The Internet of things you inherit or leave behind

Photo: Moving Day by Nicolas Huk

Between 2000 and 2010, Bryan and I lived a somewhat nomadic lifestyle. We moved more than fifteen times, including stays of varying lengths in three continents, six countries, three Canadian provinces, and four cities in the UK. After five wonderful years in Scotland, we’ve recently moved once again!

Moving to a new country while running a small business can be tricky, so we’ve also planned (or seriously investigated) moves that for one reason or another never actually happened. This has added another five countries to the list of places in which we are now familiar with the intricacies of finding and securing a place to live.

Although we always expected the size, look, and lifestyle of apartments to differ from place to place, we were often surprised by the degree of variability in norms and expectations around what an apartment could and should contain and who bore the responsibility for introducing and maintaining those objects.

Here are just a few notable differences:

  • In cities with short leases, variable tenancy, and high rental turnover, we often struggled to find an unfurnished apartment. In other markets, we might be lucky to find one that included a stove, ceiling light fixtures, or even kitchen cabinets[1]. Tenants were expected to bring with them all but the kitchen sink…and then truck it all away once they left.
  • In some cities, our monthly rent was highly likely to include heat and/or electricity, so although we might need to know how to operate the heating, we weren’t quite as invested in how energy efficient the boiler might be, or might be unable to affect it regardless.
  • In some countries the vast majority of the population rents rather than owns (and statistics suggest this trend will only increase — even in North America where homeownership has historically been high). In some of these markets, multi-year leases are often the norm as tenants who have found a place they’re happy to call “home” seek to retain this privilege as long as possible.
  • Markets that favour longer leases can paradoxically also include a booming market in sublets as career and family changes force people to move mid-term. I can only assume that AirBnb now fills all sorts of related gaps (illegal and otherwise) in some of these markets.
  • Longer leases often go hand-in-hand with added flexibility to adapt aspects of the apartment. If you plan to live somewhere for five years, you’re more likely to invest the time and money to paint, landscape the garden, build bunk-beds for the kids, or fit smart appliances and peripherals to save money or enhance your day to day comfort (…barring Japan, see below!). Despite the cost of doing so, it may not always be practical or worthwhile (i.e. abandonware, upgrade cycles, rapid technology change) to take all of them with you when you move.
In Japan many homes are deemed “disposable” thanks to cultural norms that discouragesecond hand” ownership. “Houses in Japan rapidly depreciate like consumer durable goods — cars, fridges, golf clubs, etc. After 15 years, a home typically loses all value and is demolished on average just 30 years after being built.” This has led to the creation of incredibly creative structures as there is little worry of the impact of an unusual design on resale value of the land (which does however retain its value). Source: Leodileo on Flickr.
  • A landlord or property manager may also choose to fit smart devices such as locks, alarms and thermostats that will remain in the home, or common areas of a development to increase rental value, improve security, save on insurance premiums, or more easily monitor maintenance needs.
Smart LED street lighting in Copenhagen “can sense an approaching cyclist and shine extra light for safety as he or she traverses an intersection”. As the LEDs are in fact wee microprocessors, they can in theory do all sorts of other things such as broadcast data and communicate with other smart objects in the vicinity. “Eventually, the network [of lights] will serve other functions, like alerting the sanitation department to empty the trash cans and informing bikers of the quietest or fastest route to their destinations. It’s all made possible through an array of sensors embedded in the light fixtures that collect and feed data into software.” Sources: CitylabNYTimes.
  • Finally — and though this may not at first glance appear related to objects within the home — finding a flat and formalising the right to live there can vary greatly from country to country. In some places, much or all of the process is mediated by a corporation — be it an agent of the state, the corporate owner of a building, or an estate agent acting on their behalf (and sometimes staying on as factor/manager or tenant-to-owner liaison). In other places, you deal exclusively with the owner who, given current “buy-to-let investment” trends, could be almost anyone, of any age or experience level.

This combination of factors suggests that going forward tenants may inherit a much wider range of things than they would have done in the past. Given IoT’s current trajectory, some of these things will not just be random objects but an ecology of smart(-ish) inhabitants that have (or can) be programmed to communicate, in some way collaborate, or learn and adapt to their owners habits and peculiarities.

Observing connected products through this lens leads to all sorts of questions around their resilience in an environment where discovery, on-boarding, first-use, day to day use and periodic maintenance may include an unexpected (and revolving) number of actors — each with different needs and potential levels of ownership.

