The home, household goods & services

Smart meters and burst pipes

Infrastructure companies, often seen as slow and ponderous, are smartening up their networks. Whether it’s smart meters for water supply, smart grids for electricity, or dynamic tolling, we can expect more efficiency, less waste, and more user pays.

Thames Water installs new pipes with wireless sensors and actuators so it can tell a main is broken even before a customer calls. The company is investing 100 million pounds so it can take remote action and automate many of its processes, such as dealing with leaks, scheduling work crews or texting customers. Much of this work involves analysing data. For example, there is always a spike in water use at half time during the World Cup!

Smart meters put intelligence between users and devices, ultimately to lower peak load and keep peak generating capacity down. Accenture says there are 90 smart-grid projects in the world today with more than 76 million smart meters installed last year (forecast to be 212 million by 2015). Morgan Stanley believes this market will grow from $US20 billion last year to $US100 billion in 2030. For a good example, go to Boulder Colorado, where Xcel Energy has installed more than 20,000 smart meters, tracks power use, and offers pricing plans to encourage off-peak consumption and “demand response”.

Singapore charges drivers for using popular roads, adjusts traffic lights with traffic flow, uses data collected from taxis to track average driving speed, and is working on a system that offers parking guidance (cars trying to park cause congestion). It may become the first city to introduce dynamic pricing on its road, according to the level of congestion. Could similar systems work for other things that use grids in the future? Smart meters, smart grids: perhaps the time will come when even the dumbest things will be smart!
Ref: The Economist, 6 November 2010, Making every drop count. Anon.
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Search words: London, Thames Water, pipes, wireless sensors, actuators, data collection, TaKaDu, Colorado, smart grids, GPS, Toll Collect, dynamic pricing, desalination plants, Singapore.
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"Fashion miles"

The next time you put on a designer dress, think about where it might have come from. The fabric could be Italian, the design Australian, and the production Chinese. In fact, it can be hard to believe the made-in label. The made-in label says little about the quality, safety, social or environmental aspect of the garment. And do people really care about the provenance of a brand?

The trend now is to emphasise provenance because affluent people do care. When there is too much choice, people need a reason to buy other than simply liking what they see. One innovative designer, Christopher Raeburn, emphasises British provenance by using dead-stock military fabric to create parachute parkas and battledress wool coats. The founder of a shoemaker, Skive, has moved production from China to Spain because all the leather came from Europe or the UK and it just created unnecessary “fashion miles”.

In Los Angeles, the garment district is being reinvigorated. After all, many brands have a strong American provenance, and it doesn’t make sense for the economy to manufacture in a totally different culture. The New York garment district is also aiming to create special zoning powers so space there is not converted into offices. One designer, Nanette Lepore, now produces 80% of her clothing in this district. On the flip side, some brands are employing Chinese workers on European soil, eg, Prato in Tuscany, to keep their wages low and reduce fashion miles.

How people react to made-in labels depends a lot on where they are from. The Japanese, for example, deeply appreciate a Made in England tag, while many French consumers prioritise brand over quality. The British put quality before brand. Meanwhile, in Italy, textile producers are pressing for label legislation that says “Made in Italy” can only to be used if two principal manufacturing phases take place in Italy. They are lobbying France and Spain to do the same, even though it flouts EU rules.

Provenance in many ways is the privilege of the affluent, because people who aren’t wealthy just buy what is cheap. The trend for Authenticity or Fauxthenticity fits in with this (see The customer is right now). It’s also a reaction to globalisation, which tends to homogenise cultures and brands. Provenance is a form of differentiation. Next time you read a label, ask yourself what it means to you.
Ref: Monocle (UK), October 2010, Moral fibres - global. Sophie Grove.
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Search words: ethical, provenance, fashion, manufacturing, “made in”, outsourcing, brands, heritage, xenophobia.
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It’s hard to believe, but TNS, a research firm, says UK housewives spend 47% of their leisure time online. This is higher than the UK average of 28% and China’s national average, which is the highest in the world. The question is: if this figure is true, what are they doing? About half are making money online, and 5% of them (mousewives!) make more than 200 pounds per week. According to Mumsnet, which has 20 million monthly page views, mums go online to replace the communities they’ve lost and because they haven’t got time for conversations across the fence. Hmm, 47% of time on the internet doesn’t leave much time for garden chats, so that's a very virtual spiral (up there with using brain training games on screens because screens are harming our brains).

