The technology sector doesn't necessarily have the best track record when it comes to communicating its ideas and innovations. Opaque terms are often coined to describe the latest breakthrough, with little explanation of what it actually means. Terms like the World Wide Web, AI and the Internet of Things (IoT) are dreamed up quickly - but it can take years before understanding filters through to the wider public.
I'm often surprised by how far back some tech terms go. Take the Internet of Things. Surprisingly, this term was coined 20 years ago by tech entrepreneur Kevin Ashton. But how many of us who hear the term fully understand it? And how many of us are using it without even realising it? Crucially, even if you don't quite understand the concept, how might it benefit individuals, businesses and society?
In a classic piece off foresight, Ashton imagined a world where devices and appliances were linked together and connected to the web via a vast network of sensors. This had the potential to make 'things' smarter, more efficient and more effective.
Fast forward 20 years and his vision is now a reality - albeit something most of us have only a passing awareness of. By next year there are forecast to be more than 200 billion 'things' in the world which have such internet enabled sensors, everything from washing machines and fridges to bins and parking bays.
Our homes are on the frontline of the Internet of Things, and the potential for providers of social housing to reap the benefits are huge.
So where is it already being applied? And what could it mean for providers' bottom line and operational performance?
Here's just a few examples of the IoT's transformational potential for the social housing sector…
Emergency lighting: A critical safety feature in communal areas, it's essential that housing providers know if this is working or not. In an emergency, such as a fire, this lighting could mean the difference between safely making it out of the building, or not. In the past, problems would only be picked up if either a resident or staff member reported it. Now thanks to the IoT, a sensor can alert the landlord to tell them immediately if there is a fault - and it can even automatically generate a repair visit.
Smoke detectors: Again, this is another element of facilities management with potentially life or death consequences. As with emergency lighting, IoT sensors can inform landlords immediately when a device fails or if a battery goes flat. That means its repair will be carried out straight away as soon as the fault arises.
Occupancy detectors: It's critical social housing providers have data on how many people are living in each of their properties. IoT sensors can now be fitted to a device such as a smoke detector to provide reliable information on the occupancy rates of a property. Again, this accurate data can be seamlessly relayed back to the provider with no need for anyone to visit the property and check.
Safe and sound: IoT sensors can be linked to items such as a kettle to help keep tabs on elderly or other vulnerable customers. For example, if a resident generally gets up at a similar time of day and makes a cup of tea, a sensor can send an automatic alert when that happens - or more importantly when it doesn't happen. If the sensor has picked up cause for concern a task can automatically be generated for a support worker to pop round and check on the customer. This application is not just useful from a safety point of view but also in terms of promoting independence and reducing loneliness among such client groups. IoT sensors can also be used to send alerts if a door or window is left open, or if a resident with dementia wanders beyond a designated area.
Damp proof: Extractor fans in bathrooms which are triggered when a light is switched on are critical to reducing condensation and ultimately damp in a property. IoT technology now means it is no longer necessary to wait for the tenant to inform you when it breaks. Instead, the whole process is automated from failure alert to repair booking.
At present use of IoT among social housing providers remains low. In its 2017/18 market intelligence report, Housing Technology Magazine found 46 per cent of RPs said the IoT was important to their overall strategies. However, only 6 per cent actually had a strategy in place to take the technology forward. I anticipate that will improve in the next few years.
Ultimately, this matters because the IoT can help providers to reduce their operational costs, deliver an improved service to customers and improve their control of the built environment and assets they manage. Providers can gain greater insight into the performance and reliability of those assets, deliver a more proactive repairs service and take more informed future investment decisions.
However, barriers do still exist to wider uptake. What's been missing to date are enterprise-wide solutions, with IoT applications often developed to solve specific issues and to work with individual devices. That's changing, and there's a real prospect now of having IoT systems which don't rely on multiple manufacturers and suppliers. This should reduce the overheads and increase uptake in my view.
Just as VHS and Betamax once tussled it out for prominence in the home video market in the 1980s, with VHS eventually emerging victorious, so we are now seeing a maturing of IoT technology. Providers are developing a range of sensors and hubs, at lower cost and with wider ranging connectivity solutions and enterprise platforms. These are efficiently able to receive, consume and act on the data supplied by IoT sensors. And they can do so in a connected and seamless way.
That will mean IoT initiatives which are truly delivered at the enterprise level - rather than focused on an individual business silo. Hopefully that's a tech breakthrough we can all understand.