Smart Homes – The View from Berlin (And some answers to Life’s Enigmas)

This blog was written by BSRIA's Henry Lawson

This blog was written by BSRIA’s Henry Lawson

For decades, mankind has agonised over such worrying conundrums as whether the fridge light goes out when the door is closed, or whether I need to drive 20 miles home to check that I really did turn the iron off. (I plead guilty to the latter).

If the 2016 IFA Messe in Berlin, which finished on 7th September, is anything to go by, then these dilemmas will soon be a thing of the past. Not only will I be able to log into my iron from the other side of the world, but a web cam will allow me to check the contents of my fridge, and potentially even the status of the food.

For a long time the idea of smart appliances has seemed almost whimsical, the domain of the geek or the obsessive with surplus money on their hands. The more serious message from IFA is firstly that most of the major quality appliance manufacturers, in both Europe and Asia Pacific are starting to make serious investments in smart appliances. Of course this investment does not prove that the demand will grow to match it. This will depend just as much on a second clear trend, namely that smart appliances are starting to interact with wider home management systems in a way that can potentially change the whole way that households operate, and revolutionise day to day domestic life.

To take a simple example; in the UK there is a lot of talk about shifting tasks that are not time-critical to off-peak times when energy is cheaper. But this mostly hangs upon smart meters. In Germany there has been a lot of resistance to smart meters (especially on data protection grounds), but the country is a world leader in domestically generated solar power. Several of the leading ‘white goods’ manufacturers, including Siemens, Miele and Bosch have partnered with SMA, the country’s leading supplier of residential solar power and storage systems. Your wash can now be kicked off automatically when there is enough solar power to drive it thus saving both  money and CO2 emissions.

From intelligent fridges to robots to keep an eye on grandma; the smart future is emerging

From intelligent fridges to robots to keep an eye on grandma; the smart future is emerging

Specialised smart systems are also increasingly being integrated into wider smart home systems, with a combination of open standards and a “best of breed” approach. This allows you not just to invest in one of the market-leading smart lighting systems, but also, for example to use it to changing the light settings to suggest that the building is occupied.  Home security is a huge theme in Germany, where burglary rates have actually been rising over the past couple of years. Another smart home system can use top of the range entertainment sound systems to mimic sounds like hoovering – with the added bonus that you can now also annoy the neighbours even when you are on holiday.

One flip-side of this is a degree of potential complexity, and many vendors are aware that systems that are complex to install, program and to manage are incompatible with a true mass market. Accordingly many now offer voice-command systems most commonly using Apple Siri or Amazon Alexa. Some suppliers also offer a degree of “machine learning” based on the behaviour both of typical users and of the actual householder.

Another key trend that BSRIA has also picked up over recent years is that much of the higher-end smart home market overlaps with the light-commercial market. A luxury home and a small office may have many similar requirements in terms of lighting security and energy requirements, and the owners may be willing to make the investment. KNX has a huge presence in this market.

On the other hand, the mass market will only be conquered by systems that are relatively low cost, and simple to install, either by the owners themselves or by an ordinary non specialist electrician. One supplier, Datastrom, makes use of mains electricity wiring to connect and control devices, so can be installed by an electrician. Others deploy low- power devices which can be battery powered and can communicate wirelessly using a low energy protocol such as Z-wave. This also makes the smart home relatively portable, which is an attraction in a country like Germany  where far more people rent their homes than do in the UK or the USA.

Smart technology - light in the tunnel, not just at the end of it.

Smart technology – light in the tunnel, not just at the end of it.

I came away from IFA with a confirmation that a dynamic smart home market is taking shape as part of the massive expansion in smart technology and the Internet of Things. There remain huge question-marks. While there is almost universal awareness that cybersecurity is an issue, and much is being invested in it, it is not yet clear that there is an effective way of keeping all devices secure at all times. In fact this concern could drive the move towards complete smart homes, as it is probably easier to monitor a network of IoT devices for ‘suspicious behaviour’ than to try to protect and update each one individually on a continual basis.

BSRIA will be shortly be publishing a series of studies on each of the Smart Homes and Light Commercial markets in Germany, France, UK, the Netherlands  and on North America, which will explore all this, and much more.

