Written evidence submitted by University of Exeter, Coastline Housing
Connected tech: smart or sinister?
A Smartline response to the DCMS Select Committee call for evidence.
Associate Professor Emma Bland, Dr Tim Taylor, Dr Tim Walker and Ruth Gripper
Smartline is a research project led by a multi-disciplinary team at the European Centre for the Environment and Human Health within the University of Exeter. The project is a collaboration between the University of Exeter, Cornwall Council, Coastline Housing, Volunteer Cornwall and the South West Academic Health Science Network. It is part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund and Cornwall Council.
Since 2017 Smartline has been exploring the potential of digital technology to support healthy homes and connected communities. By placing environmental sensors in social housing, and working directly with Coastline customers, we have been researching people’s attitudes to technology in the home and working to understand the connections between the home environment and people’s health and wellbeing.
In this submission we focus on the potential impacts of smart technology in the home and how these may affect different groups of people (questions 1 and 2 of the call for evidence). The submission is based on our academic research and informed by the practical experience of working alongside Coastline Housing (a housing association managing 6000 homes across Cornwall) and the 300 Coastline Housing customers who have participated in the project.
Context: why housing matters
Housing is a significant contributor to climate emissions – energy and electricity use in homes accounts for about 20% of UK greenhouse gas emissions. Housing also affects our wellbeing - issues such as damp and cold have a significant impact on our physical and mental health. Making homes more energy efficient and improving conditions inside the home will benefit individuals and society by reducing energy bills, improving health and wellbeing, and helping achieve our climate targets.
Smart technology could help us do that and the potential future role of the Internet of Things (IoT) within the housing sector – where this technology could be deployed at scale - is the topic of ongoing debate.
For the past five years, the Smartline project has been exploring the potential of digital technology to support health and wellbeing in the home and in the community. At the outset of the project we conducted a national survey to explore attitudes to technology, housing, health and wellbeing. Locally, we installed environmental sensors in 300 Coastline homes to collect data on temperature, humidity, air quality, utilities usage and radon. This dataset is a fantastic research resource which can further our understanding of the home environment and how householders interact with it.
An online dashboard presents the data to customers in a user-friendly way, giving information and advice about how to improve the environment if it falls outside recommended levels. A separate dashboard used by the team at Coastline Housing provides a birds-eye view of conditions across the homes where sensors are installed, allowing them to spot issues or changes within the home.
The benefits of connected tech in the home
Connected homes can benefit residents and intermediaries such as social landlords or other service providers.
For residents, the sensor data provides insight into the home environment which could allow people to take action to improve the condition of their home. To date we have seen little evidence of ongoing user interaction with data from the sensors and almost no evidence of changes in the home environment as a result of technology use. It is however a reminder that information alone may not be enough to prompt action – and people's circumstances may limit the action they can take. Action may not always be possible and care needs to be taken in recommending action that householders are unable to respond to – for example being advised the home is cold, when the household is in fuel poverty.
Our experience through Smartline is that the sensor data is particularly useful for Coastline housing association. It helps them to:
Identify vulnerable customers
Identify poor living conditions, such as high humidity, damp, or air quality;
Identify households experiencing difficulties and intervene before a problem becomes a crisis;
Identify over occupancy or non-occupancy;
Target proactive repairs preventing damage with the aim of extending the life of elements such as kitchens, bathrooms, boilers etc.
Although not areas Smartline has covered, our engagement in debate among the housing sector has highlighted other potential uses of this technology:
Smart homes cannot replace human support
While smart homes offer us the potential to better manage the home environment, they do not replace in-person support. The dashboard allows Coastline to spot issues – it does not resolve them. Where the dashboard flags an issue, the team follow up with tailored customer support. The technology allows these services to be targeted to those (often complex) households, rather than replacing human intervention. The sensor system is useful for identifying risk and helps Coastline to make more efficient use of their team, but ultimately to effect change, it relies on organisational capacity to intervene and provide advice and support for customers, and to be effective we would suggest this needs to be personal, from a ‘trusted’ source.
Customer attitudes to smart technology in the home
Early in the project we conducted a national survey to explore people’s preferences for smart technology and factors affecting these. We used smart dehumidifiers as an example of a smart tech solution to indoor air quality issues and used choice experiments to identify what attributes people felt were important to them.
