Making tech our friend

The smart home of the future is blue, comes on wheels and is towed by an electric tricycle. It has solar panels on its roof and opens up like a big bookcase. Inside, it offers an energy game for kids and a mini exhibition of smart gadgets that show how you can save energy and money using modern technology at home.

The pop-up ‘mobile future home’ is the star in Bristol’s ‘Smart Homes’ campaign. It visited the neighbourhoods of Ashley, Easton and Lawrence Hill which include some of the most deprived areas in England. Two of the districts belong to the top 10% in Britain suffering from ‘fuel poverty’, meaning that people cannot afford to keep their home adequately warm.

While these people clearly would benefit from a lower energy bill, they are at the same time difficult to reach and hesitant to engage in public programmes, as earlier attempts from Bristol’s City Council showed. That’s why ‘Smart Homes’ tested new ways, says project manager Matt Jones. “We’ve tried to create the time and space to ensure that the project is co-designed and meets the needs of citizens, rather than taking a top down approach as previously.”

Fighting fuel poverty

The city commissioned Bristol Energy Network, an umbrella group for residents and community groups interested in energy, to recruit voluntary sector organisations and local people to co-design the project. From the very beginning, the cooperation brought some surprises to the city officials, reports Jones. Initially, they had planned to invite citizens to formal round table meetings behind closed doors but realised that they needed to go out on normal people’s terms and meet in coffee shops instead to get feedback on the programme.

This is how the ‘mobile future home’ was co-created. “The idea was to go out to where the people are and make the topic of energy saving fun and engaging”, says Jones. But the suggestion of driving a van through the streets of the chosen city districts met with little approval from the citizens – congestion, narrow streets, parking issues. The people wanted a smaller and portable solution. How about a pop-up model instead, moved around by an electric bicycle?

Some of the city officials are said to have had to bite their tongues, but they gritted their teeth and engaged a local designer to do the job. The result was the ‘mobile future home’ on wheels – a star was born. In addition, fourteen community energy champions were enlisted to trial smart appliances, promote the project and encourage households to sign up.

150 smart washing machines for Bristol

The project succeeded in reaching people who wouldn’t normally get involved in a scheme like this: 29% of participants live in social housing, 31% are from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds and 14% are registered disabled.

The project also exceeded its installation target, fitting internet-connected washing machines, tumble dryers, dishwashers and smart technology kits in over 150 Bristol homes, for free. Participating households are saving an average of £55 (approximately €66) a year and contribute to an annual reduction of 100kg in carbon emissions.

I’ve been interested in making my home more energy efficient for quite a while and live in a city that leads by example in this area
— Ian Tsang, Bristol resident

“I’ve been interested in making my home more energy efficient for quite a while and live in a city that leads by example in this area,” says Bristol resident Ian Tsang. “So when I came across the Smart Homes project I signed up – and without doubt the technology and efficiency of the new appliances have got to be helping us with our bills.”

But saving energy by using more efficient equipment is only the first step, says project manager Jones. The second one is to shift the times when the machines are used to periods when energy demand is low and it is cheaper and more environmentally friendly.

The kits installed in Bristol’s homes include smart meters and small computers enabling data to be fed back via secure virtual networks to the smart city platform. Via this link, residents can define a time window in which their washing machine should run; the central computer then selects the most economic time within this frame and starts the machine automatically.

Funding by the EU

Lessons are already emerging from this second phase – notably how to coordinate the many technology partners and protocols required for the pioneering homes-to-city connectivity the trial requires. The full evaluation will be done by the two universities in Bristol in 2020, on the technical side as well as on the question whether people have been willing and able to change their behaviour.

Anndeloris Chacon, one of the energy champions in the project, certainly has. “I would encourage individuals in my community to get involved in smart technology,” she says. “We are getting older in terms of population and tech is going to be here so we need to make it our friend. If we don’t, we will feel frustrated being forced to use something we are not comfortable with.”

Award-winning community work

Bristol’s Smart Homes is part of the EU’s REPLICATE project. Funding of €7.8 million, provided through the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme, was assigned for all Bristol’s REPLICATE projects, including Smart Homes, with the city investing €441,000.

Bristol has long been committed to tackling local issues and climate change together through innovation and learning, particularly around energy and transport. An additional impetus for action came with last year’s decision to bring forward the city’s carbon neutrality target date to 2030.

With the Smart Homes project, Bristol has won the Smart Cities UK award 2019 for community engagement.

“It’s great that the hard work of the Smart Homes team and project partners from across the city has been recognised,” says Councillor Craig Cheney, deputy mayor of Bristol. “We hope that this project will help to develop a model for how other cities in the UK and Europe can engage individuals and their communities with smart energy and technology.”

Tiphanie Mellor
in numbers:
  • 150 homes

    received free internet-connected washing machines, tumble dryers, dishwashers and smart technology kits
  • 100kg

    an annual reduction of in carbon emissions
  • €66

    approximate saving per household per year