For more information please feel free to contact me, – +44 (0)1344 465 590

Smartening up the City

This blog was written by BSRIA's Henry Lawson

This blog was written by BSRIA’s Henry Lawson

There are some leaps in technology that seize the mind and imprint themselves indelibly on the memory. There can hardly be anyone over the age of 50 who doesn’t recall their grainy view of the first man on the Moon, and people who are quite a bit younger will remember when, say, paying a bill or booking a holiday online was still a novel experience.

There are other changes which, while they are already having far more impact on our lives than the Moon landings, seem to have crept up on us, almost by stealth. The advent of the Smart City looks very much like being one of the latter.

The Seminar Smart Cities and the Internet of Things, which BSRIA attended on 16th July, helped to flesh out some of these. One key factor is of course the sheer all-encompassing variety and complexity and scale of a modern city, as reflected in the technology required to support it. This was underlined by the presentations on the range of “smart” cities, from major building consultants, to companies working closely with utilities, to data analytics companies.

This points to a pluralistic approach where different companies collaborate, each contributing their own particular skills, rather than one where a mega-corporation tries to orchestrate everything.  As one speaker pointed out, the smart car alone is likely to involve motor manufacturers, battery and power specialists, grid utilities, digital IT specialists, and the advertising and public relations industry (interestingly, two of the three first people I spoke to represented public relations companies). And that is before one gets on to the subject of the role of city and national authorities.

While the seminar focussed, understandably, on the elements that comprise the “Internet of Things”, making up ‘the nuts and bolts’ of the smart city, it also convinced me that we need to pay more attention to the wider social, political and economic context.

What makes a city smart? Given the combination of complexity and subjectivity, that is always going to be a hard question to answer. Nonetheless a group of academic institutions did rank 75 smart cities across Europe based on the “smartness” of their approach to the economy, mobility, the environment, people, living and governance.

When I measured the ranking of smart cities in each country against that country’s average income, I was struck, but not that surprised, that there was an almost linear correlation between a country’s wealth, and the ranking of its ‘smartest’ city. Thus at one extreme Luxembourg, easily the richest country in Europe, and second richest in the world, was also judged to have the smartest city. Lowest ranked was Bulgaria, which also had the lowest per capita income of all the countries on the list. Most other countries were in a ‘logical’ position in between.

Smartening up the city

One can of course argue whether smart cities are mainly a cause or a consequence of a country’s wealth. Up until now I suspect it is mainly a matter of richer countries being able to afford more advanced technology, not least because the relative economic pecking order has not changed that much in the past 25 years, i.e.. since before the smart city era really got underway, indeed if anything the countries on the bottom right of our chart have been catching up economically, which could be why countries like Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia are doing better in the smart city stakes than their income might suggest.

Luxembourg is of course unusual in one other significant respect. In terms of size, and population, it is about the size of a city, and is politically and economically very much focussed on its eponymous capital city. This raises a question sometimes posed in other contexts: Is the “city state” making a comeback, and could this have a bearing on the development of the smart city? In this respect it surely speaks volumes that Singapore, probably the closest entity to a city state in the modern world is not only highly productive economically but frequently cited in the history of the smart city, going back to the days when it pioneered road pricing more than a generation ago, and one of the cities mentioned in this seminar.

If you are laying down the guidelines for a smart city then there are clearly advantages in having an authority with the resources and powers of a government, combined with the local knowledge and accessibility of a city.  But given that splitting up the world into hundreds if not thousands of new ‘city states’ does not look like a viable option, what can be done to create a framework in which smart cities can flourish in a way that is responsive to their citizens’ needs?

Even in larger countries, the Mayors of major cities are often heavyweight national figures, enjoying wide ranging  powers. This applies to cities like New York, Berlin, Paris and, more recently London. One of the most interesting developments in Britain is the growing recognition that while London is already in effect a global economic power, other cities have been struggling to keep up. While this problem long pre-dates the smart city, it speaks volumes that, with a general election due next year, all of the major parties are now committing to giving more powers to major cities outside of the capital, possibly with more directly elected mayors.

Given the nature of democratic politics there is still no guarantee that this will happen, especially given governments’ traditional reluctance to hand over power, but with Scotland likely to enjoy greater autonomy even if it votes to remain in the UK, the pressure to devolve more power to cities and regions in the rest of the UK will be that much greater.

Even this would not of itself promote smart cities, but it would mean that city mayors or leaders seeking to promote and coordinate smart city developments, and companies and interest groups looking for partners, would have much more powerful instruments within their grasp.

BSRIA’s Worldwide Market Intelligence team produces an annual report into Smart Technologies. To find out more go to our website

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