Challenges and opportunities

I had hoped to group the examples below as either challenges or opportunities, but quickly realised that almost any user challenge becomes an opportunity for brands that develop connected devices or the ecosystems around them.

I also considered grouping topics by user need, or stage in the user journey, but struggled to do so given the number of actors, and the fact that each may be at a different stage in their specific journey, or have different needs and expectations.

The list below is therefore presented somewhat as-is, but with the odd journey-related grouping in the general hope that it will stimulate conversations around these topics!


Viewing a potential home is always precarious. You often only have a short period of time and want to learn as much as possible about the property and what it might be like to live there. You flush toilets, run a few taps, peek in the fridge and oven, and make note of the number of radiators, thermostats, power sockets — anything that might break down or make your life hell if it turns out to be a dud.

Rarely does this process currently involve discussions about hardware versions, operating systems [2], apps, firmware, connection ports (barring cable/TV/phone) and who has the right or indeed responsibility and sufficient access privileges to install updates, pay monthly or annual subscriptions, or introduce new software into the system.

There’s also the simple practicality of understanding what “things” you will share the space with if you assume tenancy. The listing for an apartment we recently considered in Vancouver included a “smart mirror”. Deciphering what this meant was an interesting process and i’m not convinced that, going forward, parties (…people, algorithms, AIs) that show or promote such properties will be well versed on the opportunity space presented by these features (or indeed…whether their very presence should be considered a feature or a bug).

After much Googling, we discovered this photo of the smart mirror which apparently includes a TV. The fact that the functionality was branded (even if possibly a white label) by the developer made it that much harder to know what functionality this would actually provide.

I suspect that in the not too distant future, tenants will start demanding a detailed list of what software is installed and where, whether it can be updated or reset to suit new occupants, how easy it is to do so, and who bears responsibility for any associated cloud subscriptions or service costs. Markets where rentals are primarily mediated through lettings agents or corporations (e.g. UK, Singapore) may fare better in this scenario as they’re already used to providing a detailed lists of furniture and fixtures as a matter of course.

Identification, on-boarding, maintenance

Once you’re all moved in, the real fun begins, and doesn’t necessary end until you’ve lived with appliances for some time — or seen them fail.

If some form of manifest hasn’t been provided during viewing, it will certainly be in demand once the tenant moves in. In almost every flat i’ve lived in we’ve experienced teething pains around startup and maintenance of heating and appliances. Smarter and more connected appliances provide a rich opportunity to lessen these pains — but also to (paradoxically) increase them if each new dwelling requires you to learn a new interface and configure complex permissions (if you’re thinking “yeah…but you only do that once”, read on).

And if objects have been specifically designed to learn your habits, you may have to wait for them to unlearn someone else’s (…or maybe enlist someone to “teach” them).

(A slightly different premise than in the video below, but then don’t we already spend our days teaching algorithms and devices— even if for the moment, we don’t get paid for it!)

Also worth remembering that if trends continue, many “tenants” may simply be highly transient AirBnb-style residents. They won’t be invested in learning everything about the apartment, let along hang around enough for the object to “learn” much of anything about them, but will still need to understand how not to accidentally leave the front door unlocked or unknowingly set a daily recurring “recipe” that commands the oven to start at 3pm.

When something inevitably does go wrong, simply identifying an appliance can be a nightmare if there is no manual available (my washing machine comes to mind…the ID label was behind the machine which was built into a cabinet).

Smarter and more connected objects may ironically be far more opaque as some (or all?) of the interface may be mediated through software. If on-boarding is presumed to occur directly after un-boxing, users who inherit a product may miss key steps or develop unusual conceptual models that will make using the product (at best) awkward to use, or even dangerous.

A few thoughts on ways to improve ad-hoc on-boarding, today and in the future:

  • Manufacturers shouldn’t presume (sorry!) that their product will be iconic enough for users to recognise it on sight. Ensure enough data (model number etc.) is visible for users to clearly identify the product, and where practical, include a QR code (or other just-in-time interaction trigger) that deep-links to online support and specifications.

[What “specifications” consist of (and for whom, and in which context) is an interesting question when software updates can obscure a device’s behaviour or update it as significantly as Tesla’s new “Autopilot”.]

