Telecare Soapbox: Telecare ‘Smart Homes’ Nowhere Near Smart Enough

The Smart House movement pre-dates the introduction of telecare. Guy Dewsbury challenges the current trend of branding telecare-enabled accommodation as ‘smart’. Read his Telecare Soapbox item: and here is a links to a press release that exemplifies what he is objecting to. ‘Smart House’ uses new technology to promote independent living

Guy is Telecare Coordinator for the London Borough of Barnet. The following is personal opinion and is not to be taken as representing the position of his employer. He also runs a website misnamed [he says] ‘Smart Thinking’

Is telecare smart?

Telecare starts with devices that detect or sense what they are programmed to detect or sense. Flood detectors, for example, ‘sense’ water when two contacts are joined by water. On sensing what they are required to sense, they send a signal to the dispersed alarm unit which forwards it to the call centre. This process produces a ‘wow’ reaction when you demonstrate the technology so is ‘smart’ in the sense of being ‘cool’. But it is nothing more than a simple switch. If we look at most of the technology deployed in telecare today if fits the criteria of a single device producing a single response to a specified stimulus. Apart from being smaller, they are no different from automated switches that have been around since the 1930s when the first automatic car doors were produced.

What is a ‘smart home’?

In 1999 David Gann wrote about digital futures and defined a smart home as using ‘the latest information and communication technology to link all the mechanical and digital devices available today – and so create a truly interactive house’. Telecare does not make the devices in the home interactive and it does not use the latest information and communication technology so, in this sense, cannot be described as smart.

In 1999, there was no telecare and not a lot of choice in smart home design. The main decision was about what form of technology to use. In the USA there was X10, a smart system that communicates via the electrical mains wiring. To a limited extent it could automate anything electrical. Smarter alternatives were Cedia, Hai, Cebus, Echelon and EIB. However they all needed dedicated cabling. In a project I was involved with at that time we plumped for EIB (European Installation Bus) and built a home for someone who had suffered a brain infection leaving her unable to communicate effectively, paralysed from the waist down and extremely ataxic. (More about this installation on: The technology we used was not totally smart but was, I argue, considerably smarter than that being used today.

Each device was programmed to know what it was, what its role in the system was, and could talk to all the other devices on the system. This two way handshake enabled a level of dependability to the design. If part of the system failed it could switch to an alternative pattern of activity as well as notifying people of the problem it had diagnosed.

Smart homes in the last century

The systems I worked on almost ten years ago were smarter than the ones I deploy today. Even the homes I co-designed in Scotland (2000-2004) had better and more interactive technology than the telecare we are giving people today. Moreover, telecare is often something that does not reach the standards of ten years ago. Take, for example, the flood detector, it senses a flood and calls the call centre. Clearly this is beneficial but it fails to do the most important thing, which is to turn off the taps. The last-century smart homes I worked on did that, as well as providing water that would not scold.

If a telecare device fails, how can anyone know? The device does not know itself. There are low battery warnings on some devices but if a device malfunctions how can this be identified? If a telecare smoke detector fails to go off one would only tell if the call centre has not received an alert. In a smart home the smoke detector would tell the rest of the system that it was not operating effectively and notify someone to come and check it out.

I am not saying that we have stepped back in technology: clearly we have not. However, all one needs to do is consider the rise in interactive ‘ubiquitous computing’ and ambient technologies that are now being developed and deployed to realise that there are some truly amazing technological developments that we will be using in the future. Instead, I am suggesting that we have, to some extent, made a misdirected leap. Instead of going the European route in which most homes are built embracing some form of smart technology for environmental reasons, the UK continues to build homes that are unintelligent. All we can do, therefore, is add more unintelligence unless we start ripping up floors and demolishing walls.

No more Smart Homes/Houses/Flats/Apartments

I am not saying that telecare systems are bad; far from it. If used appropriately, telecare can make significant differences to older and disabled people and enhance the quality of life. This is a plea to get the terminology right. We just need to stop talking about telecare as ‘smart’. Every day I read about another locality that has built a ‘smart home’ which is in fact a ‘telecare enabled home’. If it were smart then it should be able to demonstrate the qualities of smartness. A smart home is only as smart as the person who programmed it—and how much programming goes into a telecare ‘smart home’?

Categories: Soapbox.