The internet of things (IoT) is broadly seen as the next evolution of the internet, the integration of connected computing into people’s everyday environments. This presents enormous opportunities for computing to transform our lives in ways that can be hard to imagine. Global consumer technology providers are racing to commercialise IoT concepts and to establish themselves as the default platform of choice. This means that we should expect IoT to become a familiar part of customers’ lives, and that they will expect all of their service providers to leverage the benefits it offers. As owners of large property portfolios, and with a unique customer relationship, the application of IoT to homes is particularly significant to housing providers.
So what does IoT mean to the housing sector in late 2016? At the highest level, it’s an architecture of devices, networks and data. The initial hype concerning fridges that tell you when you need to buy more milk, or colour-changing light bulbs that you control using your smartphone has given rise to some scepticism, and it’s certainly true that many of the first round of geek-appeal applications will probably fail to gain broader traction in society. You can now buy a physical switch to control your Hue light bulb without having to use your pesky smartphone. However, avoiding having your heating break down because your boiler warned your supplier that its outlet pipe was about to freeze up is a huge benefit for all parties. The public imagination is dominated by these individual-scale applications which can be packaged as consumer products.
When employed at scale, IoT offers insights that simply haven’t been possible before. Much has been made of the need to create platforms which can handle the truly ‘big data’ that is predicted to be generated by the millions of devices forecast to arrive in homes over the next decade. Analytical techniques can be used to discover trends, associations and support targeted enquiries which could be extremely powerful for large-scale and long-term planning. Perhaps the most obvious opportunity for cashable benefits is in repairs and maintenance, and certainly the most significant area of spending for any housing provider. By analysing the characteristics of property types and the likely behaviour of the occupants, replacement and other major works programmes can be tailored to deliver significant savings.
Data gathered from installed sensors measuring heat, moisture and detecting movement and usage in the home can be used to significantly improve the cost-efficiency of responsive repairs, and especially long-term maintenance. Replacement programmes can be adjusted to take account of usage (or otherwise), and costly responsive repairs services can be tailored to take account of occupant behaviour. For example, if moisture in a property can be correlated with temperature, then perhaps it’s not rising damp that’s causing the problem but wet clothes being dried on radiators.
Despite the seemingly ‘no brainer’ potential of IoT, it’s been slow to take off in the sector and proven use cases are thin on the ground. One of the key barriers has been the lack of standards, or rather too many of them; at last count there were five standards bodies, and countless manufacturers trying to get a piece of the action. The recent demise of 365Agile’s last operation, ‘wireless things’ highlights the problem; it was an interesting approach, built on innovative technology, but its ‘closed garden’ approach presented a barrier to integration with existing information and process systems. The same problem is reflected on the systems side, with many of the traditional housing software suppliers still refusing to offer the open architecture that could make their platforms ‘IoT ready’, instead choosing to try to lock their customers into a proprietary ecosystem.
Nevertheless, any forward-looking house builder would be wise to wire up their new builds in readiness for IoT; it’s a genie that won’t be put back in the bottle. As the cost of the technology continues to fall and pilot projects start to prove use cases, retro-fitting IoT into existing stock will first become economically viable, and then a normal activity.
Tenants will come to expect the benefits of connected devices, and data will be collected; it’s up to housing providers and their suppliers to ensure they are well-placed to respond in an environment of rapidly-rising customer expectations and an increasingly competitive housing market.
Aidan Dunphy is the head of product strategy at Orchard Information Systems.