Houses of tomorrow: A more hopeful vision of domesticity, or a dystopian nightmare?

Imagine, if you can, a small, bluish room. Wires, screens, sensors. A few keepsakes from the old world. The room’s fleshy inhabitant, confined indoors by a zoonotic pandemic, greenwashes a data-mining company from her bed. The government has made it illegal for her to step outside.

There is a communal kitchen down the corridor, which she shares with a few strangers she met online, but mostly she orders her meals via an interface and eats them here. Microphones record her interactions. A motion sensor on her wrist reminds her to optimise her performance. Filled with saudade for the dying world outside, she has bought a few rainforest plants to brighten the space. Her pocket surveillance device reminds her to water them. She catches the news: the world’s richest man has just left the Earth’s atmosphere.

So much for the home of 2021! What about the home of 2050? Might it offer a more hopeful vision of domesticity than the dystopian nightmare some of us have been living through these past couple of years? Or are we inexorably sliding into a world of surveillance and atomisation, climate crisis and housing crisis, drowning alone as our meta headsets suck the very data from our souls?

Maybe a bit of both, says Sarah Douglas, director of the Liminal Space. She is behind the forthcoming Tomorrow’s Home exhibition at the Museum of the Home in east London, which imagines how we’ll be living three decades hence. “The home of the future could help us flourish in ever more tailored and sophisticated ways,” she says. “But it will be messy as we learn to navigate the huge benefits and ethical questions that new interactive technologies bring.”

The exhibition, produced in collaboration with University College London, imagines a home inhabited by three (gender-neutral) people. There’s Kai, 17, who works for a 3D printing company, hangs out in the metaverse and has never eaten meat (and can’t understand why anyone would). There’s grandperson Mo, 76, a retired teacher with early-onset dementia who pines for the good old days. And there’s lodger Charlie, 34, who has cerebral palsy and works for a protein manufacturer based in Buenos Aires. Life in 2050 is shaped by three overarching “macro-trends”: the climate crisis; the ageing population; and the “fourth Industrial Revolution”, which will see data-gathering technology infiltrate our most intimate spaces.

Homes must work harder: we’ll need more flexible ways to live, not to mention better environmental credentials.
Homes must work harder: we’ll need more flexible ways to live, not to mention better environmental credentials. Illustration: Adam Simpson/The Observer

Of course, we will not embrace any future trends wholeheartedly. “It may be that there is a highly connected class, a bumbling-along class, and a set of people who choose to live totally off-grid,” says Rachel Coldicutt, director of Careful Industries, which researches how technology interacts with humans. Those who do wish to keep their home as a private sanctuary will not find it easy, she warns. The world’s most powerful tech companies have already shifted focus from phones to homes: Google has its nest range of “intelligent” security systems; Amazon has filed patents for devices capable of reading your “emotional data”; and Facebook is launching its “metaverse”.

These technologies have a way of overriding any initial reservations we might have about them. “People don’t buy Alexa because it’s a surveillance device,” Coldicutt says. “They buy it because it’s nice to have a hands-free timer in the kitchen. It’s still a surveillance device.” Some of us might not have a choice but to submit. If social housing exists in the future, might its inhabitants be required to submit to some form of monitoring in order to “prove” that they deserve to live there? If you’re on the future version of universal credit and you’re still in bed at 8.30am, is that going to be a problem? Coldicutt reckons that it might be.

But from the outside, at least, our homes will look much the same. There’s no reason to assume that the British public’s taste for Victorian terraces will disappear by 2050. “The homes will just have to work harder,” says architect Piers Taylor. “They will be workspaces and wellness spaces as well as places to eat and sleep, and they will need to be more flexible, too.” Around 80% of carbon emissions in construction come from concrete and steel, so renewable materials like timber will become more common in new homes, as will lower-rise buildings. “Anything below two storeys and housing isn’t dense enough, anything much over five and it becomes too resource intensive.” We will need modular interiors that can rapidly change to accommodate, say, the arrival of a child, or a climate refugee. And perhaps we’ll be rapidly switching up our subscriptions to companies providing furniture, appliances and vehicles, much as we do with Netflix and Now TV today.

