data privacy concerns which rear their head in discursive small sample studies prove to be illusory when examined on a larger scale. People in general express greater concern about gadget-dependence and a creeping laziness of both mind and movement. But these fears are overwhelmed by positive perceptions, particularly with respect to energy management.

In our book, we explore in depth the inherent tension within this promise of the smart home: to transform domestic comfort, convenience, security and leisure while also reducing energy use and saving money. As far as we’re aware, our research is one of the first attempts to explore systematically how and why people use smart home technologies, and what impacts this has on different aspects of domestic life.

Our findings and arguments are all based on new data from a field trial of 20 smart homes collected over two years by colleagues at Loughborough and Strathclyde universities as part of the EPSRC-funded REFIT project. The datasets – all publicly available – range from real-time electricity, gas and sensor readings to in-depth interviews and video ethnography.

We show how harvesting and processing smart home data can reflect energy consumption back to households through the prism of domestic activities. Disaggregating energy into the cleaning, cooking, washing and entertaining that comprise a household’s day, weekend, school term or season links it meaningfully to lived experience. We explain how smart heating systems can be domesticated into this same lived experience, conditioning not just air temperature but also daily routines and household dynamics.

But alongside these tantalizing glimpses of an instrumental vision for smart homes in a clean, efficient, consumer-empowering future, we also present the contingencies and contradictions of an alternative socio-technical vision. We show how teething problems, disillusionment, and rejection are domestication’s inverted twins. Expectations rapidly sour with experience if the technologies are not reliable, inter-operable, easy to use and install. The off-the-shelf smart home kit we tested in our field trial was not.

We also explore in depth what this all means for control, the central value proposition for smart home users. Undoubtedly the apps, interfaces, and connectivity expand the functionality of the home: control by remote, control through pre-set schedules, control by automation and learning, control by manual over-rides. Differentiating the heat room-by-room no longer has to involve walking through the house to open and close radiator valves, windows, doors. But one of our book’s central insights is that control is not just of devices and equipment but also of people, relationships, and social dynamics. Smart home technologies can pass control over heating, air flows, lighting, security, and energy bills to the technophiles, the app-minded, the ICT-generation. With this passing of control passes power (pun intended). The consequences are almost always unexpected.

We offer our own conclusions in the book as to what all this means for policymakers, industry service providers, and researchers. We consider the many options available for reducing the risk that smart home technologies inadvertently intensify energy consumption, destabilize household dynamics, or under-deliver on their promise. But regardless of which turns the policy and market environment takes, we’re certain that how the smart home future pans out depends on us – as users.

Please contact the authors if you want to read or know more about the book!

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