Sim­ple com­put­ing changes you can make to be kinder to the planet

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Cli­mate change, pol­luted air, plas­tic-filled oceans – the earth isn’t in great shape. But the cre­ative forces that power the tech in­dus­try’s con­stant state of in­no­va­tion could help, with clever power generation and stor­age, road­side air fil­ters paid for by ad­ver­tis­ing, and plas­tic-chomp­ing wa­ter drones.

For­get the money-mak­ing ideas that fund Sil­i­con Val­ley, there are plenty of clever cre­ations that could do real good for the world, clean­ing up en­ergy, en­cour­ag­ing us to cut our power use, and mop­ping up the mess we’ve made of the en­vi­ron­ment. Here are some to watch out for and make use of in your own home.


While some tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tions can be en­ergy guz­zlers – we’re look­ing at you, bit­coin – other ideas help slash en­ergy use, no­tably smart home and smart city tech, such as the so-called In­ter­net of Things (IoT).

“There’s a real po­ten­tial ben­e­fit to de­vices that let us man­age our en­ergy use in a smart way, such as ther­mostats,” says Gary Cook, se­nior cor­po­rate cam­paigner at Green­peace. No won­der, then, that smart home gad­gets such as Nest ther­mostats and smart home me­ters are so pop­u­lar.

A sur­vey last year from Maplin (we miss it al­ready) re­vealed that a quar­ter of Bri­tish homes al­ready have smart de­vices of some sort, up 135% from the pre­vi­ous year. For the most part, that’s cam­eras, light­ing and ther­mostats, as well as home hubs and voice as­sis­tants such as Ama­zon Echo and Google Home.

But how much en­ergy do they ac­tu­ally save? Google-owned Nest claims its smart ther­mostats save 12% on heat­ing and 15% on cool­ing in the US by us­ing ma­chine learn­ing to track your pat­terns and ad­just your home’s tem­per­a­ture to match.

Smart me­ters have been touted as en­ergy savers, too, cut­ting use by a few per­cent­age points, but they merely record and dis­play your power use, so it’s up to you to take that in­for­ma­tion and use it to change your habits.

How­ever, smart home de­vices re­main com­pli­cated to use, hin­der­ing their take-up, and can ac­tu­ally lead to higher en­ergy use. That’s ac­cord­ing to re­searchers at RMIT Uni­ver­sity in Aus­tralia, who found that 75% of par­tic­i­pants in a study failed to ac­tu­ally use the de­vices, with many say­ing they were too dif­fi­cult to in­stall or “in­con­ve­nient or not use­ful”. Of the quar­ter of par­tic­i­pants left us­ing smart home de­vices in the study, the re­searchers noted that some ac­tu­ally in­creased the amount of en­ergy they used, by switch­ing the heat­ing on be­fore ar­riv­ing home or keep­ing the lights on when away for se­cu­rity.

“The dan­ger is in as­sum­ing that lower power bills can come neatly pack­aged in a box – the re­al­ity, as al­ways, is more com­pli­cated,” the re­searchers ad­vise.

Aside from man­ag­ing our per­sonal use, smart ap­pli­ances and home bat­ter­ies that let us only pull down power from the grid at times of lower de­mand can help ease the bur­den; that’s the idea be­hind Elon Musk’s Pow­er­wall, which recharges via so­lar pan­els on your roof or by draw­ing from the grid at low-de­mand times. That takes the pres­sure off util­i­ties, says Cook, mean­ing they need not “turn on an­other power plant”. And that’s a big win, given backup power sta­tions tend to be the dirt­i­est, as here in the UK we rely first on re­new­ables and nu­clear be­fore pad­ding that out with coal.

Re­new­able en­ergy is the other great hope for en­vi­ron­men­tal change: if we can im­prove what goes into mak­ing elec­tric­ity, ev­ery­thing we do be­comes greener. As much as half of the UK’s elec­tric­ity came from low-car­bon sources in 2017, helped by win­ter storms turn­ing wind tur­bines, ac­cord­ing to a re­port from the Cen­tre of En­vi­ron­men­tal Pol­icy.

