Software Will Eat the World and How to Fix Housing
Updated: Apr 7, 2021
The future of living is a topic that I am passionate about and first started working on 25 years ago when I had a vision about how living spaces were going to change in the 21st century. I can still remember the exact moment standing in my kitchen and staring at the counter reflecting on what I heard at work that day.
I had heard Vint Cerf, co-creator of the Internet protocol (IP) and architect of the digital age, state that someday everything would be connected to the Internet. His mantra was IP on everything. I realized right then that we were headed into a massive transformation that would change how and where we would live. The physical world would be re-imagined based on the digital revolution. This led me to meeting and working with William McDonough, architect and a leader in the sustainability movement and through that experience, I began do see that in addition to a digital transformation, we would also see a massive shift to make the built environment greener.
My vision became clearer: we were entering a period of innovation that would trigger a re-imagination of our living spaces. As a social scientist by heart, I became curious of when historically we had undergone similar periods of change in the built environment driven by innovation and I discovered that for the past few centuries we see change about once every 100 years.
Not long after I read this quote from Carl Sagan – “You have to know the past to understand the present” and it sent me on a journey to understand what happened in the 1920’s.
A great case study of that time period is the Chicago Bungalow. This is one of the first home designs to fully integrate the innovations of the day – appliances, the automobile and broadcast media all enabled by inexpensive, abundant electricity. My big discovery was that there was a 20 to 30 year-lag in the diffusion of electricity into the mainstream built environment because it was initially integrated into homes designed for a previous era. It all changed when our homes were re-imagined based on the availability of electricity. This established a new pattern that lasted for decades and ultimately led to sprawl and often poorly built, large inefficient homes in the suburbs.
As we look to the 2020’s I believe that we in the middle of another wave of innovation adoption that just as before, will challenge many of the assumptions that have shaped the built environment in recent decades. All fueled by the digitization of our lives. As in the past, innovation is not always evenly adopted, and my thesis is that this a major driver behind the massive housing crisis we are currently facing. Across the country there is a shortage of housing units and in addition, many people are burdened by paying more than their income supports. I believe we are stuck in the middle of the transition to the next phase of innovation and need to re-imagine our living spaces for the 21st century.
So how do we do this? I believe that the future of living will include the integration of 4 key features: compact design, configurability, connectedness and community.
Housing sizes continue to decline in the US based on a several key factors: urbanization, demographics, technology and economics.
Market research data shows that this trend will continue, and it is not a fad. Higher density is a key tool in creating more housing options however it requires configurability.
Our own home as served as a living lab for my company URBANEER and we have created a room on demand solution based on a movable wall, wall table and wall bed that transforms the space for multiple purposes. This allows 500 square feet to live like 700 square feet. Reconfigurability of space is a key feature in creating higher density with dignity.
As our living spaces get smarter, we will start to see the home reimagined as an interface to a range of commerce-enable services like food, wellness and mobility. As Vint Cerf enlightened me in the mid-90’s, the home after several decades is becoming a node on the Internet and I believe that software will be the single biggest enabler of the next wave of housing innovation. As Marc Andreessen stated in 2011: “software will eat the world”. The challenge however is how to design for the abundance of data that will be generated by the massive wave of embedded intelligence.
I also believe the digitization of our lives is triggering a resurgence in the search for community and that it will increasingly be a core element of a range of housing types across the demographic spectrum. Today we are beginning to see that in co-living spaces and beyond.
As history has taught us, to achieve wide-spread adoption of the features I just mentioned, we can’t simply overlay innovation onto a broken model. I believe we need a new paradigm which I call Life Per Square Foot. It includes a more comprehensive approach to housing design, construction and use. The future of living I believe will be more of a lifestyle subscription-based model than a single transaction. Access to key items like mobility, food, and wellness will be provided as part of our housing solutions. To achieve this however we need to begin with the human-experience and design from the inside out based on individual needs.
A good case study of this type of model is the next generation of senior living. A new development in France has been specifically designed for an Alzheimer’s community that is designed from the inside out to be a safe environment that is purpose-built for the needs of the community.
Another great example that I personally visited in Arizona that is referred to as an agri-hood. A former family farm has been transformed into a community of compact homes, an elementary school and senior living integrated into a family farm complete with co-working and restaurants. As you walk through the community you see children working along seniors in the community garden.
There is also a need for an integrated supply-chain integration to deliver the next-generation of living spaces. The last case study I will share is a recent collaboration of URBANEER with a leading modular manufacturer. We are designing the home from the inside out to incorporate the features I referenced and also wireless power for additional flexibility. These homes will be produced offsite and delivered to the job site as an integrated solution across the country. They will live 45% larger than a conventional home due to space optimization features and good design. My hope is that it will ultimately become the first digitally native home for the 21st century.
I believe that everyone involved in the housing industry needs to work harder to create a wider range of housing options. It is up to all of us to help remove regulatory barriers and drive innovation. We need to re-imagine housing for the 21st century and lead by example. We need to be the ones to innovate and say: Yes, in my backyard.