Smart Homes: who said life was easy?

“The car has left the highway. We are close to our house. Using our mobile phone, we send a message; the porch and entrance lights come on and the heating starts up so that when we arrive the temperature is adequate, which the device itself has learned is the one we prefer. The house is filled with soft music – we are coming to our smart home.”

Thus begins the latest book that Home Renaissance Foundation has published on Home in the Digital Age with the prestigious publisher Routledge. And the truth is that it arouses opposite feelings in me. On the one hand, obviously, I find it fantastic. New technologies enable us, using a smartphone and with a simple click, to control the lights in our house, the energy we consume, even lower the blinds and turn on the oven so that we only have to put the puff pastry into heat.

But this image, which for me is truly luxurious and somewhat futuristic, already exists. There are people who can afford this technology and gain control of their homes. And I wonder, when will everyone come to enjoy these novelties?

It happened with the arrival of the television, my mother tells me, when in the 70s only handful had a tv and the rest of the neighborhood went to see it as if it were a museum piece. It then became an easily accessible appliance, which still has its proponents and detractors. If you have ever travelled to underdeveloped parts of the world where their way of life has not evolved (the indigenous Panamanian tribe of the Guna Yala in San Blas or the Berber peoples of Tunisia come to mind) where resources are scarce, it is curious that to have a new generation television for them means to be connected to the world, to stay informed of what is happening globally.

And I keep asking myself questions: do the new technologies open an even greater inequality gap between the two worlds, the developed and the underdeveloped? Are new technologies being developed at the expense and exploitation of peoples without decision-making capacity? What does this meteoric advance mean in the most advanced societies for areas that still do not have accessible drinking water?

If we focus on the central pillar of all this, the home, how much of all that technology is necessary for the person to grow and develop in a warm and respectful environment? What do we want a digital family home to mean? Do we want to benefit from Artificial Intelligence? Do we know its risks? Because at HRF it is not that we are against progress, far from it, but we do care about the person and the homes and we do not know to what extent technology is displacing the person. On this, you will find a hierarchy of homes in chapter 4, according to the nature and presence of home automation.

With this book, we have tried to draw the attention of the reader, so that we do not forget, among other things, the ethical dimension of the digital age nor the challenges we face when, without thinking, we give permission to let all these gadgets in, whose letter of introduction is to make our lives easier. But who said life was easy?

Home Hub

This week saw the publication of Home Renaissance Foundation’s pioneering book on the home and the challenges and opportunities of new technologies.

The Home in the Digital Age seeks to place the home at the heart – or as the hub – of the ethical, social and economic considerations generated by the AI revolution.

When this material was being prepared in 2019 there was no glimpse of what 2020 /21 had in store. The Covid-19 pandemic has made the arguments in this book more urgent and prescient than anyone could have imagined. For the majority of people across the world the home did indeed become the hub last year– the place where domestic and professional life had to rub shoulders and sometimes tripped each other up.

Historian Stephen Davies, in his chapter with economist Maria Sophia Aguirre, addresses “Automation, the Home and Work” and sheds revealing light both on how we find ourselves where we are now, and the best way forward. Dr. Davies reminds us that the removal of home from the centre of the understanding of work is a recent phenomenon. Until the mid 20th century we did not think in terms of people as individual economic units, but instead saw the household as the foundational unit “physically embodied in the home, which was not simply an address or residence but rather a social unit with a set of social connections as well as a physical location.”

Further back in time, whole households were engaged in producing goods and services within the home as well as maintaining the domestic structure and nurture of the home. Mechanization – early automation – took such “cottage” industry as spinning and weaving into factories and out of the home sphere. The regulation and labour safeguards of this new working world trailed far behind its widespread introduction.

The current new age of automation, all that is meant and predicted as Artificial Intelligence, comes at a time when the older understanding of integrated, mutually dependent household or family units has been replaced by the individual focus. What are the implications for the redistribution of work from such individuals to non-human producers/processors? How is human work per se to be valued? How is the individual supported in the new work world?

The answers are within the home. Within the work of the home there is scope for increased automation and SMART technologies. In WFH (Working From Home) we see signs of the factory returning to the cottage. What has not returned is the understanding of that work as a shared function of the household. Being cooperative with and responsive to the contributions and needs of all in this wider foundational unit should be seen as key, in human and economic terms, to the integration of the new machines.

As Dr Davies concludes, we should “bring the home back into our field of vision when we consider the impact of automation.”

At HRF we understand that the home is at the cutting edge not just of the “digital age” but every age. Looking after it and recognizing its value is more vital than ever.