  • While it may be tempting to embed info and specifications within an object that already has a display, this should be weighed against the benefits of providing a simple URL whose content can be updated remotely and potentially customised to prioritise the after-sales context (vs. the often sales-driven materials that dominates product sites).
  • For smaller objects, or those that can’t support a visible label, an embedded technology such as NFC or the Physical Web could be used to exchange that URL. In both cases, the opportunity to initiate this exchange using a browser seems key given that, even if the product requires an app, new residents may not yet know they need one, and more transient residents may justifiably not wish to download one. For resilience’s sake, the default experience should IMHO almost always point to the web.
  • In cases where apartments are in some way formally managed (social and student housing etc.) an in-suite touchpoint could lead to a secure online manifest of all in-suite appliances, including model numbers, firmware status and links to set-up and maintenance instructions. Corporations that manage a large numbers of apartments could provide a standard, digital manifest for each property, retrievable through various means, and with access (and interaction) privileges aligned to each person’s role (tenant, caretaker, owner, random visitor etc.).
  • As people aren’t yet used to spontaneously “interrogating” things in front of them (at least not in quite the breadth and depth of ways that physical web will enable), a visible logo/wordmark would help improve discovery, and possibly hint at the range of affordances available (e.g. information vs direct control or proxied interaction).
Source: Shibuya246, CC-BY-NC with lots more pictures here.

[The Japanese Suica smart card penguin has evolved into a widely recognisable brand complete with baked goods :-) Cultural norms about cute characters aside, the NFC wordmark is by comparison quite uninspiring. The Physical Web, and IoT in general, would IMO benefit from standardised signposts and affordances that inject a touch of playfulness into interactions that may otherwise be slightly sterile.]

Privacy, security, control

Privacy concerns are bound to run through many of the scenarios we’ve discussed. A “home” (even a one-night bedroom at an AirBnb) is a place of privacy and sanctuary from the world. The presence in that space of objects that contain remote and/or ambiguously-owned and controlled interfaces is bound to generate questions about who can access then.

  • How does my smart lock really know it’s me?
  • How can I check that the prior user doesn’t still have privileges? Will I be alerted if unusual users are detected (and who does the system consider unusual)?
  • The landlord no doubt has privileges to the apartment’s “home hub”, but what exactly are they? Can she access my data? See what time of the day I come and go? Remotely monitor the number of visitors at my door, how often I play music, or whether I sufficiently water the grass?
  • Opaque actors and behaviours don’t need sinister overtones to cause doubt . In our new apartment we must pay for electricity, yet the cost of electric radiant heat is included with the rent. How exactly does this work? I doubt there’s that much smarts to the system, but when lack of access to data causes doubt, it’s often besides the point if that data is digital or analogue.

To a new user, these types of questions will be a potential source of stress until trust is established and the system’s boundaries and behaviours are confidently understood.

New tech may also introduce or exacerbate already common areas of social and legal tension. For example, a sublet or occasional spare-room AirBnb rental may increase the number of actors who hold a visible or programmatic stake in a connected object. You may not want the landlord to suddenly notice your lock is now programmed to open for Peter instead of Bryan (assuming you even have the right to invite new users to the system). The new resident might simply be a visiting friend whose presence would in the past have gone unnoticed yet now risks falling foul of a lease that stipulates the maximum number of residents.

One can also foresee scenarios where technology might be used to spontaneously restrict access to a property, or some aspect of its functionality (e.g. electricity) in cases of dispute, or pressure tenants into preferred behaviours through changes in software privileges. Dystopic as it may sound, there’s certainly scope for municipal/landlord/tenant disputes to take on a whole new set of “smart” characteristics.

This is terrible design. A thermostat shouldn’t *need* internet connectivity to function. It also probably shouldn’t be under the control of anyone other than the resident or power company (in Canada you can die from the cold, so suppliers can’t legally shut power off in the winter for lack of payment). But what if another party sits in the middle of this relationship thanks to simple, off the shelf software?

Parting thoughts

I started writing this before our decision to move, and then put the article aside as some of these issues felt a bit premature. After all, in our current day, how many people actually have this problem?

Ok…so there’s at least one :-p

Our move and apartment hunt however reminded me that the future is rarely equally distributed. Thousands of new properties are currently being built in cities such as Vancouver, and many of them will boast some manner of smarts. As a potential resident it’s not always clear these features even exist, what their boundaries are, or how useful or helpful they will be in day to day life.

A news item about this smart condo development in Toronto notes that although the condo has all sorts of smart things built in, it does not include *the Samsung branded phone* required to control them.

There’s a huge opportunity for brands to develop thoughtful, resilient and sustainable products and ecosystems that truly consider the diversity of contexts and needs related to choosing a home and making it your own — even if just for a week or night.

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