We also conducted a qualitative scoping study with Smartline participants to explore the feasibility and acceptability of digital technology for improving health and wellbeing. Overall, we found that people had positive perceptions and shared a willingness to try new technology. Participants preferred technologies which promoted a healthy lifestyle, helped them to access health information, and increased social connections, like wearable activity monitors (e.g. Fitbit), virtual assistants (e.g. Alexa), and social messaging apps (e.g. WhatsApp). The group shared a strong consensus that technology should be easy to use and should have a clear purpose.
Although views of technology were generally positive, there were a number of barriers that participants reported that prevented or discouraged them from using technology. These were:
Functional barriers (e.g. internet connection and affordability)
Physical and mental health (e.g. fitness, mobility, memory and sensory impairments)
Psychological barriers (e.g. low confidence, motivation and previous bad experiences)
Technology-associated barriers (e.g. how user-friendly and accessible the technology is)
Privacy, safety and security (e.g. concerns about fraud, scams and internet mistrust)
Transparency is vital
Trust around data usage and privacy is a particularly important factor for technology adoption, and there are understandable concerns about the potential use of this data. Smartline benefited from the existing trusting relationship between Coastline and its customers. Participation in the project was voluntary and customers could withdraw at any time. The data was aimed at “looking after you, not looking at you.”
In our view, transparency is essential. In the Smartline study, householders have access to the same data as Coastline about their home, and a user dashboard is available to help them interpret the data and make sense of it. The sensors provide a single, shared evidence base about what is going on inside the home.
As this technology becomes more prevalent there may be tensions between housing providers’ interests in a well-maintained home, and individual preferences and circumstances. There is a risk landlords could use the data against their customers – threatening eviction if the home is too cold for example. Safeguards should be put in place (as exist for social housing tenants) to prevent this.
We also recommend that customers should maintain ownership of the data and control over who is able to access and use it, and for what purpose. It is important that housing staff are engaged within projects to ensure that there is clear understanding across the company in terms of poorer living environments, potential remedies and the support that customers will need.
Smart technology risks compounding existing inequalities
Preferences for smart tech are affected by low digital literacy and poor mental health – with the likelihood of adoption of smart tech being lower in groups with these attributes. Poorer and older people are also less likely to adopt smart technology solutions. There is therefore a risk that increasing use of smart technology could exacerbate existing inequalities. Cost is also known to be a barrier to adoption of smart technology. Smartline covered the cost of this technology, and this was an important facilitating condition for participants.
Conclusion: connected tech is not a panacea
Given the demographic and socioeconomic circumstances of many social housing residents, the integration of smart technology in social housing stock offers the potential to offer more holistic wellbeing support to tenants. However, it is also clear from our research that smart technology is not a panacea for social landlords or indeed other service providers.
To improve the home environment, smart technology capacity must be matched to human capacity for intervention. Smart technology is not a quick fix, but rather an enabler that can help us tackle the home health and climate challenge.
Buckingham SA, Walker T, Morrissey K (2022). The feasibility and acceptability of digital technology for health and wellbeing in social housing residents in Cornwall: a qualitative scoping study. DIGITAL HEALTH, 8, 1-12. DOI: 10.1177/20552076221074124.
Williams AJ, Menneer T, Sidana M, Walker T, Maguire K, Mueller M, Paterson C, Leyshon M, Leyshon C, Seymour E, et al (2021). Fostering Engagement with Health and Housing Innovation: Development of Participant Personas in a Social Housing Cohort. JMIR Public Health and Surveillance, 7(2). DOI: 10.2196/25037
Walker T, Menner T, Tu G, Mueller M, Leyshon C, Leyshon M, Bland E, Morrissey K (2022). Smarter social housing: user perspectives on technology adoption for healthy homes. Forthcoming.
Tu G, Morrissey, K, Taylor T (2022). Smart tech for healthier homes? Household preferences for smart home appliances. Forthcoming.
 Gemma Holmes, Rachel Hay, Ellie Davies, Jenny Hill, Jo Barrett, David Style, Emma Vause, Kathryn Brown, Adrian Gault and Chris Stark UK Housing: Fit for the Future? Committee on Climate Change, 2019
 Michael Marmot, Jessica Allen, Tammy Boyce, Peter Goldblatt, Joana Morrison (2020) Health Equity in England: The Marmot Review 10 Years On. London: Institute of Health Equity
 See, for example, The Internet of Things in Housing: Market Intelligence 2017/18 by Housing Technology
 Note this research was conducted before recent increases in the cost of living and so customer choices may have changed.
 Winchester, Nik (2009). Social housing and digital exclusion. National Housing Federation.