Five years ago, when I started writing regularly for MNN, I thought that my focus was going to be on The Internet of Things and the Smart Home. In my first post, What is the smart home? It's too soon to tell, I wrote: "We are at the beginning of a new era ... Nobody knows how it's going to work or what it's going to do, but it's going to be quite a ride."
In fact, the smart home has been a big dud. There are a few smart thermostats and light bulbs out there. My Apple Watch and iPhone are marginally more sophisticated. About the biggest advances we see are in the proliferation of devices like the Amazon Echo, where we can ask Alexa to deliver stuff to our homes; otherwise, most of the changes in the last five years have been in the cloud, in services that we pay for rather than things that we own. So one reason that car ownership is dropping is that more people can use services like Uber, and more people are ordering in food made in "cloud kitchens" that exist without restaurants, preparing food for delivery only. I wrote on MNN earlier:
More people are eating like this all the time, and it's "changing eating patterns in ways consumers, food companies and industry analysts are only beginning to understand, and the changes have far-reaching consequences for food businesses and families as the services spread to more parts of the country."
On sister site TreeHugger, I noted that cloud kitchen companies were inventing new brands, so that you can order any kind of food, sort of a virtual food court from a crappy mall. The best demonstration of where this is going is Rachael Ray to go, set up by Uber and supplied by cloud kitchens. She tells Bloomberg "a virtual restaurant gives me a more specific relationship to people in my audience. It’s me, joining people for dinner."
Baby boomers will be living in the cloud
You can get old, waiting for the smart home to happen, and I've been doing exactly that, which is why I've been writing more and more about issues affecting aging baby boomers — how we live, how we get around, how we eat. And it's beginning to look like we may be among the biggest beneficiaries of these cloud-based services, as we ask Alexa to order up everything from medicine to food to services and have Uber or Amazon deliver them to our doors.
It's already shaking up the "active adult" and "independent living" senior communities, where providing food service is a key attraction but a major money-loser, and residents often complain that the food is boring or monotonous. One California provider to primarily Indian residents now uses cloud kitchens instead of its own. According to Senior Housing News,
"When you take out food, your base cost for the resident is substantially lower," [Founder Arun] Paul said. "In the mind of our residents, we’re viewed as a very affordable option." In addition to cost savings, [cloud kitchen] Shef also offers variety and flexibility, he added. And while there are some residents who order most of their meals through Shef, it’s more commonly used by residents who also cook and dine out during the week. "No matter how good your kitchen is, folks are going to get bored," he said. "So, what’s great about working with the cloud kitchen is that it gives residents more flexibility over what they’re eating."
Takeout food has a reputation for being full of salt and fat, and one commenter to my TreeHugger post noted that users of cloud kitchens would end up "poor, fat, and buried in plastic waste." But cooking for one can be extremely expensive and wasteful, while food from cloud kitchens doesn't have to be. Swiss investment bank UBS suggested in a study that efficiencies in purchasing and production could actually make it cheaper and more efficient. "The total cost of production of a professionally cooked and delivered meal could approach the cost of home-cooked food, or beat it when time is factored in."
I've devoted a lot of space to cloud kitchens because they're a good example of how things are changing. In that post five years ago I wrote about the smart revolution: "We have no idea where it's going to take us, what our cities and homes will be like, how it will change the way we live. It never works out the way we think it's going to."
And it hasn't. We are indeed getting a revolution, but it's a revolution in services, not stuff. The senior housing operator using a cloud kitchen may soon find that people don't need as many of their other services either; anyone can order in. That's why I question the billions being invested now in retirement homes. With the huge baby boomer cohort getting older every day, there will likely be an explosion in cloud-based services, letting people stay out of senior homes much longer. We will be monitored by our watches and phones and hearing aids and there is nothing that we can't get through our iPhones or our Echos.
We still have no idea where the smart revolution is going to take us, but there will probably be a Google map for that. It's still going to be quite a ride, but probably on an Uber bike or Amazon truck.