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By Anne-Frances Hutchinson

Our living environments have long been shaped in response to the aftermath of disease. From the bubonic plague, cholera, tuberculosis and influenza to Ebola, MERS, and H1N1, we have continually reimagined the built environment and made changes to keep us safer, healthier, and better prepared to survive whatever inevitable shockwave will come next. COVID-19 is the world’s latest design accelerator, pushing our relationship with technology into new realms.

We are already seeing shifts in the U.S. real estate market. The demand for the open concept home is on the wane, in favor of houses that can be partitioned for different needs: a pantry becomes an office; the sofa is for networking, team building, and naps; and the open concept congregate style that has dominated new home designs in recent years is declining in popularity as buyers look for more traditional layouts that encourage separation.

As we stay in our living spaces, navigating a precarious landscape of economic and social uncertainty, we are looking for ways to enhance our quality of life through technology. Learning to interact as a society “together while apart,” working remotely, homeschooling, and keeping our physical distance is already reshaping home design.

Smart home technology will be driven into the post-pandemic American lifestyle at speeds only the boldest adopter could have seen coming this time last year. The number of IoT connected devices in use around the world is expected to reach 43 billion in 2023, nearly tripling 2018 levels.

COVID is impacting current spends, with smart home tech purchases sliding from $52 billion in 2019 to $44 billion by year’s end, but as more consumers look for smart home solutions to enhance health and wellness the market will rebound handsomely. Strategy Analytics forecasts that consumer spending in the sector will leap back up to $62 billion in 2021 and continue to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 15%,reaching $88 billion in 2025.

According to Jack Narcotta, Senior Industry Analyst for Strategy Analytics’ Smart Home Strategies, “Even with the onset of the pandemic the global smart home device market is very active. Since late 2019, every smart home device category has seen new entrants, and established brands are refreshing their portfolios on a regular basis. Globally, nearly 250 million households already have at least one smart home device, and as average selling prices for most devices decline, many of those are highly likely to buy additional devices. Online shopping will keep device purchases flowing in spite of any restrictions placed on brick-and-mortar retail stores.”

That said, the global market for single-family smart homes will be hit significantly by the outbreak, dropping from $63.4 billion in 2019 to $60.8 billion in 2020 at a CAGR of -4.24%. The pain point? The high cost of installation. The average cost to install a complete home automation system that includes smart appliances, lighting, security, and entertainment can add upwards of  $1,000 to $3,500 in overall costs compared to conventional devices. Recovery will be on the horizon, with the market expected to rebound to $104.20 billion in 2023 at a CAGR of 19.7%.

Using our inside voices

The popularity of voice activated assistants and home system tools such as Amazon Echo, Google Home and Nest has arrived right on time, as concerns about disease transmission are causing consumers to rethink how we interact with the surfaces in our environments.

“Voice has already made significant inroads into the smart home space, and voice control can mean avoiding commonly touched surfaces around the home from smartphones, to TV remotes, light switches, thermostats, door handles and more. Voice can also be leveraged for online shopping and information gathering,” Jonathan Collins, research director at market intelligence provider ABI reported.

“There is a role for integrating smart home monitoring and remote health monitoring with a range of features, such as collecting personal health data points (temperature, activity, heart rate) alongside environmental data (air quality or occupancy) to help in the wider response and engagement for smart city health management.”

As we struggle to redefine our lives in the context of a disease spread by droplets when we speak, cough, or sneeze, one smart home development stands out. It’s far less glamorous than talking refrigerators and voice activated vacuuming systems: smart air distribution and HVAC.

Iranian technology developer AleaLabs launched its first product in 2018, a cloud-based ventilation system designed to control temperature and airflow in individual rooms as well as monitoring changes in air quality. Typical thermostats keep temperature constant throughout the home, but don’t allow for individual preferences.

The system uses a network of sensors and machine learning algorithms to “understand the thermal characteristics of each room in your home, then it optimizes to your preferences taking into account everything that affects the air in the room,” according to the firm. It’s compatible with popular smart thermostats including Honeywell (Resideo), Ecobee, and Nest, and integrates with Alexa and Google Assistant. While there is no firm consensus on the link between air quality, circulation and COVID-19 spread, systems like the AleaLabs innovation can go a long way to increase comfort and save money, two pressing concerns that will outlast the pandemic’s effects.

The shift into greater smart home tech adoption will be far from frictionless. Technology acceleration requires extremely fast bandwidth— faster than 5G—and military grade cybersecurity.  According to CNBC, “The jury is still out on whether home broadband, which tends to have lower capacity than more robust business networks, will be able to handle the traffic as whole neighborhoods become Wi-Fi hotbeds as adults video conference with their co-workers and their teens stream videos in between checking Blackboards for assignments. Providers, including AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast, are facing a test of whether they’ll be able to handle the increased demand.”

As we reconnect and adapt the way we live, work, play, and build community, one thing is certain: the future of smart home technology is now.