July 7th, 2023

In conversation with... Adam Williams

Throughout his whole career, the common theme in Adam's approach has been an abiding passion for enabling technology that positively impacts on the way we live. We sit down with him to hear his thoughts on why he thinks the smart home is not a category in its own right, but rather an education exercise.

Adam Williams is a commercial executive with over 25 years experience in delivering growth for new technology businesses across the UK and Europe. 

From a background with global companies including Samsung and Sony, he has broad expertise in the connected home space, including SmartThings, Enjoy Technology, Lightwave RF, and Mila.

Adam also has a long standing involvement with the Smart Homes and Buildings Association and is a board trustee of the Electrical Safety Board. In his current role as CEO of Hero Labs, Adam is helping to shape smart water management for a more sustainable future. 

Throughout his whole career, the common theme in Adam's approach has been an abiding passion for enabling technology that positively impacts on the way we live. 

What is it about smart technology that's captured your attention for so long? I've been in consumer technology my whole career, my whole adult life, and I think the real tipping point was when I was at Samsung, I was part of the team involved in onboarding SmartThings when Samsung acquired them around eight or nine years ago. And by engaging with SmartThings and with that team and looking at Samsung's vision for the time for IoT to be integrated into every product and every device, I could see the real potential of this concept of IoT. What does the Internet of things even mean? How it would be the glue that brought together other technologies to deliver. I know it's an old cliche to say a greater than the sum of the parts thing, but I could really see the potential in that. 

But actually my other realisation fairly on is that there's no such thing as a smart home. Because every single home you walk into in this country and every single occupant of that home is different. They have different needs. The home has different wiring, piping, room sizes, layouts, the walls are made of 17 different types of material. There isn't one smart home solution. There are 28 million in this country. Right? Because there's that many homes and everyone is different. So that's what captures my attention is how on earth do you solve a challenge like that?

It’s clearly a passion that runs deep for you. Can you remember the first bit of tech that left a lasting impression on you?

Not without giving away my age, no. Can I say Chat GPT so that I sound young and cool? Ok, fine. When I was like nine or ten years old. My mum, who's always been much more visionary and far thinking than me, turned up at home one day with a BBC Micro B. It was one of the early computers before the so-called PC, before Bill Gates, before Microsoft, before any of that, and it had 32kb RAM for an operating memory.

On this thing, I learned BBC Basic coding language, which, I mean, even the title, this stuff's basic. This was before Python was even an idea or C plus. And I learned to write games, really basic ones, bat and ball, stuff like that, and it was just absolutely fascinating. So I’ve gone from that very fundamental, basic understanding of technology at that very early stage, I guess, and it has left a lasting impression on me. I don't pretend to understand Edge or Cloud or these other platforms or cloud solutions, but at its core is information processing and how that manifests itself in every corner of our lives.

You’ve talked in the past about the idea that technology will only ever be as good as the value that humanity can extract from it. What did you mean by that?

For 20 odd years of my career now, I have been an almost reluctant, resistant member of the tech community, because I'm constantly frustrated by the gap between what technology can do and the actual experience people get from it. There are two great broken promises with technology in general. First is that it automatically makes life easier. And second, that it works. We all know the frustration of being made to feel stupid by technology that's supposed to make life easier. 

Good tech should be making something better in the background. It takes a pain point away and it makes something better than it was without it. If it provides an extra layer of interface or an extra layer of complexity or a barrier to the solution, then it's actually worse than not being there. That's the test for me, of tech. It provides a benefit by its existence for people who are not techies. And I'll come on to more of that, I think, later on about the way technology forces people to deal with it on its own terms rather than on human terms.

What I am passionate about exploring is this question: how do we turn that equation into one where the human is in control and the user experience is one where technology adds a layer of enhancement and benefit, not another layer of things to figure out or get through to get a solution to a problem.

It’s only really early adopters who enjoy the challenge and satisfaction of mastering technology. The rest of us, myself included, just want the technology to do the job we need it to for us. 

Have you seen the industry change its perception to putting the human experience at the heart of the matter? How much have you seen the rate of change in smart technology specifically with regards to this idea of sort of humanity at the heart?

I think I'm a bit controversial and a bit of a renegade because my reaction is counterintuitive because the obvious answer to that is oh yes, it's an exponential acceleration and there's a whole wave of industry 4.0 going to come from AI. And that's the stock answer and I agree with all of that. 

But actually there's always a lag between the rate of uptake of technology as a function and human acceptance of it. You don't change the world with technology, you change the world with humans embracing and applying technology. 

