My family and I are moving this summer. We have spent the past few years living in sprawling Los Angeles, and we are now headed to dense New York. It will be a new beginning. And that starts with imagining which shiny things we will install in our new home.
As anyone who has ever moved to a new place or had homes in different cities knows, what works in one location is different from what works in another. The things we need in our sun-drenched, open-plan Los Angeles life will not fit naturally into a walk-up in urban, seasonal Brooklyn.
When my husband and I first moved to the US from the UK in 2015, we went crazy with smart-home tech. For years we had read about devices and services only available (and supported) in the US.
They arrived in our lives before the sofa did. We installed a smart speaker, a smart lock, smart hubs, smart lights, a smart dog-collar for our pup, smart cameras, a smart thermostat — frankly, anything with the word “smart” in front of it that we could not get in the UK. We filled our house with a menagerie of robots: Loomo, Jibo, Kuri, Vector, Dino and Dot — and our phones with every household app in the US iTunes store.
With a touch of a button, we summoned out-of-work actors to take our laundry away; out-of-work writers to take the mail to the post office; out-of-work graduates to take boxes to the storage unit and return ones we needed. Why were these services unavailable in London? Look what we had been missing.
Then the honeymoon period ended, and I realised that the reason all these apps existed was because the Los Angeles streets were so constipated that I could not have delivered the laundry, or visited the post office even if I had wanted to. And I certainly could not have done the shopping.
There were no shops within a three-mile radius of our “urban” house, so we leaned on Amazon delivery drivers, who used our smart lock to drop packages and groceries inside the house while we battled through rush hour on the 405 freeway. The city’s smart-tech personality has helped us to navigate the strangely suburban experience of the Los Angeles lifestyle.
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Not long after we landed in LA, I took a trip to Tokyo to live in a futuristic smart home as an experiment for a web series. This place was kitted out way beyond what was available even in the US.
There was a water system that separated out the greywater for landscape irrigation; smart blinds that responded to the light outside; a bathtub that turned itself off when the water was high enough; a giant battery in the garage that knew when to power the lights inside the house and the car outside — and how to reserve its energy in the event of a natural disaster.
I thought how amazing this tech would be for California. I lived in a shaky desert, after all. This was clearly all about environmental sustainability.
When I suggested this to my hosts, they told me, no: in Japan, the smart-tech personality was all about caring for ageing Mother, not Mother Earth. Inventors worked on solutions to ease the burden of elder care on individuals, an urgent socio-demographic feature of Japan’s political and domestic life. Apart from a few initiatives at tech hubs in the US and the UK, we have not reached that particular urgency yet.
So what can I expect New York’s smart-tech personality to be? I imagine it will be more about sharing. Less physical space will limit what New Yorkers have access to, so workspaces, cars, power tools and rakes will rotate around networks and within communities. Deliveries are likely to remain on the list, but mainly for things unsuitable for carrying on the subway, rather than bags of laundry. And I will be reacquainting myself with weather apps.
In any new relationship, it takes time to get to get to know someone. It is the same with cities. We will bring all our Los Angeles smart toys to the Big Apple, but after a while, we will find our current digital devices will not fit. We will find more technology to bring into our lives that suit a different personality, entirely of its place.
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