How the internet will eat your home

(This post will link all the threads of client work I’ve had since I wrote my book on Smart Homes. You could call this ‘the missing chapter’.)

So the UK government has just announced it will start fining landlords who rent out properties that are below an E rating on their Energy Performance Certificate. In 2030, it’ll be a C rating. This is the second time (that I can find) that this policy has been attempted. In the Netherlands, all offices will have to be rated C by 2023. What’s going on?

Well, it turns out the ‘digital transformation’ revolution is coming after your home life. Why? Climate change.

What you do counts and will soon be counted. Here’s why.

The UK housing stock is old and people don’t improve on it often enough. Most people don’t consider energy efficiency when they buy a home (source p.6) The average interpretation of energy improvement is to service (43%)or replace a boiler (32%). Only in 18% of cases will someone decide to insulate their loft (source p.11). Less than 10% will insulate their walls. If you’re renting or sharing a flat you probably don’t care, because you have no power in a conversation with your landlord about energy efficiency. And you’re not going to be in that flat for long anyway. In London, people will move every 5 years and outside of London it’s around 17. That’s a lot of churn.

If we see ourselves as caretakers of the earth, we may want to start talking about the ‘life’ of a home as having several generations of caretakers. What’s the solution here? Well back in 2016, Mark Simpkins and I drew up an idea of a data brick which would collect and anonymise information about a home over the course of multiple tenants and owners. Something that belongs to the space rather than to people. Something that captures information we all might need like: ‘how many times has this property flooded over the last 20 years?’ ‘who did the repair work and were they any good?’ ‘how much did you pay for your bills in winter and how many people were you?’. This information should be embedded securely in a space rather than ‘out there’ for others to use. But equally, it could be polled for publicly relevant research. I’m going to be digging into this with Mark this year and see what happens.

As of the last quarter of 2019, only 28% of UK homes have a smart meter. So what does that mean? There’s a pretty good amount of research done on ‘average use’ so I imagine that in the near future, this may be used against people. ‘It looks like you’re spending too much for your home’s footprint, you’ve been charged a £30 carbon tax for the year’ is not too far away from where we’re going. Who will this affect? The uber rich with a swimming pool in the basement, the electric car owners charging at home and large families who are at home most of the time. So it’s going to get complicated very quickly. The thing about this is that it doesn’t required ‘live data’ it just requires your EAC (estimated annual consumption) which is reasonably easy to obtain. Who will be in charge of the tax? Not sure. It could be a way for the government of moving the 3/4 of home owners who have not changed energy tariffs (source p.6) in the last year and move everyone to renewable providers.

And then there’s your internet home use. The connected devices, things and services you’re streaming or using on ‘always-on’ mode. Alexa I’m looking at you sideways girl. Michelle Thorne at Mozilla Foundation wrote a nice blog post about this because most internet service providers are in the business of shrugging it off. Carbon offsetting for your movie might feel weird but the cooling (ie. energy requirements) for data centres is off the charts and probably explains why we keep building nuclear power plants. What could happen? I can see a near-future world where some people sign up to a ‘green’ energy provision which just doesn’t work all the time because it relies on solar power as a next generation virtue signalling or ‘voluntary simplicity’. After all, what are you using the internet for if not to spend too much time not connecting to your partner, child or pet. I can see Gwyneth Paltrow advocating being #internetfree or only using a #greenscreen Even if a generation of influencing young people do this, it’ll make a dent on energy use in shared housing and might even revive a highstreet and pub or two. Because otherwise we’re talking technical solutions like some crazy add-ons that let you track the carbon emissions use of all those tabs you keep open and that’s good for some but will depress others. We already struggle to keep people engaged and recycling or buying less, how we police their internet use will have to be done carefully.

So yeh, there’s loads to do and lots of it in the realm of the dystopian or practical. In the meantime I think a lot of creative and tech people are keen to get involved (judging by some tweets lately) but with not too much experience of working in these complicated areas before. I’m organising The Low Carbon Design Institute as an opportunity to explore these topics over the summer in the UK. Otherwise you could do worse than to follow the events put on by the Energy Systems Catalpult, Connected Places Catapult and research produced by the Cass Asset Management Research Institute and the UCL Energy Institute . And of course there’s Overlay who I’ve been doing research for, Jack Kelly’s work at Open Climate Fix and Gavin Stark’s IceBreakerOne. It’s a good time to be in London for these topics, regardless of the political and actual weather. Bring an umbrella though.

Author of 'Smarter Homes: how technology has changed your home life' (Apress, 2018) Writing a book on corporate innovation culture out in 2020. Designer. UK.

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