Thankfully, we are not robots!

We know ourselves to be social beings who need one another and are reminded of it each day in various little ways. The lockdowns during the pandemic made that fact abundantly clear to us and the whole of society. Our vulnerability and need to be cared for is addressed in an article by Professor Argandoña published recently in the Spanish weekly Alfa y Omega, following the launch of our latest Communication Project.

But in addition to needing each other, we each play a part in various spheres of our lives. But unlike robots, we do not have the capacity to separate some aspects from others but can juggle those differing roles with ease and naturalness. We don’t arrive home placing our professional avatar in airplane mode, or work in the office with our personal antenna switched off. Fortunately, although it may seem like a nuisance at times, our lives develop and overlap on personal, family, professional and social levels. We are the fruit of the combination of all of them.

There are stages in life when some gain more weight than others, but very rarely are there times when one aspect of our life is blocked out altogether. We are born into a family, we interact with our friends at school, we are part of a sports or social group and we work to earn a living.

Our well-being and our balanced lives, both personal and mental, depend on stability and harmony in all these areas. And since this balance is recognised as being so crucial to achieving our true potential, we have entered a research partnership with the International Centre for Work and Family (ICWF) at the IESE Business School in Barcelona, to investigate and analyse the interaction between these spheres of life.

Over the next four years, three researchers from the research centre, led by Prof. Mireia Las Heras, whose credentials you can read about here, will be carrying out extensive research into this field. We will be disseminating the results of this in-depth investigation, which will provide a greater recognition of the work involved in creating healthy and strong home environments and family lives. The objective is to identify individual and collective strengths within the family sphere both in attributes and processes and to discover how they enable human beings to flourish.

We are pleased to announce this joint project partnership which builds on many years of collaboration with IESE Business School.

Alexa, remind me to call Ana at 12 noon

Alexa, Siri, Bixby, Cortana, to mention the most popular virtual assistants, are a reality. We are not talking about the future but about the present. New technologies are no longer new, they are technologies that are increasingly ingrained and incorporated into our everyday lives. Our homes are getting “smarter” every day as we let gadgets into our homes that make our day-to-day routines easier.

I would say that we naively let them in, motivated by the promised assistance the time saving devices would bring, removing some of the stress from our workload. They remind us to take the food out of the oven, to do the shopping, attend an appointment… They tell us the weather forecast in case we need to take an umbrella or recommend music suited to our tastes. Robotic vacuum cleaners even sweep the floor while we are out and smart thermostats switch on the heating so that when we get home from work, we find our homes warm and welcoming.

And this is only the visible, the ordinary, that is available to all, which requires little investment and which many of us already enjoy. Because to be honest, I am the kind of person who is not keen to keep up with the latest trends just for the sake of it, but I will if someone recommends it.

At Home Renaissance Foundation, always concerned about the central value of homes in society, we have asked ourselves if all this is being born and developing within a legal, social, moral and ethical framework that benefits people, because we do not forget that where we are letting in all these new dynamics in is our home, that safe and intimate place for the human being.

Sonia Livingstone, professor in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science, says in the Preface of our new book ‘The Home in the Digital Age’ (now available here)An intrusion into our home is an outrage, and being homeless is a tragedy.”  So I wonder if all these gadgets that supposedly promise to make our lives easier are in fact an intrusion into our homes, in a subtle and seemingly useful way.

Let’s test it to the limits, before it is too late and understand the kind of challenges we face and analyse if AI and all these technologies really are for the wellbeing or the detriment of the person. Let’s fully assess the risks of accepting them into our homes so that we can consciously face both the positive and negative consequences.

This latest book that we have compiled in collaboration with the STI and with research by prestigious academics (see the Index here) from different disciplines, is HRF’s initial contribution to discovering where exactly these ‘not-so-new’ technologies are taking us.

