Smart Homes Need Smart Communities – TechCrunch

Home automation may not be described as life-altering just yet, but it is pretty cool to be able to control your lights from a smartphone app, change your music automatically as you walk into a room and enjoy a comfortable temperature without lifting a finger. Your home can customize itself to your habits, and save you money in the process. That’s all great, but does it really make the world a better place?  

To make home automation a world-changing concept, we need to think bigger. Technologists have been myopically focused on the benefits of individuals and families one home at a time, but there is an unexploited strength in numbers when it comes to connected homes. The benefit of home automation to a society could be so much more if smart homes were scaled into fully connected smart communities.

Consider the current drought in California. A homeowner can save 25 gallons of water — about the amount used for a five-minute shower — per day by purchasing an aftermarket smart irrigation system. That’s a great start, but 25 gallons barely amounts to a drop in the bucket when it comes to a drought like California is experiencing.

But what if all 500 homes in a connected community had built-in smart irrigation systems? That would scale to 12,500 gallons saved in a day. If we took it a step further and installed smart water systems into one-quarter of the new homes built in the U.S. last year — 125,000 — we could have saved more than 3 million gallons each day, and more than a billion gallons a year.

Building Tomorrow’s Connected Communities

Home builders and technologists both have the power to make incredible change. If they come together to shift the focus from home automation to community automation, the impact could be that much greater.

Imagine a community where everyone’s home is built to connect to a smart network the same way they connect to an electrical grid. The barriers to entry of adopting connected technologies would be nearly eliminated because the entire expense of the underpinning technology could be rolled into a mortgage, just the same as any other feature in a new home. And for the consumer, this beats the daunting process of making your existing home smart by buying a series of aftermarket “connected” devices that may not even be able to speak to one another.  

In this world of community automation, a common platform would be installed throughout the entire neighborhood, and users would not have to grapple with today’s disparate home automation platforms. Installing one platform across all houses creates an instant network. While home automation is still in the early adoption stage, with only 6 percent of consumers feeling that the era of the smart home has already arrived, owners of existing homes without a pre-installed connected platform could be encouraged to retrofit their homes as the benefits of living in a smart community become clear, thus creating an even larger network.

The Network Effects Of The IoT

Once IoT infrastructure is in place throughout a community, usage will grow exponentially. People will see how others have benefitted from using connected technologies and will want to do the same. For example, applications that make the water usage of neighborhoods transparent to one another can motivate nearby families to take steps to meet their community average or goal. By gamifying the experience, the competitive nature of human beings can change the environmentalist narrative from “What can I do?” to “What are they doing that I’m not?”

The specific contexts of individual homes could be taken into consideration, as well. Having the ability to filter comparative homes by factors such as number of children and the cardinal direction (southern-facing homes would be warmer and require more energy to cool) will make it easier for homeowners to understand how their usage stands up to similar use cases in their community.

With a clever app that runs on top of a connected platform, a homeowners’ association could run challenges and offer rewards and recognition. And you can amplify the message through social channels to encourage even more broad-scale social change. Imagine the next “ice bucket challenge” being entire communities or cities challenging each other with the “save water challenge.”

Government bodies that preside even higher than the homeowners’ association could use the quantitative insight to offer other incentives, such as tax breaks, much in the same way they do for green automobiles that consume only a fraction of an average home’s energy.

Municipalities have a vested interest in lowering water use because they are under severe restrictions set by state and federal governments. Yet they can only make their money from the tax dollars of the homes built in their jurisdiction. They desperately need a solution that allows them to have their cake — new homes and new tax dollars — and eat it, too, by meeting the regulations for water usage.

Creating Platforms With The Community In Mind

The need to better connect communities has now been recognized by the federal government, which this week launched the first-ever Smart Cities Week, in support of a National Smart Cities Initiative. As part of this initiative, the National Science Foundation (NSF) committed nearly $40 million to help intelligently and effectively design, adapt and manage the smart and connected communities of the future.

With the government putting its stake in the ground to foster the development of connected communities, it is now up to technology companies to make this significant change a reality. Home automation platforms are competing and separate — see Apple’s HomeKit and Google’s Brillo/Weave — and use cases are in their infancy and heavily geared toward the individual homeowner buying aftermarket equipment to retrofit their home. For the industry to not just grow organically but rapidly, tech giants and homebuilders alike must step up and design home automation to benefit communities as a whole.

Apple and Google should work with major homebuilders to help create these connected communities of the future — going so far as to offer to pay the full cost of adding this equipment to pilot communities. They should set a goal to bring online within the next two years dozens of new communities that are all wired from the start.

Google is rolling out its Fiber in select cities. But that’s not really adding the front-end technology — like smart lighting, irrigation, thermostats, security and the software that could drive these devices — that is necessary to transform the way communities work together to save money and use resources more effectively.

By helping to create connected communities, Google and Apple could show the world the true benefits of home automation — and that will jumpstart the whole rest of the aftermarket.

When an industry does rally around a big idea to benefit society, change can happen quickly. This will inevitably happen with home automation, but California could use a little extra water now. Let’s lay the groundwork today for a more connected future.

Featured Image: Alexander Kirch/Shutterstock


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