Executive interview: Andrew Brem, Connected Homes, British Gas

British Gas is digitising energy. Andrew Brem speaks to Computer Weekly about the internet connected home

Andrew Brem is managing director of commercial & product development at the Connected Homes business of British Gas.

Connected Homes is the part of British Gas which develops technology to help people monitor and control their energy usage.

Brem says: "Energy is fundamental to modern life. But it is intangible, costly and pretty hard to differentiate." Brem says consumers do not understand energy. His goal at British Gas is to empower the consumer. "I came to do this at British Gas because it represents one of the biggest challenges."

The challenge for British Gas is how to differentiate energy. "We provide energy and heating services – both are pretty expensive and pretty important and they are intangible until they have gone – then you care about it."

Given the ease of switching between utilities thanks to prices comparison sites,  British Gas has been looking at what makes its service compelling. While utilities may focus on customer service or cost as their key differentiators, British Gas is now offering technology for the home as a value add. "Apps and the internet have transformed the home entertainment, but they have not had much impact on the rest of the home," he says.

"People seem to lead unpredictable lives, but unlike much of life, the home is totally fixed and not related to how they run their life."

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But this is changing. For instance, paying for parking via a smartphone has many benefits, he says.

Through Connected Homes, British Gas provides a service and app to switch the heating on and off remotely. Brem says: "It is intuitive and consumers totally get remote heating control."

The British Gas system is called Remote Heating Control and, according to Brem, 40% people interact with it at least once a day. "Almost 25% of gas usage is wasted when either you are not at home or when you are asleep. Remote Heating Control lets you control gas consumption."

Digital business

Creation of the business unit at British Gas was a strategic decision. Brem has responsibility for creating the product. He has a commercial background. Previously Brem ran GeekSquad for Carphone Warehouse. For the development of Remote Heating Control Brem says British Gas broke with tradition.

"We have a different way of working. We are doing more development in-house so we can work in a lean way.We have a team who specify the product and use a lean agile development process and in-house developers to build the apps."

The people who design the product sit next to the people who write the code. Brem believes this approach enables the team to meet the needs of the customers better. He has also chosen to locate the team in central London to benefit from the talent pool in the capital.

Having worked in digital industries for a long time, Brem says it was a great opportunity to work at British Gas to create a technology product.

"It is very innovative for us to give consumers digital products," he says. There is obviously a business case. "It is about joining the dots. We have traditional energy products. Smart meters gives people control. It is revolutionary but I feel the company is doing the right thing."

For Brem, affordability is important, given that internet-connected smart home devices have previously been costly. "If you choose to use our product it saves you energy, so we need to think creatively of a way for people to pay for it, such as a monthly subscription like SaaS."

Much of your home is as a dumb pile of bricks, but it is ready for a revolution

Andrew Brem

Remote Heating Control costs £199 and requires a British Gas engineer to install the device a hub to a consumer's broadband router. It also uses a control box connected via ZigBee, the wireless spec for smart equipment.

Once fitted, Remote Heating Control provides a web front end for users to control and monitor their heating.

"There is a huge amount of data crunching we believe we can give back to customers," Brem says. For instance, he says many customers do not set a schedule in their thermostat, which can mean they are wasting energy unnecessarily. "We can nudge them into doing this."

Brem is speaking at the AppsWorld conference running on 22-23 October 2013 in London. His presentation will look at how to take advantage of smartphones, ubiquitous home broadband and miniaturisation to synchronise the home. He says: "Much of your home is as a dumb pile of bricks, but it is ready for this revolution. My personal expectation is that you will very much take it for granted you can control heating remotely."

The internet connected home is already a phenomenon in the US.

"In the US it is normal to have internet home security, real time video monitoring and remote door locking. Today in the UK this is a bit unworldly, but once you start on the road of connecting the home, people will quickly take it for granted."

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