This is an extract and a draft of an article currently in process exploring the technologies, both current and emerging, that are driving the expression and the renewed promise of new communal living situations. Working together with my coauthor, the building technology consultant Tim Lehotsky, we’ve framed some questions around tech-enabled coliving to better understand not just what is currently on offer but what lies ahead for the converging social and technological trends underlying the new crop of communal living arrangements. The problems and promises of living in community are epic. Are we at the beginning of a new movement built on an old ambition?

Communal living has a long history of failure. Frictions around lifestyles, paying the bills, and basic housekeeping cause problems between housemates. While many feel drawn to greater community and the ambition of living “in community”, the old disagreements persist. What is interesting, and very recent, is that communitarian living arrangements are getting repackaged in the form of coliving models and startups emerging on the market.

Still from the 1969 film adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man

As we look under the hood of coliving enterprises and explore how technology may smooth out the difficulties of living in community, what we have seen so far is that there has been a lot of marketing focus on the end user experience and effort spent describing how much more rewarding and convenient life could be in facilitated circumstances of these new communal living situations. We believe that this value proposition for the occupant is compelling in itself, but what about the whole new territories of interaction and tech driven facilitation that are possible when data is your new roommate?

Enter: Technologically Mediated Communal Living

The promise of a greater community and sense of connectedness provides in itself a strong appeal to potential occupants. However, within new technologically mediated communal models there exists an underlying potential that is absent in individually managed units. This potential is the possibility of a centrally owned and operated platform powering not only a building level, but also networked buildings within a company portfolio. Examples of the benefits of such networked communal living approaches are apparent for occupants. They include the interchangeability of locations, adaptive user profiles, and the opportunity to live in community without all of the implied disadvantages. Potential benefits for owners include increased occupant satisfaction and customer loyalty over time, as well as economies of scale through centralized systems such as responsive energy management. 

When seen as an enterprise, the technology powering new communal units does not need to rely on a patchwork of consumer tech. Instead, it can be built as a single operating entity with distinct user groups and permission levels (see the Users on Three Levels diagram), deploying an integrated network of a number of sensors and devices to deliver the best experience to residents. It is this scenario that we explore as a promising possibility in the long and fraught history of communal living. 

Integrated Technology for Three User Groups

Taking a comprehensive view of the technologies powering coliving enterprises, we can usefully divide them by categories which in turn correspond to three user groups: the owners, operators, and occupants. It is a given that the technologies in each category may overlap. We put forward three questions aligned with the three user groups we identify. These questions are aimed at understanding how technology can ameliorate the challenges of coliving at a system scale: 1) How can the owners of coliving enterprises best manage a complex and scattered portfolio of properties? 2) How can the operators remain efficient at the building level (e.g. facility managers) to make the best decisions for properties they oversee while remaining in line with the portfolio? 3) How can the occupants successfully live in community, while avoiding the traditional problems associated with community dynamics? 

  1. Owners: software systems for reservation and booking, smart energy management and analytics, user profiles and user data, operator and occupant permissions for building technology systems including physical access. (Concern for Profitability) 
  2. Operators: building management systems (BMS), lighting control, security systems (video surveillance, access control, and intrusion detection), communications systems (Intercoms), electrical metering system, and energy management systems. (Concern for Efficiency and Safety)
  3. Occupants: cloud based controls for entertainment, dwelling unit based environmental controls, lighting, access and visitor management, smart appliances, amenity space booking. (Concern for Usability)

This three-part framework demonstrates a holistic functioning of technology driven data, aimed at an optimal user experience, which is informed and supported by distinct user profiles. These end results—the occupant experiences—are the product and principal concern of the owners. As technology engineers and solutions architects, we focus on addressing this framework and the integration of these systems across the physical hardware and software that bridges these user groups. It is our observation that project stakeholders and solution providers involved in constructing smart buildings and multi use group systems often make the mistake of attempting to solve problems by simply throwing in more technology. In reality, the answer to problems lies within user data, its collection, organization, dissemination, and reporting, which in turn informs policies.

New Experiences 

To initiate a more in-depth discussion of the technology powering the coliving platforms, it is important to acknowledge the distinction between data policies and user experiences. As soon as you hear the words “data driven,” alarms (and maybe flares, too) should go off about data security. We recognize that if technology does not enhance the user experience, its adoption will suffer regardless of data privacy questions. We all share data in ways we are not fully aware. That is why in the context of coliving platforms certain consideration must be given to what kind of data a coliving facility collects, how and with whom it shares it with, and how it is protected. 

Rather than deliberate data policy, information security, and cybersecurity concerns implied in the new potentials of domestic data collection, we are focusing here on exploring potential applications of coliving models as new technology platforms and how that data can be used to achieve better outcomes for coliving enterprises. We will be looking at the “what if” scenarios and discuss both the technology that is available today and that is not yet on the market.

The most effective implementations of technology in this space may be ones requiring no user initiated interaction, such as lights controlled by occupancy sensors or keyless entry systems. These systems and approaches to UX are a major research interest of this work and hold significant promise for the future of architecturally integrated natural user interfaces (NUIs). Today connected home technology is everywhere. Individuals and independent households have already been introduced to the smart home scenario. In conducting our research to understand the applications of centrally administered, platform-level technology to facilitate communal living, we are taking a look around the corner into a set of experiences that build on new user experiences. In these scenarios, users on all levels benefit from technologies that foster a community by reducing frictions through AI facilitated occupant experiences.

Preliminary Guiding Principles

In our exploration of the new communal living platforms to facilitate the tasks of “living in community” we will further develop and write through some of the trends that have emerged so far. Those include the following ideas: 

  • Facilitated communication and coordination between personalized user profiles can result in a new space of predictive experiences and interface options for coliving platforms.  
  • Coliving enterprise is able to achieve what the individual owner-operator cannot. As established in the hospitality industry, operators may benefit from personalization profiles that stick with users regardless of location.
  • We are moving from a situation where screen based user input determines the level of a system’s customization and responsiveness to a wholly different paradigm of user experience where personalization drives machine learning. This scenario in turn results in the freeing realization that we may start designing new experiences built on platforms that are smart enough to help us without having to depend on the manual input of user preferences. 
  • While screen based user interfaces provide a one size fits all solution based on distraction and compulsion to retain users, architecturally embedded devices, when connected, are poised to inform not only the way we interact with our devices, but widen the range of the possible in how and where people live together.