Navigant Research Blog

Even My Grandma Has a Smart Home!

— January 25, 2018

There are all kinds of barriers to smart home adoption. People ask me all the time, “what do you use your Alexa for?” Unconvinced by existing value propositions, many consumers figure they need not bother with smart technology.

Smart Home Imperfections

Admittedly, for all the promise about how smart these products are and how they will change our lives, often they are not that smart and they fail to meet expectations. The countless times I have asked my Echo device a simple question, only to have Alexa respond with “Sorry, I don’t know that,” drives even the earliest of adopters to the brink. And that’s not even going into the issues surrounding installation, troubleshooting, interoperability, and cost. It makes many wonder, why all the fuss?

Smart Features Offer Ease

Despite all the reasons people find not to adopt smart home products, I have found a convincing case for even the biggest skeptic. I recently discovered my grandma has a smart home.

My grandma is no early tech adopter—she is 80 and her favorite hobby is quilting—and yet, she has a Google Home, a Nest Cam, three Philips Hue light bulbs, several ConnectSense smart outlets, and an iPad or iPhone to control them all, which is a more robust smart home ecosystem compared to what most people have—including me. Every evening when it starts to get dark, she uses her smartphone to turn on lamps, instead of having to bend over and switch them on. When she retires for the evening, she asks Google Assistant to turn her Hue bulbs on, instead of having to fumble around in the dark for a light switch. She doesn’t even notice the Nest Cam perched on her mantel, but it gives my family members piece of mind as they can check on her using their smartphones from wherever they are.

Gifting Smart Tech

There are, of course, a few caveats. My grandma hasn’t purchased any of these products herself. They have all been gifts from family members, which is important for vendors to keep in mind when targeting consumers. When a device malfunctions, she calls upon her children and grandchildren for troubleshooting, which usually involves walking her through an app over the phone or simply restarting a device. Though this works most of the time, smart home tech vendors need to provide maintenance and support to consumers.

My grandma also hasn’t installed any of these devices herself, though they have been plug-and-play enough for younger generations in the family, and many companies are increasingly offering installation services. To top it off, her smart plugs are integrated with Apple HomeKit, but they aren’t integrated with Google Assistant, meaning she can’t control them through voice activation—which highlights a common interoperability problem for most consumers.

If Grandma Can Do It, Anybody Can

While the smart home market has its challenges, there are emerging use cases that are convincing more consumers to embrace the technology. Smart home tech should not be used only by early adopters and younger generations, it should be used by everyone. If my grandma can use smart home products and services, then anyone can, and there is hope for the smart home market yet.

 

Smart City Technology Helping Low Income Residents, Too

— January 23, 2018

Particularly in the developing world, there are valid concerns that smart cities could exacerbate the digital divide and primarily benefit wealthier residents. However, a number of emerging companies and initiatives demonstrate that smart city technology can also be utilized for digital inclusion, citizen empowerment, and to increase low income residents’ access to essential city services such as transportation and healthcare.

Key Company and Project Examples

A new company called Cityblock Health was recently spun out of Alphabet’s urban innovation unit, Sidewalk Labs. Cityblock raised over $20 million from a range of investors to help low income Americans access basic health services. Through the company’s Commons platform technology, it will partner with community health centers and partner organizations across the US to reconfigure the delivery of health and social services—and make healthcare services more personalized for qualifying Medicaid or Medicare members. Specifically, the company is targeting issues with misaligned payment incentives (between payers and providers of Medicare and Medicaid), siloed medical and social service delivery, and fragmented data. Cityblock is expected to launch its first Neighborhood Health Hub in New York City in 2018. The Hub will differ from traditional siloed health clinics, using the company’s custom-built technology to merge health services with the community. Caregivers, Cityblock members, and local organizations will all engage with each other in one physical meeting space to discuss and solve local health challenges. Cityblock will be an interesting startup to follow as it aims to integrate primary care, behavioral health, and social services all under one roof.

Another significant example of the potential for smart city technology to help low income communities (and further explained in one of my previous blogs) is Columbus, Ohio’s proposal for the US Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge. One of the primary reasons the city won the Challenge—and beat out the better-known technology centers of San Francisco, Austin, and Denver—was due to Columbus’s ability to demonstrate that its plan would result in increasing poor residents’ access to new transportation options. Additionally, Microsoft, along with its partners G3ict and World Enabled, launched the Smart Cities for All Toolkit in spring 2017 as part of its broader city engagement program. The toolkit is designed to help city officials and urban planners make more digitally inclusive and accessible smart cities. Tools developed for cities include a guide for adopting information and communication technology (ICT) accessibility standards and a guide for ICT accessible procurement policies.

Project Design and Implementation Crucial

These examples demonstrate that smart city technology can be used to the benefit of low income residents—whether it’s increasing access to crucial services such as healthcare and transport, or helping to bridge the digital divide. Policymakers must be vigilant when designing and implementing smart city programs, ensuring that technology deployments will extend to and directly benefit low income residents and neighborhoods in their city. Specific projects designed for low income communities (e.g., providing transport between high unemployment neighborhoods and nearby job centers) should be pursued as part of a city’s broader smart city strategy whenever possible.