The invisible disability

Can you imagine a 3-4 year old boy lying on the pavement and kicking his legs in the air because he doesn’t want to cross at the traffic lights? What would you think? What might you say or even do? Well, stop and reflect for a moment, because probably what you are seeing as a tantrum or an unruly child has more to do with a disability.
There are millions of people in the world who live with invisible disabilities. We tend to associate disability with something that requires a wheelchair or crutches but many disabilities are not so easily recognisable.
In our Communication Project we talk about some of the less visible disabilities such as autism, hearing problems, mental disorders, multiple sclerosis or also called a thousand faces disease because it can affect people very differently. Not being able to identify them in an obvious way can make us fall into greater social and employment discrimination.
We have received thousands of responses to our latest project on Caring at Home for those with extra needs. We are happy, overwhelmed and very grateful for your help in the dissemination of this topic. But we would like to go further, and encourage people to take their time reading it and to empathize with the true life stories that it contains … In other words, for people to be aware of how important these people are to society and how sometimes we can make judgments through a lack of understanding.
I received this photo through our Instagram profile. A person with one of those invisible disabilities posted it in an act of protest. How many times do we complain because someone ignores us when we request something … can you imagine what it must be like to feel that society as a whole isn’t responding to you, but instead judging you?
This project will hopefully serve as an eye opener and help us to be more understanding by drawing attention to the fact that disability is not a problem but a different way of being and living in this world, which demands acceptance, respect, and caring attitude. At HRF we acknowledge that this must all begin and be cultivated in the home.

Taking the hard road

‘It’s part of life to have obstacles. It’s about overcoming obstacles; that’s the key to happiness.’ (US jazz pianist Herbie Hancock)

Life is a great gift, it’s true. But that does not mean it’s devoid of difficulties and obstacles which can complicate our day.  What’s more, I would say that life is wonderful, thanks to those obstacles and difficulties and barriers that can block our way.

Those challenges we face are what make us grow and improve ourselves and help us know ourselves better. It is through adversity that a person’s true potential is discovered and what we are capable of achieving.

None of this is new, but sometimes we forget. In fact, today’s society tries to avoid any kind of pain or suffering by preventing young people from understanding that this is also part of life. Children can be so overprotected that they are deprived of the tools with which to overcome small obstacles when they are young, leaving them helpless and vulnerable when faced with difficult problems when they are older.

And thanks to each and every one of the testimonies that make up our last Communication Project ‘Caring at Home for those with extra needs’ we have been able to discover how people with disabilities wake up every day aware of their weakness – but that knowledge, that awareness of what one is and what one has, makes them strong, turning their disability into an opportunity.

Learning about the day-to-day lives of people such as Horacio, Adriana, Kara, Sader, Miguel Ángel, Monica and Annick has been an inspiration to us all. I truly believe that the siblings of these children and their families grow stronger and are better prepared for life because they witness in their homes their joy, courage and determination to overcome any obstacles that stand in their way.

The different challenges we all face make our lives very worthwhile. And as Dr. Max says in the Netflix series ‘New Amsterdam’, “Sometimes it is convenient to take the harder road, because it will allow you to have better views.”

Needs and Gifts

Last week HRF published our timely communication report ‘Care at Home for those with extra needs.’ The message of the report is very clear one: it is in the home that needs are met and care is not just given but reciprocated. The focus of the report is on those with extra needs, broadly defined in terms of needing extra support for physical or intellectual disabilities.

There is another side of this coin that can sometimes go unnoticed. The specific care and support, not of those with extra needs, but of those with extra or particular gifts. The phrase “gifted children” is one that conjures up for many of us images of musical or maths prodigies, but in fact, a wide range of giftedness can be identified across the curriculum. It might also seem that this is a “non-problem” as surely the gifted are at a natural advantage at school and in later life?

A recent paper in the prestigious International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health suggests things are not so smooth as we might think.
“Emotional Intelligence Profiles and Self-Esteem/Self-Concept: An Analysis of Relationships in Gifted Students” by Ana María Casino-García, María José Llopis-Bueno and Lucía Inmaculada Llinares-Insa, looks at the lived experience and potential disadvantages of being identified as a gifted child. Evidence suggests that depending on the support and understanding offered to such children, emotional responses vary from thriving to vulnerability.

What seems a key driver in this is the recognition and nurturing of students’ Emotional Intelligence (EI). The development of high EI is connected to higher levels of self-understanding and esteem, but also understanding the motivation and needs of others. High EI can help build the resilience and empathy necessary for all children to thrive, but can be seen as particularly relevant for the mental health of intellectually gifted children.

It is the quality of such children’s relationships with others that is “one of the strongest predictors of their well-being.” Negative experiences of feeling isolated from their peers – “singled-out” – can result from being identified as gifted, if the identification is not followed up by appropriate support. The authors cite the importance of teachers and education professionals in this support, but conclude, tellingly, “The most important source of social support is family; family cohesion is essential for life satisfaction.”

The full paper is a detailed examination of the evidence building to this conclusion, but for HRF and our vision we hear the same, strong message: the irrefutable link between home, relationships and well-being. The home is where needs are met and gifts are nurtured – whatever those needs, whatever those gifts.

