Network-based business models are bringing organizations closer to their customers. This helps firms leverage their ecosystem partnerships to deliver entirely new and innovative services. We call this Business 4.0TM, and it is driven by machine-first business models. Utility businesses aren’t immune to this change, and many firms have created solutions addressing issues, including climate change. For instance, they have developed renewable technologies that contribute more than fossil fuels in the whole of the UK, converting consumers into prosumers by using solar panels that put energy back into the grid, and installing smart thermostats to control electricity and water meter consumption.
Utilities firms are also exploring eldercare through the use of home automation or ‘connected home’ technologies.
Solving real-world problems with smart homes
As customers continue to look for the cheapest provider, energy is still seen as an undifferentiated and commoditized service. Is there a solution, and that too, a smart one? Home automation may be the answer, as many utility retailers have extended their services beyond smart meters to smart thermostats, doorbells, and cameras, as well as home security services. The history of connected homes dates back to the 1960s. Over the years, the focus has shifted from local technology inside the home to connected technologies and intelligent services, thanks to widespread internet access and improved Wi-Fi. Amazon and Google are competing with energy utility providers and telecoms for the prize of the connected home. Despite the mushrooming of products such as home cameras, connected locks, internet-connected doorbells, smart heaters, and toothbrushes, it’s uncertain how many people actually use them. There’s an unavoidable notion that the connected home is a ‘solution in search of a problem’. At this point, perhaps, the connected home is low on purposefulness.
Let’s put connected homes in context, though. Sonya, a nonagenarian and Londoner for 60 years, is financially independent, but suffers from weak eyesight and lapses of memory. She struggles to read her own correspondence and forgets her appointments, including her doctor or her carer, David, as well as the phone numbers of her family. Her family is dispersed and is unable to visit her daily. Despite occasional aid from David, Sonya is alone 70% of the time. Being on her own makes her vulnerable and unsure.
Sonya is not alone. About 10 million people in the UK above 65 years of age – these numbers will rise significantly – have had experiences similar to Sonya’s. For them, personalized care and care-homes are exorbitant. For example, delaying the move to a care home for one person for one month saves the UK taxpayer between £2,500 and £3,500. The UK government, thus, has set up a £300-million fund to combat the funding shortfall, and it will invest in technologies that support eldercare.
Such technologies are already rolling out from research labs into the lives and homes of end users.
In one pilot project, internet of things sensors were deployed to track aspects of an elderly person such as a lack of movement, gait, and more. This data was then sent to carers via alerts and dashboards. Separately, a design research project with elderly volunteers in London showed that distinct sub groups exist within the broader age range. The volunteers were assessed based on their levels of independence, confidence, quality of life, and their response to technology solutions.
Bringing the connected home to the elderly
So, how can we bridge the gap between smart home technology and eldercare? This uncharted territory offers ‘white space’ opportunities to multiple industries, and utilities is one of them. A fundamental idea in this area is to create information triggers and alerts which can attract the attention of a medical team or a care provider. Over time, this data can help manage conditions such as dementia as well as track the inflexion points of other conditions.
To illustrate this, let’s go back to Sonya. In a world of abundant sensors, where data is analyzed securely and privately, Sonya’s life could be very different. When her carers and volunteers visit, they can see how much she has moved in the house and whether she is sleeping enough. In fact, getting this and other basic information straight off the system means that carers can focus on Sonya and not on paperwork and reporting. This information can also be shared with Sonya’s doctor, the healthcare system, and her family.
At this juncture, businesses should focus on gaining first-mover advantage with strong R&D at their core. Subscription-based, care-as-a-service models will provide a level-playing field for the elderly and take the pain out of technology choices and complex buying processes. Underpinned by Business 4.0 principles, such connected technologies and the need to innovate on them will drive organizations, including those in utilities, to embrace risk, and thus create value for their customers.