the ConversAItion: Season 2 Episode 10

Smarter Homes with IoT

Smart homes, IoT education, sustainable living—Jim is joined by IoT expert Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino to talk about all things “living with tech.” They unpack the history and future of technology in the home.
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“[Homes are] an incredibly difficult place to design for because everyone lives so differently. I’m interested in what kinds of products would really make a dent in someone's life in unusual ways, or that would help them manage their life in a new way.”
Alexandra Sonsino

About Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino is a respected IoT thought leader, and founder and consultant at her company designswarm. She advises businesses on IoT, smart homes, and energy projects, and has worked with clients including Procter and Gamble, Nokia and National Geographic. Follow Alexandra on Twitter @iotwatch.

Short on time? Here are 5 quick takeaways:

  1. The smart home isn't a new concept; technology innovation has changed the way we live for centuries.

    In her first book Smarter Homes: How Technology Will Change Your Home Life, Alexandra explores how the concept of a smart home has been developing over the course of the past hundred years—with inventions that we don’t necessarily even consider “technology” anymore. Much like the introduction of electricity, the emergence of internet-connected devices is another phase in the evolution.

  2. When IoT was first introduced in the early 2000s, developers were innovating novel solutions. Now, they’re focused on practical applications.

    According to Alexandra, the Wild West of smart home IoT is already behind us. Today, people are focused on pragmatic IoT solutions; smart thermostats or security systems are far more common than smart toys, for example. 

    In fact, in an effort to understand what people actually want and need from IoT at home, Alexandra spearheaded the HomeSense project. The 2009 initiative paired nontechnical people of all different lifestyles with local developers to create customized solutions to real domestic problems. For instance, one couple developed a sound dial that would signal when they were being too loud and disturbing the elderly couple next door. 

  3. There’s a need for broad IoT education; while digital literacy is on the rise, it doesn't necessarily translate to physical devices.

    Very rarely do people feel comfortable opening up their television or toaster to fix a glitch. When it comes to consumer technology, we’ve created these black boxes that make it very hard to understand the algorithms and operations that hide beneath the hardware. 

    Though it requires more effort, Alex is focused on translating IoT into plain language because it allows people to think about everyday objects in a new light; they’re more capable of understanding how to leverage IoT devices to make better decisions.

  4. IoT devices have the potential to accelerate sustainable living.

    Our internet-connected devices are unique in their ability to recognize how we live, and where we allocate resources. When it comes to sustainable living, IoT provides environmental data that could inform how national grids operate and the ways in which energy is produced across the world. 

    Over the next 10 to 20 years, Alexandra believes that by connecting specific climate data to our products, everyday devices could prompt us to use things in new, more power-efficient ways, like at different times of the day when the grid is greener. Ultimately, IoT devices hold the potential to change our behavior for the better. 

  5. As IoT devices are seamlessly integrated into everyday life, technology providers will assume the role of utility providers, too.

    The explosion of IoT devices in recent years has brought to light the excess of hardware in our everyday lives. Moving forward, technology developers will be focused on eliminating the need for unnecessary apparatuses.

    Today, you can have a Roku TV with built-in wifi, for example, that easily streams shows and movies without a cable box. The consolidation of devices will ideally lead to less power consumption and greener behavior down the line.

Read the transcript



Smarter Homes with IoT

Jim Freeze Hi and welcome. I’m Jim Freeze and this is The ConversAItion, a podcast airing viewpoints on the impact of artificial intelligence on business and society.


 The ConversAItion is presented by Interactions, a conversational AI company that builds intelligent virtual assistants capable of human level understanding. In this episode, we’ll be speaking with renowned Internet of Things thought leader Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino. 

Alex, welcome to the conversation.

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino Thanks for having me, Jim.

Jim Freeze Yeah. We’re thrilled to have you.

Today, we’re going to discuss the history of smart homes and how technology shapes the way we live. As a matter of fact, in 2018, Alex wrote a book on the topic, titled Smarter Homes. Not only is she an author, she’s also a respected interaction and product designer, entrepreneur, and public speaker. 

Alex, I’d love to kick things off by learning a little bit about your background. You’re a prominent and recognized voice in IoT today. What drew you to IoT?