Caring at Home for those with extra needs

A few months ago we received a request: Why not show the world that homes, where people live with disabilities, are happy homes? Why not make visible the difficulties that these families live through and the courage with which they face them? Why not praise this example at a time when society becomes blocked and frustrated at the slightest obstacle?

And we said: “Yes.”

At Home Renaissance Foundation we have talked many times about the importance of home care. But we present a new perspective – that if in itself care is vital in the development of the person, then it is even more so with those facing difficulties.

We present you with our latest Communication Project: Caring at Home for those with extra needs

We are proud of what we have achieved. It has not been easy because these people are so humble that the last thing they want is to be the protagonists of anything. But they deserve it. Them, their families, their environments. For their attitude, for their courage, for their way of looking at life, for their determination, their effort and their example. Because there is nothing impossible for them and they are a constant lesson in self-improvement.

Thanks for agreeing to participate in this project. Society needs you more than ever.
We would be very grateful if you would share this document. Let others enjoy reading it too.

Big Questions

Last November, we asked a question “Do happy homes lead to a happy society?” The question is a very big one and at the heart of the vision of the Home Renaissance Foundation. Happy Homes: Happy Society? The contribution of domestic life in a time of social changes was intended to be a physical academic meeting in London. It has become an online discussion addressing many of the different forces and attitudes at work in creating and sustaining well-being as individuals and as a part of flourishing communities.

In February, we hosted a series of online workshops where academics who had contributed papers to the meeting had an opportunity to present them and to receive some relevant feedback. The four areas of focus give a glimpse of both the range and depth of the contributions. “What is the importance of architecture, housing conditions and choices?” “What role do relationships play in well-being in the home and beyond?” “What do the new SMART technologies add?” and vitally “What are the essential values of the home?”

These are all also big questions and it has been a privilege to hear the responses shared by a wide range of academics, from different continents, disciplines and career stages. One strand of thought kept emerging: these questions really matter.

Happy homes are built on happy relationships and shared values, access to the means to maintain them in an appropriate housing context and to be able to make real and informed choices about the new technologies we let into our homes.

For every statistic in the data shared, for every case study, every theoretical proposition are the individuals and families in a day-by-day engagement with these questions. “How can I be a better spouse/parent?” “How can we be better neighbours?” “What are the values that are important to me and that I want to make sure I share at home?” “How can I be happier and make others around me happier too?”

These are questions that are not going away, the pandemic has made them loom larger and more urgent than ever. At HRF we have not finished asking the questions and encouraging the answers. Please join the conversation!

 

Excellence in the home

It is curious but this was the title of our first conferences. We changed the approach but we kept the title. And although we were finally replacing it with the main theme of each meeting, the concept has always remained in the background. No matter if we talk about artificial intelligence, well-being, care or happiness, excellence remains perennial.

Because it is the final bow, the icing on the cake, that makes a well-done job shine. Excellence implies effort, detail, dedication, and care. Aspects that are difficult to convey on their own but that become the “soul” of the work.

In the last two weeks, we have held the workshops resulting from the papers presented to the 5th Conference ‘Happy Homes, Happy Society?’ And last Friday in the workshop entitled “Values and Domestic Life” the importance of excellence came to light straight away. It is impossible to talk about the work of the home without including the need for excellence.

Excellence is an essential element in the construction of our homes. It is a beam on which everyone’s work must support and rest. And it is also an aspect that is taught best by example. It is not a panacea, it does not guarantee happiness, it does not avoid discussions or possible crisis, but it nuances the problems because excellence transmits love, affection, the sensitivity that we have put into that work or that task that we have done and that is perceived.

When we are overburdened with laundry, ironing, cleaning, preparing food or dinner, when we are tired after returning from work and still have to bathe the children or think about the next day’s menu, or we have to pick up toys or do homework with the little one, or when we have to face a complicated conversation with our adolescent or study family finances with our wife/husband on Sunday night… When we feel like none of this, then we think about excellence, in the good that it will do to the recipient of that service, in the love that one will perceive when one finds the bed made, or the food on the table or the empty dishwasher, or the car filled with petrol, or the shopping in the fridge – let’s think about the selfless dedication that we are somehow transmitting to our relatives.

Maybe not today, but probably tomorrow, both you and everyone around you will value and appreciate that effort and a job well done. And the lesson learned will be key to building their future homes. Because there is a big difference between doing things out of obligation and without any intention, to carrying them out with care and delicacy.

That is excellence.