One of my favourite quotes is William Gibson, who in 1996 said “the future is already here, it's just unevenly distributed.” And I absolutely love that because it's in solving the uneven distribution of technology that you move the world forward. It's by finding applications and solutions where it achieves greater adoption by manufacturers, by installers, by retailers, their job in educating consumers and by consumers themselves. So I think that we could do better the more we study that idea, rather than focus on whether we can get the resolution of a television from 720p to 2k to 4k to 8k…

Those things are all great developments and leaps forward, but sometimes they leave the consumer behind. We all want bigger numbers, faster speeds and feeds, but to what end? What's the benefit? 

So what I've observed is that while technology gets smarter, adoption takes time and sometimes more time, it actually slows down because the end users and those who serve them, like installers and retailers, have to adjust to an increasingly complex ecosystem of technologies trying to work together. That's the great barrier that determines the speed of uptake. We're seeing electricians and plumbers only now really starting to own the problem and the solution in recommending these technologies to their customers at a mass scale. 

And I take my hat off to brands like Ring and this is a bit of a plug for Beacon because I know that you guys did a great job in helping them bring the education piece forward with installers, with their Ring Pro scheme. But that's not the reason why I picked them, because they've really invested in educating the industry, educating the trade, giving people the confidence that smart technology isn't some detached, separate thing that your average plumber or your average electrician can't get their head round.

It's just the next thing in the evolution of the products and the technologies that they would install right the way from the invention of the pipe all the way through to now. And now you can see the light going. When I was at Lightwave, we created Lightwave Pro and I joined a lot of the training sessions and you could see these electricians come in and kind of go, what's all this nonsense about? And there'd be this moment where you'd see the light go on in their head and they'd kind of go, this stuff really isn't that complicated and no, it's really not. And actually they'd then be telling us we'd be learning from them about how this technology could be implemented into the home and what it was we needed to do as manufacturers to make it easier for the customer and easier for them to serve their customers. And so I'd argue that today Lightwave learns as much from their network of installers as their installers learn from Lightwave. And that's when you know you're getting it right, when you're working in partnership with the industry.

This change in perception – not only in the consumer, but also the people who are enabling the connection with the consumer, the installers etc – has been one of the big challenges the industry continues to face, educating people, helping them to evolve etc. What do you think are some of the biggest challenges the smart home industry faces, as well as some of the biggest opportunities?  

That's a great question. I think I'll pull out a few things, if I may. The first is the industry needs to adjust constantly as smart technology shifts the very definitions of categories in “the good old days”. Not that I think there was ever a golden or nostalgic period. It's easy to look back. But I’m old enough to have been there when the internet got invented and then this thing called Amazon came along and everybody absolutely freaked out. And now we have amazing omnichannel retailers like Curries and all the rest of it who balance the need for providing a customer experience, etc. But within that there's been a fundamental paradigm shift in what is a category? Is there a television category or is there a whole home entertainment ecosystem that involves mobile devices? Well, of course there is. How do you educate the customer and guide the customer to make great choices in that? It's true in every other part. There's fridges and dishwashers and washing machines and all the rest of it. They sound very boring. People don't want “white goods”, they want amazing meals and social experiences with their loved ones. They're trying to get a great kitchen. And smart technology is as relevant in that as it is in the home entertainment environment. 

But how do you tell that story? So the first one is to me, smart technology is not a category, but in the early days it was treated as a category. So the greatest challenge for the industry is to define how to tell the story. But then the greatest opportunity is to then bring that story to life for consumers. 

I think the second challenge is a huge one, and in this lies the greatest challenge to date, but also a great opportunity going forward: interoperability. Consumers just don't buy into something where they need seven different apps to manage a smart doorbell and a smart door lock and a smart water control system like we offer etc. They do need different apps because they want the benefits that all of those different technologies provide. But devices need to work and they need to work together. You wouldn't buy a house that's got electrical systems that operate on different voltages where you couldn’t plug someone from one side of the house into the other side.

It's the same with technology. It needs to surface and work in the right way. And at Hero Labs, we're very collaborative with building management systems and other platforms that offer consumers the choice about how to integrate this technology more seamlessly. And the emergence of protocols, standardisations, like Matter, and the fact that it's backed by the world's biggest technology brands, are extremely important to give the consumer confidence that they're able to buy into an ecosystem that won't be obsolete in a few years. That's absolutely huge. 

The last point I think I'd make to this question is obviously I've got to, at some point give a nod towards what's coming down the rails in terms of AI and machine learning. Everybody's all over Chat GPT at the moment, and that is profound. But it's the tip of the iceberg. Artificial intelligence in itself and machine learning in general will transform the benefits of smart technology on a level where, to quote Jeff Bezos, we're not even at the end of the first day of this industrial revolution, and it's a societal revolution as well. In terms of just a couple of examples, the intelligent learning systems, if you think about how they will work. 