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino Well, I studied industrial design originally in Montreal and I moved to Italy to do a course in interaction design. We were given the first Arduinos in the world. And some of your listeners might know the Arduino is an electronics educational platform that’s open source hardware, open source software. And it got me hooked because it was the meeting of some of the thoughts that I was having as a student on how the physical world could be shaped by the internet. And so knowing about that platform, playing around with it, using it to develop my own ideas, gave me a view on a whole new world. And this was 2004 to 2006. So it was early days in that sector. When I moved to the UK in 2007 to become the first UK distributor of the Arduino, then that’s when things really kicked off for me.

Jim Freeze Yeah. Terrific. So within IOT in particular, what made you realize the potential and the importance of the smart home?

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino Well, I was always very interested in the domestic realm and it’s problems. I think it’s an incredibly difficult place to design for, everyone lives so differently. Everyone chooses their lifestyle so differently. And I was interested in what kinds of products would really make a dent in someone’s life in ways that were unusual, that would help them manage their life in a new way. And as a product designer, I think it’s just the natural home of a lot of design work.

Jim Freeze Yeah. I agree with that. I live in the Seaport area of Boston and the home was built about four or five years ago. And there’s tech everywhere,which leads me to wanting to understand a little better, from a historical context, the current smart home products that exist today, and how the smart home has evolved over the course of the past 10, 12 years.

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino Well, it’s interesting because in my book, I talk about the changes that the home has had over the past hundred years, because I think that there’s a correlation between how we introduced electricity into homes with how we introduced the internet and internet connected products. So I think a lot of the early days in this space, let’s call them between 2000 and 2010 were very experimental, lots of amazing products that you will have completely either forgotten about or never heard of. 

And we are now in a place where people are much more pragmatic. So you’re more likely to buy and perhaps have heard of connected thermostats and connected security cameras or connected baby monitors than you are to have heard of connected rabbits and connected mailboxes for your kids and connected toys. So the Wild West is already behind us.

Jim Freeze Yeah, it’s interesting. I framed the question in terms of the last 10 to 12 years because I think of smart home as being a relatively new concept, but you’re right. I guess it has evolved over the course of the past hundred years with the introduction of things like electricity and lighting and other technologies that I guess today we don’t even think of as technology. Could you talk a little bit about something you were involved in called the HomeSense Project and how it worked and the key learnings that came as a result of that?

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino Absolutely. I mean, this was a great internal project that I started at Tinker, which was my first business. When I moved to the UK, we used the Arduino, both, we distributed it, but we also ran workshops around it. And I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to put the Arduino in the hands of people who are not only not technically inclined, but are living completely different modes and completely different types of homes. 

So we had a series of six to seven different homes across Europe, people living with their loved ones, people living with flatmates, people living on their own. And we coupled them with a local Arduino expert and we asked them to develop their own solution to something that was a problem for them. 

And what we found out was that people had not only incredibly niche problems, but also incredibly interesting ones. So one, for example, was a couple and they live next to elderly people and they were very worried about making too much noise for them. So they built themselves a little dial that would show them when they were being too loud for their neighbors. Another one had the desire to visualize how much waste was being produced in that house. And so built himself a little face that would smile or kind of moan at you every time the lid of the garbage can would go up. So incredible product ideas that you could easily take into market, but this was an open environment to do it.

Jim Freeze Yeah, it sounds interesting. And as a matter of fact, I believe that some of the key learnings were ultimately represented in a museum of modern art exhibit called Talk to Me.

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino Yes. The kit of parts that we gave people, which was the HomeSense kit, is now part of the permanent collection at the New York Museum of Modern Art. 

Jim Freeze That’s amazing. That must be a real validation of the work behind the project.

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino It’s always great. I mean, we had two projects that were part of that exhibition in our part of the permanent collection. It’s always nice to be able to have cultural impact as well as technical one.

Jim Freeze Yeah, absolutely. So we caught on Medium that you wrote your book, Smarter Homes, for your mom to help her better understand your area of expertise, internet of things. You consulted real people too, with the HomeSense project. It seems you’re pretty passionate about translating IOT for the everyday person. How do you think we can better educate the population on what IoT is and why it’s so relevant to everybody?

