The return of the machine for living

By Matt Leach - on 24/03/2014

Data and advancing technology has the potential to dramatically improve the wellbeing of those living in social housing. HACT's Chief Executive Matt Leach comments in the latest edition of Housing Technology that HACT is at the forefront of some exciting developments.

In the early 20th century, architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret – better known as Le Corbusier – wrote about the house as “a machine for living”.  At the time, influenced by the development of new building materials and in particular reinforced concrete, steel and glass – this expressed itself through bleak visions of grey monoliths into which the working classes could be efficiently dormitoried. 

The Unité d’Habitation – Le Corbusier’s grim Marseille apartment block – seemed to sum up the rejection of human, organic approaches to housebuilding:  if the house was a machine, its residents were little more than the materials it processed.   That underpinning philosophy proved hugely influential, reaching its natural conclusion in the soulless tower blocks and estates of the 1960s and 70s that subsequently became associated with the worst of our social housing.

But if the last century’s dreams of creating a technologically-enabled “machine for living” foundered, advances in cloud-based computing and low cost manufacturing are spurring an exciting re-exploration of how the concept might be achieved in very different ways, and to ends which place the wellbeing of residents at their very heart. 

Over the last four months 34 post-graduate computer scientists at UCL have been working full time to design and build the core infrastructure that will underpin this vision.  Part of an initiative that brings together insight from the HACT/Microsoft Housing Big Data initiative (currently on track to establish the first ever national housing data repository later this spring), ongoing work by Microsoft and other partners on assisted living, and cutting edge research-based innovation at UCL, the project seeks to explore the limits of what can be achieved through integration of sensor technology in the home, the latest heating and lighting management systems and housing providers’ own housing management systems.

The project seeks to reimagine the housing association home of the future.  One in which sensors in every room keep track of heating and lighting to ensure that the optimum living environment is maintained for the resident at the lowest possible cost; where noise problems can be monitored and resolved within days at the flick of a switch; which keeps track of household occupancy, to ensure that unplanned voids, sublets or falls can be identified and responded to immediately; where damp or humidity problems are identified within days and fixed before more damage is caused; where electricity usage is monitored and analysed to identify and remedy unnecessary inefficiency; and vulnerable tenants looked out for, when otherwise they might be on their own.  Homes which provide streaming data on room usage to feed into intelligent maintenance schedules; and estates in which maintenance engineers are able to respond to intelligently prioritised jobs, based on live data direct from the home.  All controlled by intelligent cloud based algorithms directly integrated into reimagined housing management systems. 

If it sounds like science fiction, the intention is to make it happen in 2014.  Just as massive drops in the price of technology are enabling innovation in ways that were previously inconceivable - the first £30 tablets should be rolling out to social housing residents in the next few months - advances in low cost, fast manufacturing is enabling the rapid and affordable scaling up of innovation that in the past would have been limited to small scale expensive pilots. 

In the next few months, we’ll be seeing the first production prototypes of the multi-sensor units that will provide a constant stream of information from residents homes, and the development of the actuator components capable of controlling radiators and lighting systems remotely, on the basis of the data flowing back into the cloud.  Next wave research by UCL will be creating the analytic and control systems on Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform, and the first homes will be kitted out on an experimental basis.  By the end of the year, it is hoped that the first large scale housing provider-wide roll-out will be underway in partnership with leading housing/digital innovator Halton Housing Trust, with wider involvement across the housing sector in 2015.

Whilst the vision is expansive, it is based on technology that is available now.  Google’s recent acquisition of Nest demonstrates how intelligent technology for the home is becoming mainstream.  And German start-up Tado has already made inroads into the domestic marketplace in the UK and elsewhere with its smartphone based thermostat control systems.  The next generation of housing management systems will need to embrace and integrate with what is going to be a new wave of data from the home: if recent web-based self-service systems have integrated the resident into housing management systems, the next wave of technology will integrate the home itself.

If this vision shares its roots in Le Corbusier’s dream of creating a machine for living, it is founded on very different principles.   If the home is indeed becoming a data-enabled machine, then its principle purpose must be to continuously serve, respond and adapt to individual residents’ needs.  Unlike the experiments of the last century, this time around it is not about treating people as the product; we’re reprogramming the machine.  Its outputs need to be measurable and deliverable improvement in individuals’ quality of life. And 2014 might just be the year we get there.

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Tags: 
innovationsocial housingBig data

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