Kim Colin, co-founder of Future Facility, speculates whether the Internet of Things and data-driven smart homes can support the mindsets and capabilities of ageing consumers.
Ageing consumers are the most vulnerable population, less able to navigate current market conditions. How will a pensioner service a digitised washing machine when it stops working?
Technology companies are moving products and services into our homes at an alarming rate thanks to our new-found desire for networked products, aka those that operate on the Internet of Things (IoT).
Our experience of domestic spaces is changing as a result, and our acceptance of IoT devices and the data they are garnering from our interactions fuels speculation that technology companies want to supply the entire home themselves.
But how will these devices – even entire, voice-driven smart homes – fit with the needs, mindsets and capabilities of ageing consumers? Since the 1950s, when US post-war prosperity resulted in the mass-production of goods for the home, we have, as consumers, been lured into acquiring ever-more products that implicitly promise to make our lives better.
Fifty years ago, household goods were built on brand loyalty and made to last, often with lifetime warranties or replacement contracts built into the price. Now, digital technology inherently makes a similar promise that our lives can be simpler and easier, but an unspoken side effect of all this technology is maintenance. How does a pensioner service a digitised washing machine when it stops working? At the behest of expensive service engineers, and without knowledge of such systems, ageing consumers are the most vulnerable population, less able to navigate current market conditions.
Given the pace of IoT and the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality (AR) particularly, we need to rethink how technology and data exchanges will be used in the future, not to make our homes overtly smarter, but to simplify daily chores and activities specifically for a growing, older population. Future Facility’s speculative Amazin Apartment illustrates how living spaces might change and how the products in our homes would too – in particular in a future where care-givers are in deficit and the older population is living longer.
By 2030, for example, seniors in the US will account for more than 20% of the population (source: US Census Bureau). Recent figures from The Lancet Public Health forecast that the number of adults in England aged 65 years and older living independently and without care needs is set to rise to 8.9m by 2035 – an increase of more than 60% from 5.5m in 2015, with the number of independent, older men living alone growing in particular.
As a solution to support these individuals without diminishing their independence, the Amazin Apartment considers how they might live with smart systems in their homes in the future, proposing how the new apartments will benefit from new technology in redesigned appliances, but also the very shape, function and structure of the living space itself.
Its washer/dryer has a single button with one setting, not endless digital interfaces and buttons. It is positioned at standing height, with a shelf below, to avoid the need for bending down. On the service side, large boxes of powder that last up to a month are installed. The refrigerator has two doors – one for the delivery of new fresh produce by automated, behind-the-scenes systems, and a second that residents use to pick and consume goods. A water fountain enables a choice of filtered or branded water to be plumbed in.
Simplified appliances like these, as well as heating and air-conditioning utilities, will be built into core walls that are themselves products, all the while being serviced from behind by unseen Amazin Service staff and robots. In practice, the structure is not dissimilar from the way the Palace of Versailles or fictional Downton Abbey are arranged, where residents never see the services nor the staff moving between rooms because of a network of service corridors and utility rooms hidden from the more formal, public and private rooms.
With the ageing population on the verge of global growth, the Amazin Apartment raises questions about the design connection between products, their maintenance or serviceability, and who they are made for. Considering we already give away so much of our data for free, in this future, will it not be a fair trade for consumers to give up purchase and appliance usage data in return for heightened simplicity and inclusive maintenance of our appliances? Perhaps, for the elderly, it will be.
Kim Colin is co-founder of Future Facility, a studio that gives form and context to future concepts at a time when networked technologies are reshaping the way we live and work. Kim writes as part of LS:N Global’s Far Futures mini-series Future Homes.