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Eco Towns and Halfway Houses

The government has announced plans for a series of eco towns. On face value you’d expect the green lobby to be very pleased. Unfortunately the greenest aspect of these towns seems to be where they will be constructed: on green field sites in lush green parts of the country. Understandably the current residents of those areas aren’t too happy.

If these new developments were genuinely valuable in the fight against climate change, I’d be inclined to dismiss the complaints as conservative (with both a small and large ‘c’) nimbyism (especially given the social profile of the areas in which they have been proposed — Tim Henman’s father is leading one of the ‘no’ campaigns, for example).

If these were sites that had been chosen as ideal for wind farms or solar installations, I’d be arguing that the local residents had to put up and shut up. The need to reduce our dependence on oil overwhelms arguments about local natural beauty, when you consider the much greater havoc that climate change will wreak on every area of natural beauty.

But the green aspects of these eco towns seems to be little more than a veneer. A thin coating designed to make them palatable to the public. The problem they are really solving is social rather than ecological: a lack of affordable housing.

In Germany this week I’ve seen what appears to be a much better solution to this problem. Better socially, economically and ecologically. It’s not new and features no sexy green technologies, but on first appraisal it seems very appealing.

My wife and I are staying in a flat that her family owns in a small-ish town called Heilbronn. The flat is actually almost halfway to being a house. It is one of eight in a block, four on each side. Each side of the block has a communal staircase, and shared loft and cellar space for laundry, storage and hanging out washing. The buildings are pre-war and the ceilings high. Over time the configuration of each flat seems to have diverged considerably from the others in its block, but this one has three bed/living rooms, two of which are very large, plus a kitchen, bathroom and separate toilet.

The buildings (‘blocks’ seems to conjure up the wrong image) are set in a designated family area, a small grid of wide, leafy, part-cobbled streets through which cars are allowed but restricted to ten kilometres per hour. Playing children take priority on these roads. The whole area exists just five minutes walk from the town centre, and this being Germany, the public transport links are numerous.

The compact nature of the buildings, their location, and the shared facilities, mean that they are cheap (and relatively green) to run, and that there is minimal need for car use. Everyone seems to have a car but you don’t hear them starting up all that often. The area is mixed use, with restaurants, hairdressers, shops and various office-based businesses dotted amongst the housing, so that there are people around throughout the day, reducing the opportunities for crime. The kindergarten and school are both in walking distance — as is the supermarket.

In the UK we don’t seem to understand this type of medium-density housing. We either have towering blocks of flats in city centres where any sense of community is lost, or houses in the suburbs that consume vast quantities of space and generate car-bound commuters. There are alternatives, and I have lived in a few — notably in Reading and Edinburgh. But I haven’t seen an example where we have the recipe just right. In Reading the flats had plenty of outdoor space, but the buildings were uninspired. Dull on the outside, cramped on the inside, and constructed with no appreciation of the need for natural light. In Edinburgh the buildings were gorgeous and the flats enormous, but faced a busy main road and had no garden, or even dedicated parking.

I’m sure that good examples do exist in the UK, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have more. The vast former industrial sites around the UK’s cities are ideal for this type of development. Large, affordable places in family-friendly zones, close to town centres, constructed in a manner that engenders community. I’m not sure how it would work in the UK but here families take turns to be responsible for cleaning communal areas, including the street outside their building. The only enforcement is possible chastisement from your neighbours: no ASBOs here.

As usual this is a half-hour opinion and not a rigorously researched study. But I find it hard to believe that this approach is more complex, more expensive, or less green than the government’s proposed eco towns. And if these halfway houses lack some of the sexiness of the alternative, they could always add an eco veneer: a wind turbine here, a grey water scheme there…

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Automating the Home

Sometimes I start a post, and before I finish it, I find out something that completely turns it around. A week ago I wrote the following:

“One of the biggest sci-fi dreams of the fifties was the automated home. A collection of smart appliances that stepped beyond labour saving to intelligently manage the home environment.

The dream has evolved from the days of Robbie the Robot. Today ‘home automation’ generally refers to the networked control of lights, curtains and blinds, heating, home entertainment and security. Unfortunately it remains a reality only for the very rich or very geeky.

Remember the remote control that Ozzie struggled with on The Osbournes? Sadly that is all too often the reality when you try to implement some form of home automation on a budget. I tried a couple of years ago, using a system called X10 — one of the most popular (and cheap) home automation technologies. If you’re not familiar with it, it consists of a wide variety of modules that sit between the power supply and a device and control their operation by controlling the power. They talk to each other using signals sent over the power lines themselves, so there’s no complicated wiring involved.