I was talking earlier about how there's no such thing as a smart home. There are 28 million smart homes in this country. Imagine when AI is able to intelligently learn on a level of how you use appliances, what your occupancy patterns are, what your behaviour is, not just for water use, but for power use, for home security, for all of those things. AI delivers us the opportunity to create that breakthrough experience that is tailored to everybody's needs, as well as the hardware technology and the sensors and all the rest of it. And the second one is, of course, the data insights that come off that, the aggregated data insights. Understanding how you're using energy and how you're using water to be more sustainable, to be more a responsible consumer and to save money during the cost of living crisis. But imagine if you take all of that data up to the aggregated level. That data literally enables us to design better buildings, it enables us to produce better risk management of properties and therefore lower insurance costs.

So we're talking to a lot of insurers who are super interested in our technology to help reduce risk. Product design, continuous improvement in product design, features that can be served… We've got an almost endless list of features that we could serve to our customers. The data from machine learning will enable us to innovate faster and better, and iterate better than ever before on how we provide services and solutions through our products and through product features to customers. So the evolution of innovation in technology is going to drive everything, including the very buildings that get designed and built in the first place, without trying to sound too profound. It's enormous. So the opportunity is absolutely profound.

You mentioned a belief that we shouldn’t refer to the smart home as a category in its own right. What did you mean by this? 

I’ll answer that with an example. And I need to caveat what I’m about to say with the fact that I’m an absolutely huge fan of John Lewis as a retailer. They’ve taken the great service, product selection and in-store shopping experience and they’ve taken that proposition online. So they’ve been at the absolute forefront of implementing technology into their business and they're also prepared to take risks. So there's my big old caveat. 

But a few years ago, they did this amazing thing where they took a whole floor at their Oxford Street flagship store and they turned it into a smart home-dedicated floor. They could see this was going to be the next great shift that would disrupt all departments and categories, so they physically built a retail experience around the smart home. Whether you're there shopping for pushchairs and car seats for your young one, or you're there to buy clothes, or you're there in the book department or kitchenware or whatever it might be, they could see that this cut across every category or department or room of the home that they design. So they devoted a lot of retail space to telling that story. 

And it was a really interesting experiment in whether people do actually shop for smart tech? And I think people have unfortunately spent millions of pounds finding out the answer is no. 

People shop for a nicer kitchen or cooking or family time around preparing food in the home. They shop for better downtime and they'll invest in entertainment technology to help them enjoy a film, either on their own or with friends or with their family, to have music light up their lives around the home through multiroom, whether it's Sonos or whatever else around the rest of your home. So I take my hat off to them for being pioneering and developing that sort of thing. But what we learned from it was you need to embed the smart home story or the smart tech story into every other category. You can't create a category called Smart Home. You’ve got to work harder. You've got to tell the story about how smart tech enables an amazing home entertainment experience or improves the life around your kitchen, both in terms of making life easier, helping you prepare nicer meals, enjoying a family meal, whatever it might be.

So it's almost that we shouldn't be seeing it as a category, but rather an education exercise, to encourage people to choose smart features as part of that value-adding decision?

Exactly that. Education has to be at the heart of this. The speed at which this technology is adopted is a function not only of the ability to develop the technology - in fact it's less that, because the technology is already here - it's to convey and educate the benefits. But it's not just that. Education is central but it's also the installer and the manufacturer who also need to be continuously educated. 

If I was putting together a social media campaign to hawk myself out as a TED Talking Guru, what would be on my little graphic on LinkedIn and Facebook? I'd say there are the following words: it's all about education, interoperability, the user experience and the service for life. What the consumer wants to know: what the hell is it, what does it do for me? Is it going to work? And is it gonna work with my other stuff? What's the experience of that going to be like? And if I pay for this stuff and have it put in my house, is it going to be then as easy to get ongoing service, support and maintenance for that as it is for my current boiler or existing thermostat etc. 

So yes, it is about education, but not just the consumer. What about the installer? The installer needs to be absolutely confident that he can educate his own customer on this and that he can install with confidence. And the manufacturers themselves need to continuously re-educate themselves, not just on the technology that's available to them, but what the consumer is saying to them about what they like and what they don't like. 

There's this perception that price is the blocker, and while that is obviously a factor for some people, more often than not it's actually because people think what they already have is fine. How do you convey value to someone who might think twice before changing their habits?

The technology industry is the only one I can think of that forces the people that it's trying to sell to, to support, or to serve, to learn a new language just to interact with it. If you go down the high street today and stop 20 people to ask them what HDMI stands for, none of them would be able to tell you but all of them would know what an HDMI cable does, because they've learned the language. 4k, what is it? Bluetooth, what's that got to do with wireless technology? WiFi, what does it mean? Why do I need to know my Router is 2.4 gigahertz, what the hell are gigahertz? What does it all even mean? So my challenge is not that people are set in their ways, but that we don't talk to them in a language that is reasonable for them to understand, which is we need to talk benefit, not tech. 

