The home, household goods & services

Is O2 the next H20?

Many people have bemoaned the fact that one of our most basic needs, water, has been privatised or put into fancy bottles and sold back to us at vast profit. But control of water could pale into insignificance compared to control of the basic human need for air.

While the idea of companies privatising the air supply is still science fiction, air quality is becoming a huge problem, especially in rapidly developing urban regions in China and India. Companies are at the forefront of figuring out ways of making the air cleaner and charging people for the privilege of breathing it.

Globally it’s estimated that 5.5 million people die annually due to polluted air, with about half of these deaths in India and China.

Monitoring devices and basic household filters exist, but some governments are sensitive about mentioning there might be a problem. A cycle of annoyance, tolerance and forgetfulness seems to prevent solutions from being developed as fast as they should.

In February 2015 a documentary about air pollution in China, Under the Dome, received over 150 million views in a couple of days, but then disappeared.

Clean air represents an enormous commercial opportunity, especially in rapidly developing regions. But shouldn’t clean air be a basic human right, not a commercially available product for those willing or able to pay?

Ref: Prospect (UK), January 2016, ‘Smoggy weather’, by Y. Ren.
Search words: air, pollution, filters, BRICs
Trend tags: air quality

Homes that change clothes

It’s remarkable that so many homes are still built with so little regard for local climate. Housing is largely about appearance with a nod toward sustainability but little concern about how the requirements of the building, or the people within it, might change during the year.

In Japan this has never been the case. First, the idea of central heating is almost unheard of in Japan. Instead homes are designed to prioritise airflow over insulation. Small rooms and low ceilings also make rooms relatively easy to heat or cool.

Japanese climate is very different to that of Europe – it has 20 per cent more sunlight than Germany, for example. But Japanese architects think differently about how buildings can adapt to seasonal climate change.

For example, a demonstration house designed by the Building Research Trust features ‘clothes’ that can be added or removed to the house according to the seasons. Shutters can be shed in summer to reduce the heat coming in, but covered over in winter to trap heat in.

Most housing technology invented in the world since about 1950 has been US or European focused and, clearly, doesn’t suit other regions. A model that uses sunlight to warm buildings in winter and cool them using breezes in summer might be a far more sustainable option that many high-tech solutions found elsewhere.

Ref: Financial Times (UK), 14-15 November 2015, ‘Natural born chillers’ by S. Knight.
Search words: Buildings, offices, smart cities, climate change
Trend tags: Sustainability, Climate change

The golden age of data harvesting

Data harvesting sounds almost idyllic. It reminds us of people gently harvesting golden stalks of corn in a field in late summer. It’s nothing new though. Loyalty schemes have long requested information about people in return for special offers and vouchers and, in the UK, 16 million people are happy for Tesco to know more about them than the UK government.

But could this be about to change? Currently, around 60 per cent of people say they are unhappy about giving out personal information to companies – although most of us still do it.

This bank of data by itself isn't very useful. But when data about an individual’s age, address, shopping habits and even real-time location are aggregated with millions or billions of other bits of data - it can become very valuable indeed. It can be used to predict consumption and perhaps even entire markets.

This largely goes on without our full consideration and the quid pro quo is fairly uneven – a few money-off vouchers or vaguely targeted ads. But as we start to record every moment of our lives digitally, and as most purchasing becomes digitalised, we may start to question whose benefit this serves.

In short, is the exchange a fair one? According to EY, the accountancy and professional services firm, the age of “free for all access” to customer data may soon end and customers will start to regard their data as their own. Privacy concerns are likely to become front of mind, especially as hacking attacks become more frequent and severe. Court rulings, lawsuits and fines are sure to follow suit.

However, there’s potentially something much larger at stake here too. Much of the internet’s existence is predicated upon the fact that companies can harvest data about users and sell this on to support ad-based revenue models.

So what if people grow tired of having their privacy invaded and having their personal data harvested and sold without their genuine consent to third parties? Could the future of the internet hang on something as trivial as direct marketing?

Ref: Financial Times (UK), 7 November 2015, ‘Your digital life in their hands’, by H. Greenhalgh.
Search words: Big data, Internet of things, privacy, internet
Trend tags: -

Brown furniture

Sustainability has never been a strong selling point for antiques, but concerns about environmental damage and conditions in foreign factories may yet prove to be the saviour of parts of the antiques industry.

The bottom has fallen out of the middle of the antiques market, as under-forties have more of an interest in casual mid-century furniture or minimalist units from Ikea that pride price and comfort over age or rarity.

Behind private front doors there’s been a revolution going on in how people live, and this has impacted hard on the selling of antique furniture.

Homes can be smaller and are often contemporary, so there’s less need to decorate ‘period’ rooms. People tend not to have dining rooms, so they no longer want dining room tables, and now that giant televisions are screwed to walls, there’s no need to hide them in faux mid-19th century wooden cabinets.

There’s also the cultural association, heavily promoted through TV shows such as Bargain Hunt and the Antiques Roadshow in the UK and Australia, that dusty old furniture equals dusty old people. As a result, shops selling furniture that’s anything more than 50 years old are struggling. This also has to do with economics: furniture is big and big space means big rents.

There are exceptions to this trend. Anything from the 1950s, 60s and 70s is cool, as is anything made in China more than 100 years ago. The internet too has made an impact. You can now buy and sell furniture easily online.

So where’s the bright spot? First, what furniture fashion taketh away furniture fashion may one day bringeth back. What’s well out now could be back in soon, although we’re probably talking about decades if not a generation.

Second, old is sustainable. Something that already exists obviously has less environmental impact than something that has to be made. Here potentially lieth the salvation of brown wooden antiques.

Ref: The Economist (UK), 19 December 2015, ‘The future of the past’ Out with the old’, Anon.
Search words: Furniture, furnishings, antiques
Trend tags: Sustainability

Broken plan living

You’ve heard of open-plan, but what about broken plan? For years we’ve been knocking down walls and opening up living spaces (and offices), but now the trends appears to be reversing.

Mary Duggan, winner of the Royal Institute of British Architects House of the Year Award, coined the phrase ‘broken plan living’ last year. What does it mean? Essentially it means the tendency to create by design quiet spaces around the home – wait for it – so people can be alone with their mobile devices.

On the plus side, another interior trend is the return of the library and there’s also a trend towards spaces where people can display physical objects and artefacts. [See our story on the need to humanise objects.]

Ref: The Guardian (UK), 11 November 2015, ‘Forget open-plan living “broken-plan” is the new interiors trend’ by P. Cocozza,
Search words: Counter trends, interior design, architecture
Trend tags: -