 

Speculation Over Smart Home Technology

— January 18, 2018

Over the holidays, I received my first personal assistant. Her name is Alexa, and despite the latest hype and commercial appeal, my virtual assistant remains in her box, lifeless and unused. I have reservations about engaging with a smart device that was programmed to listen, track, and record my personal habits in the privacy of my own home. According to recent consumer reports, these misgivings are common. In fact, over a third of Americans are uncomfortable using smart technology as privacy policies fail to address ongoing security issues. For some users, the convenience of voice-controlled devices, like the Amazon Echo and Google Home, is shadowed by security concerns. Data leaks and recent reports of hackers gaining access to home devices and speakers have not helped matters, begging the question, what do consumers stand to gain from smart home technology?

An Ecosystem of Connectivity

For starters, the ease of access to information and remote-control capabilities of home appliances have helped users save a lot of time and money. Energy efficient solutions like smart thermostats and internet-connected lights paired with other smart devices have helped consumers reduce monthly energy bills. Products like Amazon Echo act as a smart home platform for connecting various Internet of Things-enabled devices, like security cameras and remote-controlled cooking gadgets. Consumers already using some of these devices are more likely to install additional ones as they discover new tasks for machines to handle. Throw in the added convenience of a voice-activated assistant and the benefits of connected home technology start to become more convincing for even the biggest skeptic. Yet the real risk of hackers taking advantage of these features remains as the growing transfer of control from homeowners to smart devices is left unprotected.

A Silver Lining

Despite ongoing security concerns, smart technology offers consumers the opportunity to lead more efficient lives. Yet for users to reap the full benefits of these devices, privacy and security concerns must be addressed. Doing so attracts long-term buyers, securing data and customers in one fell swoop. Since innovation leads regulation, privacy policies for this technology will require continuous revitalizing. Proposals like the European Union’s cybersecurity certification framework represent steps legislators are taking to confront these issues. Vendors can also play a role by being more transparent about their offerings and educating consumers on where risks lie and how best to avoid them. Understanding how the tech works and where faults exist may convince hesitant consumers, like myself, to give it a go and take advantage of what these smart devices have to offer. For more information about smart home technology, check out Navigant Research’s Digital Assistants and AI in the Home.

 

Going Zero Waste

— January 4, 2018

Greenbuild International Conference and Expo, which took place in Boston during November 2017, had something for everyone in the realm of green buildings—education sessions with topics ranging from human health and net zero energy to innovation and technology. It also had an expo hall with roughly 700 vendors and impressive speakers such as former President Bill Clinton, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and the US Green Building Council (USGBC) President and CEO Mahesh Ramanujam. Greenbuild is the world’s largest conference and expo devoted to green building. It is owned by Informa Exhibitions and is presented by USGBC.

Zero Waste Events and Goals

Throughout the event, one thing that struck me was the commitment of the conference organizers to waste diversion. There were dozens of three-container bins split for recycling, composting, and trash. Each segment was marked with images to minimize confusion. In addition to the signage, a volunteer was stationed at each receptacle to ensure attendees put waste in the correct compartment. This strategy to reduce waste at Greenbuild was implemented in 2016 when the conference was held in Los Angeles, California, and it resulted in the highest diversion rate ever for Greenbuild. The collaboration of Informa Exhibitions, USGBC, the Los Angeles Convention Center, local haulers, and other partners led to a 90% waste diversion rate and an 18% increase over the convention center’s baseline conversion rate. Data on waste diversion from the 2017 Greenbuild conference is not yet available.

On September 16, 2015, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and US Department of Agriculture (USDA)—in alignment with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 12announced the first US-based goal to reduce food loss and waste by half by the year 2030. Since the 1990s, cities have slowly started to set zero waste goals, with San Francisco, California and Oakland, California being two of many cities to set zero waste targets with the goal of having zero waste by 2020. Zero waste events can help cities reach waste reduction and zero waste goals, and this type of event might be required by some cities. Additionally, a zero waste event can attract sponsors that share the priority of reducing waste. Many companies, including Subaru, Sierra Nevada, Toyota, and Microsoft, among a growing list of others, have set zero waste goals.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

The efforts of Greenbuild are impressive for a conference of its size. If every large conference prioritized waste reduction as much as this event, the amount of waste diverted from landfills would be significant. Beyond diverting waste from landfills, creating less waste initially—or reusing items—creates less waste that needs diverting. I watched as the booths were taken down and I was struck by the pure amount of materials it took to fill an expo hall of that size: banners, giveaways, tables, extension cords, yards of carpet, and more. While some things can be reused at future events and this is a component of a zero waste event, not all materials are reused.

According to the EPA, Americans produce an average of 4.4 pounds of waste per person per day. Reducing the overall materials needed at conferences or in daily lives can help the total waste that will end up in a landfill. All items, even those recycled and composted, require materials to make them and energy to break them down. Following the first of the R guidelines, reduce, can have an overall effect on the materials to be reused and recycled by lessening the materials to be reused and recycled. Reducing society’s overall consumption and working toward zero waste in events and in the average consumer’s daily life will not happen overnight, but are ultimately achievable with time and practice.

 

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