Tuesday, 9 December 2014

The changing spaces of home - why the low-carbon agenda matters for geography

By Dr Louise Reid, University of St Andrews. This article first appeared in the summer 2014 edition of the RSGS's magazine, The Geographer.

Homes are gaining capacities unachievable a few decades ago. Their computerisation and automation are re-configuring how we imagine home, what we expect from our homes, and how we use them. The rise of the ‘smart home’, which according to the UK’s Department of Trade and Industry is “a dwelling incorporating a communications network that connects the key electrical appliances and services, and allows them to be remotely controlled, monitored or accessed”, is imagined as the home of the future.

The growing popularity of the smart home rests on three key ideas: ease, security and energy efficiency. Firstly, smart homes are easier to manage; for instance, a thermostat can control heating to a specific ambient temperature, saving the householder from having to continually adjust radiators. Secondly, smart homes are secure as they can incorporate alarm systems such as notifications that an appliance requires servicing or is overheating. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, smart homes can switch off appliances not in use, or time appliance use to make the most efficient use of energy. Recent initiatives by Google and Apple to acquire and develop smart home platforms, demonstrate the growth and opportunities for future development in this area.

There are three key elements required for a home to be considered smart: an appropriate internal network (wires or wireless); a mechanism to manage the system (intelligent control); and, objects or items within the home which can be automated, for instance a smart TV. Moreover, smart homes can be designed and built from scratch, or features of a smart home can be retrofitted as homes are upgraded. Although the extent to which homes in the UK are smart is not fully known, it is clear that the direction of the domestic arena is towards a smarter’ more ubiquitous home, animated by the development of coded objects and pervasive computing. A smart home may, for instance, turn off lights when a person leaves a room, may close windows if a sensor detects rain, or may even recommend foods to buy as the fridge empties. The potential implications of smart homes are numerous and mean that seemingly mundane and routine domestic practices are changing, and by so doing are imperceptibly reconfiguring and reshaping the spatiality of homes.

For many decades, discussions of home have been core to geographical scholarship. So too have issues such as techno-utopia and socio-technical systems. The role and extent of smart homes, their automated, automatic and autonomous objects, raises interesting and new issues for geographers to explore. As Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge acknowledged in their 2011 book Code/ Space, the pervasiveness of computer code and the rolling out of the ‘Internet of Things’, are implicated in new spatialities across many domains. Software as ‘everyware’ is radically changing how we imagine space, the relationship between code and space mutually constituted. New questions such as who designs, develops, builds, installs, operates, maintains and destroys these technologies, are a growing concern of many geographers. Indeed, a number of research projects are now underway to explore how the relationships we have with our homes, and the stuff therein, are changing.

My research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, explores how the push towards low-carbon living is influencing these everyday domestic environments. Uncertainties around climate change and energy security mean there is considerable appetite to use energy more efficiently, and the development of smart homes is lauded as having a key role in this (for example, remote monitoring and control of domestic appliances). Understanding how these transitions are experienced by householders will be essential as the low-carbon agenda unfolds. How might the move towards domestic animation and automation change what we understand as home? There is little doubt that objects with new capacities will influence our everyday practices, but in what way? And how will data be used, by whom, for what purpose? At this stage, there are perhaps more questions than answers, but it is an exciting time for geographers concerned with domestic spaces and everyday experiences.