Comment from Clive: Smarter neighbourhoods of the future will require more than technological wizardry

clive-gilbertOf all the social problems confronting Britain today, the housing shortage is one of the most vexing. Estimates suggest that the gap between the number of new homes needed in England and those available is 100,000 per year.

While outdated planning laws and political controversy conspire to slow construction to a trickle, a generational divide continues to widen between younger people who can barely afford to rent and the swelling ranks of older home owners living in oversized properties which are not suited to the practicalities of daily life as an older person.

One solution to this mismatch would be an inter-generational house swap in which the ‘silver generation’ makes way for younger people and their future families. Surveys indicate that there may be significant support for the idea. According to the Home Owner’s Alliance, one in five UK home owners aged 55 or over have considered moving in the past two years but have not relocated due to a lack of age-friendly options.

The government’s recent housing white paper makes building and adapting homes for older people a priority but there is little clarity as to how this can be accomplished.

The cognitive home

As last month’s dispATches reported, a new study from retirement house builders McCarthy and Stone and the social business Agile Ageing Alliance aims to put technological flesh on these bones with a vision of intelligence ‘cognitive homes’ powered by smart technologies that will help us manage our wants and needs in old age.

I attended day two of the London launch event for Neighbourhoods of the Future which boasted a raft of industry leaders and innovators, including representatives from national organisations such as Care & Repair, Innovate UK, HousingLIN and Designability’s Professor Nigel Harris, as well as global players Microsoft and IBM.

At the heart of the report is the notion that the new possibilities presented by the next wave of technological advances comprised of mobility enhancing power suits, robotic kitchens and automated appliances (to name a few of the featured innovations) can only be harnessed with collaboration involving a wide range of experts from different industries and sectors.

The authors argue that house builders, technologists, insurance providers, housing associations and local health and social care commissioners must join forces with older people to provide a new type of engagement that will enable industry to respond to their needs.

A glance at history may be instructive when trying to predict the future of smart homes. The idea is not as novel as one might assume. The concept of a smart home offering new services can be traced back to the futuristic display homes of 1930s America, when low electricity prices brought new technologies into the home that transformed modern lifestyles.  Over subsequent decades, more powerful technologies have allowed for greater automation, interconnection and remote control. Nonetheless, they have often floundered on realities of everyday life which have undercut their relevance.

Building the future

Some of these difficulties were evident at the launch. What makes smart technology an attractive proposition to a tech start-up investment outfit can be very different to a national housing charity, even if they agree that technology has the potential to immeasurably enrich the quality of life enjoyed by its users. This is perhaps where the report’s ‘rallying cry’ for older adults to become agents of change takes on a particular potency. If cognitive homes are to take shape; older and disabled people and their representative organisations must sharpen their elbows and demand better services.

Another potential pitfall raised by some delegates that could curb the rise of smart homes was the sheer outlandishness of some of the technologies. Consumers may struggle to get to grips with the profound lifestyle changes that technology companies are intent on foisting upon them. A recent survey by the consultancy firm Ernst & Young found that, while 34% of households are very interested in acquiring new gadgets before anyone else, only 19% say they are likely to buy or re-use connected home technology over the next five years.

However, other research has demonstrated that people of all ages tend to be receptive to new technologies that they can see will make their lives easier. Designers must put the consumer at the heart of everything they do and allow for user feedback, customisation and refinement when investing in new products.

High technology is just one of the essential building blocks for more accessible homes. Assistive technologies are only as effective as the contexts in which they operate. Making the right architectural choices that promote an occupant’s mobility, safety and independence will be vital. This means having step-free access points, better insulation, heating and lighting and circulation space as a matter of course.

The only thing that seems certain about smart homes is that they are in the ascendency, galvanised by technological innovation and demographic change. It is likely that some of the more ambitious ‘smart’ ideas will evaporate on contact with reality. What remains could have a profound impact on the way older and disabled people live.

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