As consumers of technology, we tend to assign a defining moment to social and cultural changes, which, in post-event assessment, actually happened over the course of a long period of time. There always seems to be the “big bang” of disruption. It felt like Uber suddenly displaced taxis, mainframes became computers,or traditional phones became mobile and smart. We now talk about how the iPhone changed ‘everything’ when the truth is that the Palm Pilot and the Blackberry were around a good 10 years before the iPhone came onto the scene. Experts in the telephone industry were not worried because ‘those computer guys cannot build phones.’ Customer expectations slowly shifted as technology improved; first to the point of allowing customers to abandon computers for mobile devices, and now to where nearly everyone has a computer in their pocket, and only corporations buy desktops. It wasn’t a revolution. It was evolution. But a disastrous evolution for companies like Compaq.
The ecology of technology
Neil Postman, the author of Technopoly, suggests we wrongly believe that all technology is additive (cumulative, linear), but we miss that technological change is ecological (complex, systemic, organic). As an example, he points out that if we drop some red dye into a glass of water, each molecule of water takes on a hint of red. We didn’t just add a drop of red dye; we changed the color of the water. The same goes for new technology, even if the change is not evident at the moment the new technology enters the system. Now, imagine how much ecological, but un-noticeable, change is going on right now as we insert numerous technologies into our lives and the lives of customers? How much change should we expect? What will be the consequent adaptive response, most likely unnoticed, and what will be the emergent behavior as a result of these changes?
In a recent survey of 1500 consumers conducted by Zpryme/Asha Labs, 34.4% of respondents confirmed that they own a smart device in their homes, and 21% of those respondents owned between 2–5 smart home devices. In analyzing this data, we see that adoption is at an even higher rate than most utilities realize. (Sidenote: only 2.7% of the 34.4%, 0.09% of total respondents, bought their device from their local utility). Deeper dives into the data shows some interesting patterns across regions of the country, taste profiles/demographics etc.
It may seem like these connected home devices, especially voice activated devices that make up the highest percentage of purchases, have been with us for a while. The Nest Thermostat was released in 2011. However, Amazon’s Echo, the breakout voice activated product, was only launched to beta customers just before Thanksgiving of 2014. So an adoption rate of 34.4% is quite high. Most estimates suggest that there will be 55M units of smart home devices, mainly smart speakers, sold in 2018. We went from zero to 55M in 4 years. But the adoption rate is not the only story here.
As mentioned above, most technological change is ecological even if we mistake it as additive. Even as we see hundreds of companies peddle connected products to customers — Shell, Tesla, Nest, Latch, Ring, Apple, Amazon, Sidewalk Labs, Google, Belkin, August, Honeywell, Current, Schlage, Funlux, Arlo, Piper, Blink, Phillips, Casa, Vinta, Matone, Nebia, etc — what we miss is the consequential emergent behavior in the things customers will desire as a result of adopting 2–20 of these products. An obvious and easily monetizable emergent behavior is the need for a curator of these products. Customers will want an entity to guide them through the confusion of many devices that don’t speak the same operating system language. A non-obvious emergent behavior could be the desire for devices that are self-powered through, for example, piezo-electric sensors/batteries, essentially free electricity on the device edge! What is our business model in such a possible future? A future that isn’t so far away, and can already be seen in the self-powered Patch products in the image below.
Even as the utility industry looks at the three most common use cases for IoT products (comfort, convenience, and security), which are considered suboptimal for our Cost of Service business model, we fail to recognize the ecological and emergent behaviors that will touch on our industry as a result of these products. The utility industry lost the smart home battle to tech companies by failing to show strategic leadership in the space between judging too soon and deciding on a course of action too late. But the industry has the opportunity to get in front of the ecological and emergent outcomes as customers make their decisions about what products to let into their homes and what signals they get from their cities. These changes will revolutionary in our industry. Instead it will be an evolutionary decline that we notice, even as we underestimate the detrimental impact. Paraphrasing Ernest Hemingway in ‘The Sun Also Rises,’ “How does a man go broke? Slowly and then suddenly.”