Could a smartphone game really help us cut down on energy use?

A screenshot from The Age of Energy. Image: Clicks & Links.

Ah, the youth of today. They’ll spend ages having a hot shower. They’ll leave lights on when they exit a room and waste time staring at an open fridge, craving a midnight snack. We’re all guilty of bad habits – but apparently young people in particular guzzle more energy.

Young people in the UK are also disengaged and uneducated when it comes to knowing their energy bills: statistics from the Energy Savings Trust show that only 7 per cent of people under 35 understand theirs. Of the 2,000 customers surveyed, 82 per cent declared an interest in reducing energy and saving money, but simply don’t know how to go about it or what steps to take. Then again, with the majority of young people being renters it’s hard for them to have complete control over domestic energy use and take action that is beyond their tenancy agreement, such as insulating the loft.

So how do you solve a problem like excessive energy use and complicated energy bills? Smartphone games may seem a paradoxical solution, given that sizeable apps tend to drain battery life and therefore means the smartphone requires regular charging – but some cities are trying it, nonetheless.

The post-apocalyptic is in vogue right now, what with the finale of season 7 of The Walking Dead having recently aired, and the threat of a potential US-North Korea war looming large. So in Amsterdam and Grenoble, residents of all ages, but especially those aged 16 to 24, are being invited to play a post-apocalyptic game, the Age of Energy, where they have to rebuild a community following the world’s collapse.

Players are asked to manage resources and optimise virtual energy performance. For bonus points, they’re challenged to improve their own energy use. The app can be connected to a smart meters so it can access real-time data.

Of course, to benefit from the app one would need to have a smart meter in the first place. But the goal of the Dutch, French and British governments’ is to see most if not all homes fitted with one by 2020.

In a blog post, the game’s lead creator, Gerben Kijne, writes:

“It works on the hypothesis that if people can be encouraged to spend money in app-based games – plenty of us are guilty of exchanging a few pennies to get past a particularly tough level of Candy Crush – then why not see if you can use the same model to bring about positive real-world change.”

Kijne says that the game is designed with “a glass ceiling that cannot be broken unless you change your behaviour”. He says that these changes are something that people would probably be interested in making anyway: the app simply makes it easier to do so, by encouraging players to think about the impact their energy use is having on the urban environment.

This is more effective than simply rewarding them with arbitrary points as the game progresses, he adds, because then they wouldn’t be incentivised to maintain their behaviour changes once the rewards end. Psychological and behavioural research backs this up. The authors of Gamified Energy Efficiency Programs, a report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy which analysed 22 energy-related games, argue:

“If we want people to save energy and to go on doing so after the game has ended, we need to stoke the fires of their intrinsic motivation, not simply give them things in exchange for their cooperation. We do not want people to save energy in order to get an extrinsic reward, however intangible, but to save energy because they have come to see it as intrinsically satisfying, meaningful, or enjoyable.”

The Age of Energy is still in pilot mode – Kijne says that some 500 people have signed up to play the game so far. But a similar pilot project in Brisbane suggests gamification can be effective. Last year it was revealed that a game played by 1,000 participants, Reduce Your Juice, saw average energy savings among low-income Australians under 35 of 12.3 per cent or around $220 (£129), with some saving more than $2,000 (£1,177).

Whether a post-apocalyptic smartphone game could have an impact on young people’s habits in the UK – and do for energy what Pokémon Go did for engaging with urban public spaces – is unknown. But at the very least it could help them prepare for any forthcoming nuclear winter.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

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Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.