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Making smart smart - a Q&A with Dr Chris Brauer

Dr Chris Brauer

With the roll-out of smart meters and the increase in appliances boasting ‘smart’ features on the market, smart homes have become an increasing talking point. But is our smart future really just round the corner? And are smart technologies really the answer to our energy efficiency prayers?

Smart Lives: Making smart smart, a new report from researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London, and commissioned by Energy Saving Trust aims to address these issues. Gary Hartley speaks to Dr Chris Brauer, about the research.

What’s new about this study?

CB: There has been a lot of hype about smart homes - and indeed a lot of research. But this was about expressing the voice of the consumer. With the government’s smart meter roll out, we wanted to see whether, for different kinds of people, smart technologies really lead to a smarter life. That’s the challenge.

How was the research carried out?

CB: We used both a ‘bottom up’ and a ‘top down’ approach. We worked with 12 UK consumers over six weeks, giving them different technologies to complete experiments with. For example, we simulated demand-response pricing, texting at 2am to say “put the dishwasher on” and letting people know how much they saved. We gathered real-time responses using WhatsApp; we wanted to know immediately what people were thinking and why, and ultimately, whether they thought the benefits were worth the lifestyle changes. 

We then spoke to specialists who fed into what we were doing, and completed a literature review of over 4,000 documents, reports and other sources, to ascertain what has been said before, and how it related to our findings and methods.

The report mentions a need to ‘confront disorder’ in the smart tech market. What do you mean by this?

CB: People trying to push a smart technology revolution tend to push possible issues under the carpet. These could be technical, behavioural, or issues around data and regulation. This awareness at the expense of real engagement with the issues deprives us of a chance to make real change.  We’re saying “accept the issues are there - confront them, don’t clean them up.”

You mention ‘hype’ around smart technologies. Do you think there has been too much?

CB: No, there hasn’t been too much hype. Smart technologies can be an exciting part of the energy market. They can bring about a different relationship with energy and be a key enabler in that.

The key issue is once you’re calling technology ‘smart’ consumers have to perceive it to be smart. At times, our respondents questioned this. It’s like when a person walks into a room saying how intelligent they are, then starts speaking and people slowly start moving away. We’ve got to turn the dialogue around smart technologies into something more meaningful.

What are the top findings of the study?

CB: We found a broken energy market, with a crisis of confidence among consumers. They are wary of the intentions of companies offering services in the energy sector, and often lack the strong energy and technology literacy to feel in control.

Small enterprises are challenging and disrupting the existing order, offering an ambition to change the way things are. People are far more willing to listen to these new tech companies - they’re far more engaged.

Technology, up to now, seems to be about ‘fixing the human’, ultimately defining people in the role of homo economicus, or rational man, who is either lazy and disinterested in their energy habits, or hyper-controlling. But this isn’t what we have encountered. We see a desire to live ‘smart lives’ in concert but not at the expense of the potentials of technology, focused on making the everyday practices in the home more efficient, easier, or simply more engaging. That’s what we mean by ‘making smart smart’.

Is there a possibility that smart technology and the data it gathers could serve to entrench dominance of the energy market by existing big players?

CB: That is a risk for consumers - but it’s also not that simple. Initially, the start-up community are the upstarts, which is similar to the way digitisation challenged the traditional models of the music industry. By 2020, when smart meters are due to be in all homes and businesses, the big energy companies that are around now will be in a place to have a strong role, but at the same time, they will be competing with others with expertise in data and analytics. These newer entrants will view smart energy as ‘just another digital business’. Ultimately, size doesn’t protect you, only expertise.

In the report, you identify six ‘personas’ in relation to how different people react and interact with smart technology. Is it really as simple as that?

CB: My team has years of experience in profiling users of technology using testing and simulations. We are not suggesting these are their only characteristics, just that we have seen them come out strongly in this research. The gross simplification is things as they stand where there is generally just one generic consumer that needs to be nudged to do the right things in their energy consumption. You simply can’t create a technology and put it to people in the same way. For instance, can new companies convince the ‘smarter than smart’ that their technology is useful? If so, it’s sure to work in a wider roll-out.

There are a number of tensions highlighted in the study. Can you explain a few of them?