Here’s how things might look.

The living room

Sensors, microphones, cameras, monitors – all of these are likely to become much more prevalent and much more discreet by 2050. The future version of Alexa might be embedded in a candlestick or a vase; it might blend in with trends for more natural materials (wood, hemp, straw, etc); and it won’t just respond to what you say, it will respond to the tone and volume of your voice too, and it will know when you shout at your kids.

However, if we are able to take control of our own data, none of this need be a terrible thing, says Yvonne Rogers, head of computer science at UCL. “We can focus on the dystopian aspects here, but if we think more abstractly about how we can use the data that these devices are gathering, there’s all sorts of interesting things we can do.”

Perhaps digital wallpaper that changes colour depending on the emotions present in the home, like a screensaver but for a wall. It might beam in a live relay from a patch of rainforest that your household is sponsoring. Maybe it will respond to the presence of a baby or a pet.

With more of us working from home (or unemployed due to automation) and perhaps less able to travel, we will look for more ways to connect virtually. “We can probably be a bit cleverer than the Facebook metaverse,” Rogers says. Star Wars-esque 3D hologram projections of loved ones aren’t such a stretch. “You can already use augmented reality to try out Ikea furniture in your living room. That technology will develop. It might still involve augmented-reality glasses, but this superimposition of the digital on the physical is likely to become more prevalent, more advanced and much more cost effective.”

We might even be projecting dead loved ones on to our sofas. The Tomorrow’s Home exhibition foresees AI avatars of dead relatives, created from the data they have left behind. This might be a way of alleviating loneliness in an ageing population. “It’s the sort of thing you can imagine a big-tech company providing on subscription,” Douglas says. “You might be encouraged to pay for an upgrade, say, if you wanted to discuss the football scores or have philosophical chat.”

The kitchen

This part of the home has seen big changes in recent generations: from a galley-like room designed for a servant to a large, communal space that’s the focus of family life, rendering the dining room obsolete. Not that this means we’re doing any more cooking. Drone deliveries, lab-grown meats and nutritionally optimised meal plans seem likely to de-skill the general population further, making cooking even more of a boutique hobby than it already is. Actually eating animals? That could go the way of smoking, seen as passé, unhealthy, mildly rebellious.

Will drone deliveries of food make cooking a hobby rather than a necessity?
Will drone deliveries of food make cooking a hobby rather than a necessity? Illustration: Adam Simpson/The Observer

How about a semi-sentient fridge that tells Aldi that you’ve run out of tofu via the “Internet of Things”? Rogers wonders whether we will actually want this kind of technological interference: “I’m not convinced people will submit to being lectured by their fridge for eating too much cake.” Intelligent bins might be more useful, however. The Tomorrow’s Home exhibition sketches out something like the Chinese social credit system but for recycling. Imagine if your bin could calculate how much you are throwing away and reward you with council tax rebates (or penalties). Another innovation on show is the “smart mug” – a drinking vessel that monitors your vitals and tells your mum you’ve been microdosing.

But a truly intelligent home wouldn’t necessarily be filled with shiny new gadgets. As we move to a sustainable future, the £15 toaster, £30 air-fryer, and £80 smoothie-maker may become things of the past, says Kathryn Bishop of the Future Laboratory, which advises brands on consumer trends. “People are starting to realise that the sort of cheap, plastic-based homeware products put out by the likes of Urban Outfitters, Next and Ikea are just as damaging as fast fashion,” she says. The new “right to repair” legislation shows that elected leaders are finally willing to challenge our catastrophically wasteful models of consumption. “This feels likely to lead to more of an embrace of natural and reusable materials and more of a culture, with buying and trading in.” If items were designed to be more easily repaired, they should also become more customisable too, which may lead to far more variety in the sort of electronic products that we use.