To group people up and treat them as one group is over simplistic, but if I'm guilty of my own charge, if we broadly divide people up, there's a fundamental mindset and philosophy difference between early adopters and the rest of us. Early adopters are different in the sense that they gain satisfaction from mastering the technology, they like being knowledgeable about it, they like being in control of the technology, and they enjoy being the person in their social group that other people ask for advice about tech, as well as often being a hobby. You can absolutely relate to and talk to early adopters by talking tech, because they get it. But trying to cross that chasm into the rest of us, the rest of the population, it's an absolute error to then try and continue in the same language. They shop on benefits. So you have to show people what's on offer fulfils their need that they already have in a better way than before. Or than what the alternatives are. You win because you say this solves your problem better than what else is available, either traditionally or in terms of other tech on the market. 

Your own personal expectation of technology and what you want it to do - regardless of age - you need to respect that it’s the human experience that matters, not whether this technology can do something in a bit more of a clever way than the other technology. 

It would be remiss of us not to talk about the bigger factors at play here; we're facing not only a cost of living crisis, there's an energy crisis, a climate crisis, conflict in the world, there's so many things in our brains that mean the internet of things has to work harder just to earn its place at the table, let alone be seen as a valued contributor to the conversation. Tell me about Hero Labs and where your mission fits into that wider context of the world.

That's a brilliant question, which points to a manyfold and complex global set of challenges, things we need to address. I'll probably give a very simple response, and sorry to sound like a broken record, but coming back to my point about showing people the benefit. When costs are rising, incomes are under strain, people are trying to do their best around saving energy, not just for their pockets but for sustainability... you've got to translate how the solution that you're working hard to bring to them and to the world is not just that tech is a luxury option. 

Take Sonic, which is our smart water valve, so named because we utilise ultrasonic technology to extremely accurately measure water flows and therefore detect even the tiniest leaks etc. I can honestly say by definition it reduces costs, it reduces risks, it reduces waste (including not just water, but energy consumption, because one of the largest uses of energy in the home is heating up water for various things, so the two goes hand in hand) and therefore it directly addresses carbon footprint, cost of living crisis, sustainability etc. UK home insurance claims for water leaks and non-weather related water damage in the home is bigger than all fire damage claims and home burglary claims combined. It's a huge problem. And that doesn't even mentioned the emotional and quality of life impact, floods are disastrous. 

Did you know, 97% of homes have a smoke detector - quite right to! - around 40% of homes now have some kind of video camera, and yet only 7% of homes have any kind of leak detection. So the biggest potential cost and impact to people has the smallest penetration. Because it's not something you think about it until it has happened to you, that's the greatest challenge. So by putting in the kind of technology that we offer it means it massively reduces your risk of that impact and therefore fewer claims, which means lower costs, lower insurance premiums, lower excess, less likely to even make a claim in the first place. And there's a wellness factor too, with flow sensors, temperature sensors and pressure sensors, they all enable us to determine the risk of legionella for example, if water is stagnant, we can signal a risk. Or we could provide data to carers at an elderly residential home to identify changes in occupancy or usage patterns; going to the loo or making a cup of tea, it creates a kind of digital footprint that is incredibly insightful. So it really does sound like a cake and eat it moment. But it really is! That's why I'm so passionate about it, and this is just the beginning. 

This is not about smart tech for its own sake or technology as a luxury option, this is about very big, very real, very old problems, using new solutions. That for me is the definition of technology. 

Finally, we ask all our guests this last question, because it’s something we are passionate about. If there's a reason we exist it's to make connections with the world around us. What do you see is the role of technology to this idea of connectedness?

I think that's a really lovely and profound thought to finish on. My response would be: what does technology exist for? If technology doesn't help us to be more human, to live better, to be closer to each other and more connected, to solve problems, then it's a barrier not an enabler. Technology should serve us, not the other way around. 

The media response to technology, you can broadly charge into two chunks: technology putting humans in more control, then the story is about the endless possibilities and opportunities, incredibly positive. Or the way to scare people is to suggest that technology is going to remove control, when the human is not in control. 

So all technology has the power to do great good and potential harm, but we all have the choice in that at whatever level it may be: government level, societal level, individual level, community level, family level. We have to stay in control. And as long as that is the case, then the possibilities are endless.

Thank you, Adam!

You can listen to our full interview in The Smart Life Podcast. Or if you’d like to share your views on the smart home industry, we’re always looking more IoT big thinkers to sit down and chat with, so get in touch.

Here at Beacon, we specialise in finding innovative, people-centric ways to bring the world of the smart home to life. Got a story you need help telling? Get in touch with us today.