It’s a beautifully simple idea, undone only by reality. Powerlines are not great conduits for data, because many devices connected to them generate ‘noise’. PCs, fluorescent lamps, motors and pumps all output considerable noise to the power system, sufficient in many cases to drown out the X10 signals.

My experiment didn’t last long before my wife started unplugging the X10 devices so that she could simply turn a lamp on. Home automation became labour generating rather than labour saving — not the idea.

It’s a shame, because I think the world is ready for some simple home automation. Look how quickly remote-control sockets have taken off. My in-laws have some so that they can control hard-to-reach switches. You can buy them in Tesco and B&Q.; They are pretty widespread.

I think it would only take a couple of moves for home automation to take off in a big way. Firstly, all of these little remote control socket kits should conform to a standard, so that they can be controlled not just from the supplied handset but from a PC or other device. Secondly, a big home store such as IKEA should start offering remote control as an option on all of its lamps and light-fittings. This way the cost of the control units becomes marginal. Those who just want to control a couple of sockets can do, and those (like me) who want to control their whole house, can make a start at a reasonable cost.”

One week later and guess what? Bumbling around B&Q; and I find the HomeEasy system. It’s been around for a couple of months but I hadn’t been down the right aisle. It appears to be cheap, robust, and flexible — everything I was after. Check out the full review at AutomatedHome.co.uk, but suffice to say, I’m buying.

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The connected home reality

What I mean by the term ‘connected home’ is a loose network of interlinked appliances and gadgets that combine to make our lives easier, more secure, and more automated, and our media more accessible. The connected home has long been a dream of futurologists and science fiction writers, and over recent years it has increasingly become a reality for the super rich. In 2008 and 2009, I think it will start to become a reality for the rest of us.

The first component of the truly connected home, and the one that will drive much of the infrastructure for the others, is access to media. Be that the web, music, video, photo, or games, we are purchasing more and more media devices that conform to home network standards. Home media servers, network MP3 players, BluRay players with Ethernet ports, broadband video services, and online gaming-capable consoles. Making the most of these devices means a wired or wireless home network and a decent broadband connection. It also means having a server of some description at the centre of it all to store, provide, and control everything else.

The next component is security. Even though crime levels have fallen dramatically (42% in the UK since 1995), our paranoia levels have continued to climb. Security hardware, such as networked cameras, alarm systems, and baby monitoring devices, increasingly conform to IP-based network standards. Not only that, but prices are falling. Now there is little barrier to people integrating their home security and monitoring with their media systems. Streaming images of your kids and nanny to your office? Easy. Setting your alarm to text you when there is a break in? Cheap to do.

The final component is home automation. This has been the biggest dream of many futurologists. Not just a home that responds to you (lights that come on when you are in the room), or the environment (turning the heating on when the house temperature drops below a certain level at certain times), but a home that actively eases your life. For example, the robot vacuum cleaner. These devices are now available, in the UK, for less than £200. At John Lewis no less! Robot mowers are also available. Currently the price of a second hand car, there’s little doubt they too will fall in price. There’s no robot housemaid yet, and internet fridge isn’t yet a practical reality, but we’re getting there.

In the way that the last ten years has been dominated by smaller and smaller gadgets for the person, I think that the next ten years is going to be dominated by connected appliances for the home.

Posted by laura on

Location, Location, Location

I’m not coming over all Kirsty and Phil (there’s a Jarvis-style joke in there somewhere). Location Based Services seem to be back with a vengeance.

Four or five years ago, LBS was the buzzword to have in your proposal if you were looking for venture capital. Companies like Cellpoint promised a world of services keyed to your location, divined by tracking your mobile phone. This promise has yet to be fulfilled.

One of the challenges is privacy: do you really want advertisers to know your location? Google, soon to be even more dominant in online marketing, has already confessed that it wants to know enough about you to tell you what to do tomorrow. Yet currently it only has access to a small proportion of information about your activities — captured when you are online. Your mobile phone is with you constantly, and so the potential for learning your habits and patterns of activity is all the greater — especially if the phone becomes intrinsically linked to purchasing.

The initial reaction is one of fear — especially amongst the more liberal media. The term ‘Orwellian’ crops up again. But chatting this through with journalist and industry commentator Guy Kewney, he questioned whether people really care about their privacy as long as they only get targeted with services and adverts that are relevant to them. Certainly the convenience factor of receiving targeted offers that are genuinely relevant is high. I receive two or three ‘newsletters’ each day that are little more than lists of special offers from given suppliers. But I’m happy to receive them because I am interested in the products.

