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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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.