Smart buildings: useful tool or dystopian nightmare?

Are we heading for a world where buildings become invaluable tools packed with tech to support us through our day, or are we giving up our privacy to intelligent bricks and mortar? We ask consumers what they want to see in buildings of the future.

Say a big hello to Attest Investigates! In this series I use the Attest platform to test anyone’s hypotheses and answer your burning questions.

As a scientist, I am obsessed with experimentation, empiricism and using data to make decisions. We’ll delve into all things consumer research to lift the lid on the most important unknowns for brands, as requested by you!

Introduction and hypothesis

‘Alexa, what do consumers think about smart buildings?’ 

From generating their own power to an electronic concierge learning your routine and efficiently adapting your surroundings accordingly, the potential of smart buildings is massive – and perhaps even a little creepy?

Are we entering a new age of intelligent buildings? How much control are people willing to hand over to the four walls around them? 

For this edition of Attest Investigates, here’s a hypothesis: while people in the UK are open to progress, big tech and the digital age has made people draw a line and deem some smart building features to be a step too far. 


We surveyed a nationally representative group of 500 Brits for this research. 

You can see the full results over on the Attest dashboard – dig into the data with the demographic filters.  


What’s the awareness level of smart buildings as a concept?

Kicking off, we wanted to find out how the phrase ‘smart buildings’ lands without a prompt. The biggest group (47%) say they’ve heard about smart buildings but aren’t sure what they are. Then there’s a fairly equal split between people who know what they are (26%) and people who’ve never heard about them (27%). 

This seems to put awareness of smart buildings at a good level – enough for the concept to sit comfortably as a topic for wider exploration from consumers and brands, and that’s where we dive deeper.

What smart features do people want in their homes?

The features that resonated most with our audience are themed around systems that adapt a building’s environment to increase comfort and decrease energy consumption:

  • Generates its own energy – 87% said they ‘like’ or ‘like very much’
  • Motion sensors to reduce energy consumption – 85%
  • Air monitoring system to provide cleaner air – 84%

At the other end of the scale, the features that garnered the most negative responses are around personal privacy:

  • The building ‘learning’ your routine and behaviours to predict when you might perform an action – 20% said they ‘dislike’ or ‘dislike a lot’
  • Being greeted upon entry by name through an electronic system – 22% 

The difference between the positive and negative features opens up an interesting philosophical debate: people are demonstrably keen for an adaptable, smart environment (presumably to achieve comfort) but only when the adaptations are based on external, objective or anonymised personal inputs.

Essentially: “Smart, but not weird” (where the definition of “weird” is both highly subjective, and constantly moving). The good news: people all want similar features. The bad news: people have a huge spectrum of views on how to make that real.

And what about smart work spaces?

The smart features people most like in their work space are:

  • Air monitoring system to provide cleaner air – 85% said they ‘like’ or ‘like very much’
  • Generates its own energy – 84%
  • Motion sensors to reduce energy consumption – 83%

These are the same top three, albeit in a different order, that people want to see in their homes. It’s pleasing to see people’s awareness – and consistently between home and work – about how technology can accelerate energy reductions. Green brands can take comfort from the fact that people want to do their bit. 

Unsurprisingly, the features people disliked the most were still based around personal actions:

  • System that knows when you enter and signs you in/out automatically – 13% said they ‘dislike’ or ‘dislike a lot’
  • Being greeted upon entry by name through an electronic system – 24% 

It’s safe to assume that the wariness around these features comes from people’s suspicion over employers tracking their movements and time onsite. 

The lesson for brands providing smart building features seems to be universal: provide usefulness and comfort, not intrusiveness.

Overall, it’s a ‘yes’ for smart buildings

When asked whether they’d be more or less inclined to live or work in a smart building than a regular building, the vast majority are more or equally inclined. Just 13% said they’d be less inclined to live in a smart building, and 8% to work in a smart building.

While these numbers are small, it is at least clear that – in general – people may naturally be less likely to turn their home into a smart building than to work in one. This may link desires to maintain personal privacy, balanced with personal freedoms.

The onus is on building operators and suppliers to provide peace of mind that people won’t need to surrender their liberties to achieve smartness.

Future scope

I’d be really interested to see what the picture’s like in the US and other geographies and whether there are regional approaches taken by people when thinking about smart buildings. Do more libertarian attitudes come into play in some regions?

In such a fast-moving industry, this is one of those research areas that would also need iterative updates to track trends and identify new opportunities – that’s something that’d be fascinating to do, and something you can luckily do with the Attest platform. If you’d like to see this, please just let us know!



My hypothesis (big tech and the digital age has made people draw a line and deem smart building features a step too far) has been proved correct. 

Okay, maybe it wasn’t the most unexpected result – technology is eating the world, and buildings are included in that. But it’s certainly informative to know that there is a boundary that some people aren’t willing to cross when it comes to installing smart tech, particularly in their homes, and where that boundary is strongest/weakest. 

Yes, the number of people from our research opposed to some smart features is low; perhaps encouragingly low from providers’ perspectives. But those detractors do still exist, and seemingly not without good reason. It’d be wise for providers to bear in mind that there is a limit to how much people are willing to hand over to big tech (and even small tech).

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Jeremy King


Jeremy founded Attest in mid-2015, following 9 years leading global teams across industries at McKinsey & Company. He holds an MBA from Harvard Business School, originally trained as a scientist with a focus on genetics, ecology and animal behaviour, and also helps to improve state primary schools with his charity work.

See all articles by Jeremy