Another industry figure, Tony Fish, has proposed a solution that addresses the privacy issue to some extent. Instead of the advertiser or ad provider knowing your location, and other information, there would instead be a centralised broker, enabling you to access all the benefits of Web and Mobile 2.0 while maintaining control of your identity and the data about your habits.

It seems certain that more services will soon take advantage of knowing our location, in addition to the other information they already collect. Given the general levels of apathy, I doubt anyone will kick up much of a fuss about Google knowing where we are, as well as who we talk to and what we search for. At least until one or other less-than-democratic government requests the information to track down ‘enemies of the state’. If you’ve seen the movie, you have been warned.

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Why Fi?

Manchester is apparently planning the UK’s largest Wi-Fi hotspot. The RFI for the project only actually mentions WiFi once, but it is much easier to tell the papers about a giant hotspot than to try and explain a mixed-media, multi-service, metro area IP network.

But once you get past the record-breaker hype, and look at the detail of what’s planned, it gets quite difficult to understand what this project is really for. And given that some of the funding for it will almost certainly be public money, that’s quite a problem.

The RFI starts with a very worthy (if a little woolly) intro about some of the issues Manchester faces. Nothing to argue with there. But it is the five suggested usage cases that tell the real story:

1: “Residents using the Network for universal, affordable access to applications such as E-mail, web browsing, instant messaging, entertainment and voice services”
Broadband is now available right across the UK at less than the price of BT line rental. It may not be at the 20–25Mbps envisioned by this plan but it is more than enough for email, web access, voice and entertainment.

2: “Businesses using the Network for remote office connectivity, supply chain integration, customer relationship management and inventory control”
So not only will this network compete for residential customers, it will also undercut business broadband offerings? There is a wealth of options out there for business broadband, from satellite, to p2p wireless, to DSL, to cable, to fibre. Why add one more?

3: “Institutions such as universities and those from the 3rd sector using the Network for increased interaction between their institution and students/members”
Because at the moment no students or universities are online?

4: “Public sector organisations using the Network, access by mobile staff, remote meter reading and remote camera/video surveillance”
Not only can all this be achieved over the existing broadband network, but there is in fact a wireless network already in place and being used to link CCTV cameras in Manchester. What are public sector staff doing that requires 20–25Mbps?

5: “Visitors using the network for remote access applications and local information”
‘Remote access applications’? If they need email, get a crackberry. If they need bandwidth, go to a coffee shop. It’s not difficult to get online when you need to.

Every application of this network can be delivered via existing fixed line, cellular and hotspot services. Why consume valuable resources to replicate these capabilities?

The intro notes that “Manchester has enormous inequalities — 40% of residents lacking NVQ level-2 qualifications, the greatest concentration of deprivation/low skills in the entire region. Many residents are excluded from the benefits of the city-region’s dynamic knowledge economy, being workless or “locked” into low-wage/low skill occupations, living in neighbourhoods characterised by poor health and housing, high crime levels and low levels of trust and social capital.”

Does the team behind this really think that adding more connectivity will solve these problems? I’m not saying it isn’t part of the solution, but given the plethora of options for meeting all of the use cases described above, surely the money for building out a new network could be better spent? Training, small enterprise funding, youth projects — plenty of options spring to mind.

If there is a provable need for WiFi access across the city, then there is a much more cost effective way to deliver it. Bartering.

Just about every business and many of the homes within the city will be connected to the internet. If people want to be able to access WiFi on the move, then get them to share their own access first.

A simply-configured, off-the-shelf access point can be plugged in to anyone’s broadband connection to create a secure mesh network. Any subscriber can access the network, as could indivduals or organisations who the subscribers felt should have access. This would require the co-operation of each subscriber’s ISP but if big public organisations are involved and the PR opportunity is right, then sufficient leverage could probably be brought to bear. Surely each business would be happy to spend £50–100 to give their employees access right across the city? And in areas where broadband penetration is low, use schools, police stations, doctors surgeries and other public institutions to house free access points, focusing money where it is needed most.

I’m not against the aims of this project — they are laudable. But there is a big gap between setting out to tackle deprivation and drive regeneration, and deciding a new IP network is the answer. This thinking may well have been done but the public document and the press coverage to date really don’t make the link very well.

Maybe I ought to respond to the RFI?

Tom Cheesewright