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino Well, I think that we are now in a place of such great digital literacy, it’s odd that it doesn’t translate into physical products. Very rarely will someone feel comfortable opening their television to fix something or their toaster to fix something. I think we’ve created these black boxes that make it very hard for people to understand when there is surveillance or there are kind of algorithms that are hiding underneath. And I think that talking to people in plain language, in the language that they understand, requires more effort. And I think it’s always worth it because people get ideas about what they could replace a product with. They get ideas about what other product they could be buying instead. And we just empower more people to make better decisions.

Jim Freeze I couldn’t agree more. I’m going to shift gears for a second and talk a little bit about your work at the Intersection of Sustainability and Smart Homes. Where do you see the potential for IoT making a positive impact on how we live from a climate change perspective?

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino Well, I think we’re surrounding ourselves with things that are constantly drawing power. You could say that that’s not very green. But these products also know how we live and could probably also prompt us to use things in different ways, use things at different times of the day when the grid is probably greener or help us save money. And I think that we have more intelligence, but we just don’t necessarily expose the way in which national grids operate, the ways in which energy is produced locally in every country. And we don’t connect that climate change data to the products that you’ll buy at the end of the day. And I think that’s, the next 10, 20 years of work is on doing just that.

Jim Freeze Well, that actually rolls into kind of by one of my last questions for you, which is nobody really has a crystal ball, but let’s pretend you have one.

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino Dangerous. Dangerous territory.

Jim Freeze Dangerous? No, no, this will be fun. So we’d love to hear your take on what’s the smart home look like 10 to 15 years from now?

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino I think there will be a lot of things that will disappear from view. I still don’t really understand why we have broadband routers. Why are they still there? Why isn’t it in our box with the rest of our electricals? Why isn’t it something I can just kind of switch on whenever I move homes? 

So I think we’ll have a disappearance of these redundant pieces of hardware, and those pieces of hardware will start remembering things about the way in which people live in every home, anonymize that data so that they can feed me as I move into a home anonymized data about how this place works and operates. Who fixed the boiler last time? And when was the boiler last fixed? What was the average energy bill during the winter time so I can plan better? All of these things I think are hiding in different corners of the internet, on cloud services, on billing systems. And I think they’ll come together and start to become part of our home experience.

Jim Freeze Yeah. And actually, some of that consolidation of devices has already started to even now when you get your router in your home, the wifi is a part of that. I’ve got a Roku TV and it’s got wifi built in and I can just stream and I don’t need a cable box anymore. I think that notion of consolidation of lots of the clutter we have in our houses today certainly has potential very positive green impacts. 

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino Well, I think it’s the disappearance of a layer of technology that will then take for granted continuously. And I think it comes with a lot of responsibility for the companies that are making that technology disappear because they become more like utilities. And I think we’re more demanding of utilities than we are right now of many technology providers.

Jim Freeze Yeah. One last question for you. I’m curious as to do you have a perspective on how 5G is going to impact the smart home?

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino I think it’s interesting to think about what we are used to when it comes to bad latency. So we’re used to things kind of breaking down once in a while, we’re used to our connectivity being quite poor in certain areas. And I think 5G has the potential, I don’t know if it’s a realized potential, but has the potential to make that world disappear. 

But I do think that some things do need that constant connectivity and that high bandwidth connectivity. So it’ll be interesting to see whether you can, for example, start to monitor someone’s heartbeat over the internet because you have that heart monitor streaming, literally every millisecond that person’s heartbeat. So you can start doing telecare more effectively. Things like that will be interesting for our elderly population as we grow older in our homes.

Jim Freeze Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Alex, this has been fantastic. I really, really appreciate you taking the time to talk with us. It’s been a great conversation. Thank you very much.

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino Thank you.

Jim Freeze On the next episode of The ConversAItion, we’ll explore how AI is changing the way companies evaluate and hire top talent, with professor and Chief Talent Scientist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic.

This episode was produced by Interactions, a Boston-based conversational AI company. I’m Jim Freeze, signing off, we’ll see you next time on The ConversAItion


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