By Marc Huminlowycz
Almost 50 years ago, in the classic 1968 Peter Sellers movie, The Party, a bumbling Indian actor gets into mischief with electronic technology at the extravagant home of a Hollywood movie producer. During the course of the evening, he playfully vocalizes gibberish over the whole-house intercom, triggers fountains to spew water at inappropriate times and activates moving walls and furniture, creating chaos and making for great comedy.
This high-tech home was likely inspired by a Walter Cronkite TV show from a year earlier, titled The 21st Century, in which the venerable journalist explored the wired home of the future. Amazingly, much of the emerging technology predicted in 1967—such as multi-room audio, 3D TV and home automation—is mainstream today, albeit more sophisticated. For one, the desk-sized central command console has been replaced by a simply designed touch-screen control panel about the size of a tablet.
Welcome to the second decade of the second millennium. The “smart home” industry in North America has skyrocketed from an estimated $1.3 billion in 2007 to well over $10 billion today. Virtually every automated device and system you can imagine is out there or being developed as we speak.
Although it is unlikely that we will be living The Jetsons lifestyle in sky-high space pods and zooming around town in flying cars, the growing popularity of quadcopter drones and the emergence of self-driving cars makes anything possible. Even Star Trek’s Holodeck, a holographic environment simulator where users could interact with computer-generated beings, seems like a possibility for every home entertainment room in the not-too-distant future.
Peering 50 years on, though, poses multiple challenges. Assuming we don’t blow ourselves up first or lay waste to the land via some infectious disease, the world will evolve far beyond our current “internet-of-things” electronic connectivity. Wired magazine, the online authority on the latest in high-tech gizmos and systems, interviewed academics and business people around the world to get their views of what we can expect on the homefront. Here is a sampling of what they had to say.
Homes will become intelligent enough to distinguish between family members and guests, adapting to their individual needs and comfort preferences (lighting, room temperature, music) by their fingerprints, body temperatures and even their heartbeats. As people age in place, our homes will give reminders and help with tasks like cooking or cleaning. Personal-service humanoid robots, guided by sensors, cloud computing, radio-frequency ID stickers and infrared bulbs will help with chores but also socialize with occupants.
On the personal front, home technology will conduct early diagnosis and constant monitoring of our physical and mental health. Smart homes will enable us to shift walls so that we can change our living space as required. We won’t buy products online; we’ll buy designs that we download and make at home with our 3D printers. Digital content and services, distributed on dedicated terminals like tablets, will become ideal companions for all activities in the home, such as gardening, cooking, DIY and entertainment.
Futuristic home-tech sites like BoredFactory.com give numerous examples of future technology—some practical, some bordering on the absurd. Robotic fridges without doors or drawers cool non-sticky, odourless biopolymer gel to envelope food and store it as individual pods. A “Bio Tank” cleans your dishes, turns food and grime into bio fuel and filters the water for re-use. One thing is for sure: In a world that will likely have far greater strains on feeding its population, we will be exponentially more efficient than we currently are now, a time when as much as 30% of food, worth about $48 billion, is thrown away in the U.S. each year, according to the David Suzuki Foundation. “In Toronto, single-family households discard about 275 kilos of food waste each year. That means one in four food purchases still ends up in the garbage. (Toronto taxpayers spend nearly $10 million a year getting rid of food waste that’s not composted.)”
BoredFactory also cites a robotic vacuum cleaner that visualizes rooms in 3D, then charts its cleaning patterns, a hand-held washing machine that scans clothes for bacteria, washes them and irons them with one touch and an in-home clothing printer that allows you to design a new wardrobe.
Smaller homes, higher density
In addition to technologies, what will other features of a family home look like in 2066? To answer this question, Ontario Home Builder magazine spoke with three thought leaders to get their views on the subject from their varying perspectives of architecture, urban planning and residential building.
McGill University School of Architecture Professor Avi Friedman, an internationally renowned housing innovation expert and futurist, is an architect who regularly contributes housing insights to OHB. Looking into his crystal ball, Dr. Friedman believes that homes and communities in 50 years will be guided by four major influences: technology, demographics, the economy and the environment.
On the technology side, Dr. Friedman sees big changes on the horizon in our day-to-day lives. “Healthcare will be different. Virtual appointments will be the norm, as we communicate from home via Skype-type technology with nurses and doctors, who will check our vitals and provide online diagnoses and prescriptions,” Friedman predicts, adding that the Japanese are already doing something similar. (Other futurists have predicted that we’ll simply run scanners over our bodies—à la Star Trek’s Dr. McCoy—and the results will be uploaded to a health network). “At home, toilets will analyze our urine, and other everyday devices will monitor our hearts.”
Our kitchens and bathrooms will also be doing a lot more, Friedman contends. “We will be growing food in the kitchen. Fridges will have climate-controlled compartments that cultivate live food such as herbs and mushrooms,” he says. “The large exterior surfaces of the fridge will be used for other tech applications, and kitchens will be better adapted to recycle materials.” Elsewhere in the home, he foresees functions designed to relieve stress, such as bathrooms that will be more like spas, transforming themselves into relaxing natural environments.
