20 years since physical devices were first commercially connected to the internet via sensors, the internet of things (IoT) is now a daily reality in most of our lives. Millions of web-connected ‘things’ can now be monitored remotely, with relentless data streams organised to aid or dictate machine or human decision-making.
This trend is set to accelerate further in 2020 with the advent of 5G connectivity, potentially allowing over ten times more connected devices per square kilometre than can be currently sustained by 4G networks.
Homes that are increasingly connected are also inevitable; a recent survey of 2,500 UK households by consultants EY found that 41 per cent are planning to install at least one connected device in the next five years, with 12 per cent already owning a smart heating device.
Social homes getting smarter
There has also been a steady evolution in the number of ‘made for social housing’ IoT solutions available on the market, as housing providers become increasingly aware of their potential value.
Housing providers experimented at first with early generations of ‘consumer tech’ and discovered that their own internal requirements as well as those of their tenants and their housing stock demanded bespoke solutions. For example, while most mass-market domestic IoT products are designed to primarily benefit individual households, social housing IoT products also need to offer aggregated benefits to each housing provider.
In short, housing providers need the capability to access terabytes of granulated data across potentially thousands of homes and autonomously identify physical problems and prioritise interventions.
Physical in-home hardware must also be fit for purpose; i.e it needs to be robust, tamper-proof and built for that function only. Too many early packages incorporated multi-purpose hardware such as tablets were prone to going missing.
Secure Meters contacted dozens of social landlords in 2019 to better understand their approaches to IoT home sensor solutions.
Awareness of IoT solutions among social housing asset managers appears to be high, despite 40 per cent of landlords still reporting not to have trialled or installed a device.
The two most popular technologies to date are related to heating and utilities, with over a third of respondents having fitted smart heating and smart metering devices.
Heat and electricity are domestic essentials, so it makes sense to start with something that every home uses, particularly as 2.5 million (around 10 per cent) of homes are still classified as ‘fuel poor’ by the government.
This was confirmed when we asked landlords why smarter heat and energy were prioritised. The top two reasons given were supporting tenant welfare and reducing tenants’ fuel bills.
However, digging further, we also discovered that the barriers to adoption of smart heat technologies are cost (high capital investment) and the need to trial/prove their viability.
Traditionally, thermostats were a low priority for landlords because their purchase was by third-party contractors. This has changed with the advent of smart devices, with the increase in cost making it necessary to ‘test drive’ products and prove their RoI.
What’s also interesting is the comparison between solutions that have been installed, versus those that are sought or desired by landlords.
As seen from the accompanying chart, little progress appears to have been made in areas such as smart smoke and fire detection systems, lighting sensors and security systems, yet all three have been prioritised as sought-after technologies.
New methods of fire safety are of course highly relevant in the post-Grenfell world, and technologies that alert landlords to potential fire safety hazards feel sensible.
For example, government statistics show that 25 per cent of social housing tenants in England have never tested their smoke alarms. How many fires could be prevented by remote sensors detecting alarms with flat batteries? So simple, yet potentially lifesaving.
Tactical or strategic?
Respondents were also asked whether their organisation was taking a tactical or strategic approach to IoT, with 80 per cent claiming to have an IoT strategy in place.
Based on my own experience with social landlords (and their motivations for new technologies), I was surprised by this, so I asked a few respondents what they perceived as an IoT strategy. What I discovered was that IoT was actually being deployed tactically in order to achieve strategic aims, such as reducing fuel poverty or improving repairs and maintenance service standards and efficiency.
If an organisation has a strategy then I’d argue that it should have a boardroom presence, and I’m not sure that’s true of most social landlords and IoT just yet.
Where next for IoT in housing? The market still has a long way to go, but high levels of awareness, 5G connectivity, new and improving technologies, and increasingly social housing-specific solutions, suggest that there’s now a stronger argument for accelerated deployments of IoT in housing.
Nigel Ebdon is the market development manager at Secure Meters.