What else are these mums doing? Some women are snooping. A joint study by LSE and Nottingham Trent University says that women snoop on their partners’ internet activity. Some 14% of wives read their husband’s emails and 10% check their browsing history, compared to 8% and 7% of men, respectively. Some women must be shopping, or researching products they intend to buy.

Zoe Williams, Guardian columnist, has a slightly less savoury explanation. She thinks women are indulging in distasteful fantasies about what they would like to do to paedophiles, baby killers, or Jihad Jane. It’s a kind of extension of reading women’s magazines to see how celebrities look on a bad day. We think that anyone spending 47% of their leisure time online must be desperate for something meaningful to do. Assuming, of course, that they have any leisure time at all.
Ref: The Guardian Weekend, 17 July 2010, Of mice and women. Zoe Williams.
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Search words: privacy, browser, snooping, porn, housewives, internet, Mumsnet, paedophiles, Facebook, Jihad Jane.
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The incredible lightness of being

The trend towards buying less resurfaces regularly but sparked by different events, whether 9/11, recession, or environmental consciousness. Now a new group of young people, termed Generation Zero, has made a cult of buying little, working in third spaces, and living simply. They might once have been called hippies, but they are high tech and highly mobile.

Even Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, considers himself minimalist, and there is plenty of evidence on websites, blogs and in bookshops (eg, The 100 thing challenge: How I got rid of almost everything, remade my life and regained my soul), to suggest that it is indeed a growing cult. The founder of the website,, listed everything he owned then revealed his attempts to sell or give away most of it except portable computer technology. Now all his books, CDs and DVDs can be stored on one hard drive – no more need for book shelves! Thanks to digital downloads, streaming services and cloud computing, no more need for excess furniture.

It begs the question whether these people are too young to have become attached to anything. It’s a lot harder for a 45-year-old to get rid of a lifetime of possessions than someone just out of university. It’s also ironic that Generation Zero isn’t forced to adopt the minimalist stance out of poverty. In fact, it’s wealthy masquerading as poor. We believe this is a cult – in the sense that only a few, probably the young, will adopt it. Just wait til they have kids and let’s see how crowded with stuff their one-room apartments are then!
Ref: The Times (UK), 29 October 2010, The cult of less. Ben Machell.
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Search words: young, high-tech, possessions, minimalism, Generation Zero, consumption,
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Not just bananas in pyjamas

Your grandmother would be horrified – it’s now officially OK to go out in your pyjamas. Nightwear is nice. Some call it “lounge culture”, which sounds fairly similar to “couch potato”, but let’s not just to conclusions. It’s cool to go out in pyjamas because celebrities do it and because people who work at home are cool and they wear them. Pyjamas that travel easily from nightwear to daywear have a cool term: “third wardrobe”.

Mintel, a research firm, says nightwear sales have gone up 9% in the past 5 years, and is up 10.3% for women’s nightwear. Half of women wear pyjamas, compared to a third of men. Pyjama owners are more likely to be under 35 and men tend to prefer to wear just the bottoms. Apparently only 3% of pyjama owners wear them to look attractive. The word is comfort. Experts claim that pyjamas offer emotional and physical comfort in a scary, chaotic world and, in many countries, much colder winters. Such informality can only thrive in a digital world, where people don’t have to face each other if they don’t want to, work can be done in the lounge, and conversations happen by text message. In the digital world, everyone could be naked.
Ref: The Daily Telegraph (UK), 15 November 2010, In a chaotic world, jim-jams are seeing the light of day. Richard Alleyne.
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Search words: “lounge culture”, “third wardrobe”, comfort, pyjamas, homeworkers, escapism, nightwear.
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