From an economic perspective, Dr. Friedman believes that how we will be living will be directly influenced by how well we are doing financially. “Our overall wealth as a nation will determine the level of people’s income and their ability to afford certain types of housing,” he explains. “Canada has traditionally sold natural resources to the world. Decline in the need for such resources in countries like China means that, as a nation, we might become poorer. As a result, smaller homes will be in demand.”
Expect higher-density communities as well. “Today’s density of four to seven units per acre will be prohibitive,” he explains. “A minimum of 25 units per acre will be the norm, with only the rich being able to afford single-family homes. Our urban landscapes will more closely resemble the cities of Europe.”
What will Ontario’s population look like in 2066? “Baby boomers will be gone, and people will be living much longer thanks to medical advances such as artificial organs, tissue and bone,” says Dr. Friedman. “In the past 20 years, Ontario’s demographics have become much more diverse. I believe that we will continue to see more cultural diversity, more single people and more couples without kids in Ontario—many working from home. Therefore, homes will be built to accommodate people of various ethnic backgrounds, occupations and stages in life—from infancy to old age.”
Jennifer Keesmaat, Chief Planner for the City of Toronto, agrees with Dr. Friedman on the subject of changing urban landscapes. “Almost every generation in Canadian history has moved from rural spaces to urban areas,” she notes. “Traditionally, the residential transition has been from rural to suburban, to urban single-family, to condo.”
Keesmaat strongly believes that today’s model of suburban development and its required infrastructure will be a thing of the past in 50 years’ time. “As we become more environmentally conscious and as municipalities realize that the fiscal reality of going into deficit to subsidize this type of housing is no longer sustainable, a more urban, user-based model will take its place.” She adds that the sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2008 was largely due to highly subsidized residential development.
As to how people will be living and working in 2066, Keesmaat predicts that communities will be planned as mixed-use, with housing types to accommodate a variety of people of all ages and neighbourhoods designed for walking. “People will be living longer, so homes designed for aging-in-place will be prevalent,” she says. “And there will be a large number of people living on their own, so right-sizing will be the norm.”
On the work front, Keesmaat believes that cars will be too expensive to own, operate and house in cities. “It won’t be practical. Alternatives such as the TTC, Uber and Rideshare—or at least the computerized versions thereof—will do fine. If people require a personal vehicle, it will be autonomous. Ontario is the first province in Canada to be testing self-driving vehicles,” she says. “I foresee a significant trend away from people commuting to and from offices, which will be designed as collaborative spaces. Technology will allow for a tremendous amount of freedom. Nine-to-five will become obsolete, as people have the flexibility to work day or night.”
What about the structure, size and environmental sustainability of homes in 2066? Friedman proposes that many of the features and advancements now in place will be common, with the exception of traditional wooden two-by-fours, which will be composed of “wood and something else, like a recycled material.” As homes become smaller, he says, accessory spaces such as basements and attics will become used more as extended living spaces with windows and proper lighting.
Our dependency on fossil fuels will have also gone the way of the dinosaur. “The oil industry is on its last legs,” Friedman proclaims. “Oil is finite. Homes of the future, powered by solar, wind and other renewables, will respond much better to their environments.”
Wells Baker, Director of Conservation and Sustainable Design with Ontario developer Minto Communities agrees. “Houses will feature super-insulated walls and windows, requiring minimal energy for heating and cooling,” he says. “We are already building Net-Zero-energy homes. In 2066, many homes will be completely self-sufficient, producing their own energy, collecting their own water and treating their own waste.”
Baker goes on with other predictions. “Houses will be more flexible in their design, with spaces that can be easily reconfigured to meet the changing needs of residents,” says Baker, who forecasts the extinction of single-use rooms such as formal dining rooms. “And people will be growing at least some of their food at home.”
What will communities themselves look like in five decades? Baker agrees with both Friedman and Keesmaat that they will contain a variety of building types, although he believes that more modestly sized single-family homes will still be around. “Public transit will continue to expand its reach and will be more commonly used. Suburban communities will have many more multi-unit residences of all kinds, including town homes and condos.”
And if the future predicts automated electric vehicles, where required, and fewer cars for the urban population, what is the future of the common garages? Citing Minto’s upcoming BSide at Westside Toronto condo project, where infrastructure will be built to charge electric vehicles, Baker believes that garages in their current form will disappear. “Because zero-emission vehicles don’t burn fossil fuels, they can be safely stored inside a home,” he explains.
The year 2066 is a long time away. Just as we have seen significant changes in the construction of homes, the design of communities and our very way of life over the past 50 years, it’s safe to say that how we live, work and play will be very different 50 years from now. Factoring the economy, demographic changes, the shifting environment, the lightning pace of technological innovation and the doubtless political conflicts the world over, it is difficult to predict the world five years from now, much less 50.
At the very least, homes of the future will need to provide a safe sanctuary for personal and family time, away from the hustle and bustle of a fast-paced world. It may not be the pie-in-the-sky future of The Jetsons, but we could certainly handle a Star Trek Holodeck in every room.