The bathroom

The future is usually depicted as a gleaming, white, sanitised space. However, it is the “clean white spaces of modernism” that we need to fight against says Richard Beckett, who has won Riba awards for his work on what he calls “probiotic architecture”. “Now that we spend around 90% of our time indoors, we are missing an exposure to what we call “diverse nature”, which we would have evolved with over hundreds of thousands of years,” he says. “We don’t get the microbial diversity that our bodies need and it’s resulting in a lot of new chronic illness.”

To counter this, he is developing building materials that bring nature indoors: think bathroom tiles containing spores which have beneficial microbes, the ceramic equivalent of sauerkraut. “Building materials might need to be more textural, more porous,” he says. “And we might be engaging differently with our walls or surfaces. A bit like how we water plants, we might be spraying our walls with nutrients.”

Meanwhile, your smart toilet will obviously be monitoring your excretions, making sure your gut flora and hormones are OK and meanwhile treating you to your own bespoke douche. Just as long as you don’t sit on someone else’s toilet by mistake. “There is no item that brings home the invasiveness of pre-determined technical settings than the smart toilet,” Coldicutt says. And this is before we get to the knottier ethical issues. “What are people going to lose out on if they choose not to use those things? If you don’t give your data to the toilet company, might you be missing out when the magnesium supplements are handed out?”

And your mirror will become much fancier. It will provide morning affirmations, remind you to take your pills, help you apply your makeup and encourage children to brush their teeth with augmented-reality filters and animations. Probably.

The bedroom

Your blanket or possibly your mattress will become the thing that monitors your sleep. “At the moment, when we think about wearable tech, we think of iPhone-esque devices with screens,” Douglas says. “Actually, we’ll see these data-gathering devices become much more humanised.”

Douglas also foresees a big future for subscriptions. Instead of buying fast fashion online and taking it to the charity shop a few months later, she reckons we might see “community wardrobes” – virtual closets that allow us easily to swap clothes with friends and neighbours.

It sounds delightful. But where are the profit margins? As long as our present economic incentives are in place, we are always likely to bump up against difference between what is actually useful – and what makes money for someone.

“It would be really interesting to see if we could get to a point where domestic technology really does solve domestic problems,” Coldicutt says. “One of the hardest technical problems in the world is folding a sheet. Laundry continues to be an activity that requires physical intervention. But the likelihood of finding a robot that pairs socks seems remote. So we’re going to be left doing the tasks that robots can’t.” In the bedroom of the future: damp laundry.

The playroom

As a computer scientist, Yvonne Rogers is inclined to play the optimist. “So much technology is designed around tracking and counting,” she says. “It would be good to think about how to make devices that really do enhance play and allow children to create in their bedrooms.”

She reckons toys are going to become much, much cooler thanks to the increasingly blurred lines between physical and the digital. Imagine if you could project a sea on to your bedroom floor; or use an actual rug as a virtual flying carpet; or create interactive cuddly toys, which might be a great comfort for sick children. “It would be really nice to think how we could make learning through the home more joyful and have technologies that really do encourage children to become more curious and creative.”

Children’s boundless energy needn’t go to waste either. Bishop of the Future Laboratory points to the work of the wood materials science laboratory in Zurich, which has created wood that harvests static electricity when you walk over it. “Put something like that under a children’s playroom and you could power a few toys,” she says.

The garden

Naturally, we will be recycling our waste and creating closed-loop energy systems to power our homes. Possibly we will be growing more of our own food, too: prickly pears and pomegranates ought to suit the British climate by then. And we might be doing more of this communally.

“One thing that’s crazy about the way we live now is having a little picket fence around a tiny bit of garden,” says Taylor, the architect. “It makes so much more sense to have a space communally shared between 10 or 20 houses.”

It is in the spaces between homes that he feels the most hopeful solutions lie. “Even if we do still have cars, the model of ownership will have to change,” he says. “Leasing and rental makes so much more sense. Cars take up so much room, even to store them. But once you start taking them out, cities are much nicer places.” Imagine if the space currently given over to cars could be reclaimed by pedestrians, cyclists, parks, plants, humans, animals. Seriously: why not?

Tomorrow’s Home is at the Museum of the Home, London E2, from 20 November to 9 January, museumofthehome.org.uk

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