CB: Expectation versus reality is a key one. There is a major gap in the marketplace between what’s promised and what’s delivered. Early adopters tend to step back if their expectations are not met, and often wait until the technology is more proven in their eyes. This leads to progress not being maintained.

This is also affected by the tension between viewing the ‘part’ i.e. smart technologies alone, and the ‘whole’ i.e. the entire infrastructure of the home. What can happen at the moment is smart technologies are installed in homes with poor insulation, inappropriate windows etc. without thinking about the whole.

Automation versus augmentation is about whether technology is to support human beings in making better, more informed decisions, or make decisions on their behalf.

The ‘opacity by design’ of the current energy market(kWh, pounds and pence etc.) has also led to a tension between a sense of cynicism about the intentions of energy companies and the transparency demanded of smart technologies.

How can you be both open and secure in the connected world? And how can people still feel like they have control?

CB: The more people install smart home technology, the bigger the potential openness but lots of nodes sitting isolated isn’t a network. The kind of openness people want is immediate, local and trusted for example your neighbour getting a text if your smoke alarm goes off.

The more open you are the more lines of attack there potentially are; the risks are real. There was a recent incident in the U.S. where point-of-sale data was extracted from the lights of a business.

Rules are going to have to adapt. The more aggressive data policies that are needed will be about what the data is used for. Participants in our research continually question and negotiate the value of their data. Concerns about privacy were matched by positive responses to personalized offers. It is about having transparency and accountability in how data is handled, but from a consumer engagement perspective it is about more than that. It is about integrity, or at least perceptions of integrity. In a digital world of value exchange, data is a commodity like money and just as with financial transactions or storage, trust will be the crucial foundation of interactions around data.

Do you think smart technology could lead to people being more marginalised?

CB: Yes,  and with smart homes, the ‘at risk’ groups aren’t the same as with other digital technologies, which often sees young ‘digital natives’ on one side, and the elderly on the other. With smarts it’s more a divide between home owners and renters, with the latter more vulnerable. So the precarious here can be young university students, for example. More wealthy people can also end up being precarious by installing a whole suite in their home which quickly falls out of date as the technology advances.

What can be done to address this?

CB: The lines in between smart homes are the most important factor in avoiding isolation. 50 million ‘pods’ of smart energy will only further entrench a sense of disconnection. Community energy is popular with respondents, and gamification works too, where people can compare themselves to their neighbours and be brought together.

Do you think behaviour change is difficult?

CB: It is extremely complex, but I see it more as behavioural economics, which my research has been looking at for more than 10 years. In the case of smarts, a ‘top down’ smart cities model builds everything from the ground up, automating away all decision making, but this is not how things are in the UK where 80 per cent of the homes we inhabit in 2050 are already standing today. Here, you need to engage communities, challenge social norms and a long-term plan to change and sustain behaviours has to be put in place. You can’t simply put technologies in and expect this to happen.

Behavioural economics also tells us that the 2020 smart meter roll-out has to be on an ‘opt out’ basis. ‘opt in’ would never reach the penetration levels required.

Can smart technologies be a part of meaningful low carbon change in the UK?

CB: Yes, but it takes decades – there is no quick fix. You have to change social norms, laws, and it has to be well-funded and a priority. Like the attempts to reduce people smoking in the UK, it’s a long process, where it’s not possible to look solely at short-term cost. The long-term benefits are hugely significant.

You talk about the necessity of ‘shifts in collective cultural consciousness’. What do you mean by this?

CB: It's about the value system of the country and it's something that happens one piece at a time. For a long time economic growth and energy consumption have been in step but we are at a moment of tremendous opportunity, with the convergence of increasing social values around personal responsibility towards the environment and our collective futures, some really clever emerging smart home technologies that are only going to get more powerful and enabling, and a global recognition that things needs to change.

It's about merging harnessing the innovations of smart technologies and entrepreneurial habits in progressive and distributed social organisation with the traditional UK strengths in discipline, resilience, invention and creativity. The energy marketplace and the experiences of energy by consumers are going to look and feel completely different in the near future and organisations like Energy Saving Trust are uniquely positioned to host and foster the dialogue around all of these issues.

Gary Hartley is Energy Saving Trust's expert blogger. He has extensive experience researching and writing on a number of topics, with particular expertise in sustainable energy, policy, literature and sport. As well as providing regular blog content, Gary has also been published in numerous magazines and journals.

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