There’s plenty of clean-en­ergy star­tups with tech to help make clean

en­ergy: Kite Power Sys­tems uses an ac­tual kite to turn a tur­bine to pro­duce en­ergy, while Pave­gen col­lects en­ergy from foot­steps on floor­ing pan­els. Mi­cro­grids such as Brook­lyn-based LO3 En­ergy let us share and sell the en­ergy we each make via so­lar pan­els or other re­new­able meth­ods, ei­ther to our neigh­bours or to utility com­pa­nies.


Given how im­por­tant wa­ter is to our sur­vival, it’s re­mark­able how ter­ri­ble we are at keep­ing it clean: wealthy coun­tries treat only 70% of the wastew­a­ter we make, com­pared to 38% for de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, ac­cord­ing to the UN. Re­search pub­lished in Science re­vealed eight mil­lion met­ric tonnes of plas­tic ends up in our oceans each year, lead­ing to gi­ant clumps of garbage at sea, while WWF re­search shows that 40% of the rivers in Eng­land and Wales are pol­luted by sewage.

Drones are one pos­si­ble so­lu­tion. RanMarine Tech­nol­ogy’s WasteShark wa­ter-based drone has been tri­alled in Rot­ter­dam’s port, gob­bling up garbage.

“We mod­elled the WasteShark on the whale shark: a gen­tle, un­ob­tru­sive, ef­fi­cient preda­tor, de­signed to eat its prey at max­i­mum quan­ti­ties and with min­i­mal ef­fort,” ex­plains Oliver Cun­ning­ham, the com­pany’s chief com­mer­cial of­fi­cer.

It uses Wi-Fi and GPS to nav­i­gate with LI­DAR – the laser tech that as­sists most driver­less cars – to avoid col­li­sions, and so far there have been no in­juries to an­i­mals. That means WasteShark can swim on a set path or be al­lowed to roam au­tonomously in a pre­de­fined area. Each bat­tery charge lets it swim and col­lect garbage for eight hours, and it can gob­ble up 180 litres of garbage weigh­ing up to 350 kilo­grams. “When it is full of trash it will re­turn to land, dis­charge the pay­load and then set out to feed again,” Cun­ning­ham adds.

Aside from clean­ing up wa­ter-logged rub­bish, the WasteShark drone can be used to mop up oil, clean “alien or pest” veg­e­ta­tion, and even col­lect golf balls for anywhere that hap­pens to be a problem. Along­side clean­ing up, it col­lects data via built-in sen­sors to help mon­i­tor the en­vi­ron­ment.

“Ocean trash is a crit­i­cal global problem, for sure, but we have de­signed the WasteShark for much more than just that,” Cun­ning­ham ex­plains.

“The WasteShark has been de­signed for ur­ban wa­ter: it is com­pact, ag­ile, light­weight and green, so it is per­fectly adapted to nav­i­gate the tight an­gles and con­fined spa­ces of ci­tyscape marine en­vi­ron­ments.”

Af­ter the Rot­ter­dam trial, WasteShark is be­ing tested in South Africa, Swe­den and the US – so keep an

eye on the wa­ter if you’re in Cape Town, Kris­tianstad or Bal­ti­more, and you may spot one of the rare crea­tures.

As clever as such ideas are, the best so­lu­tion is to pre­vent pol­lu­tion.

“Rather than hav­ing ro­bots and drones to clean up, it’s much better to elim­i­nate the problem in the first place,” notes Cook.

In the mean­time, how­ever, at least we can set such drones to work clean­ing up our wa­ter.


Air pol­lu­tion is a problem for us all, but most of all in ur­ban ar­eas. Data from the Lon­don At­mo­spheric Emis­sions In­ven­tory re­vealed last year that 95% of residents of the cap­i­tal live in ar­eas that ex­ceed World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion lim­its by more than 50% for lev­els of dan­ger­ous par­ti­cles known as PM2.5, while the city sur­passed the le­gal lim­its for ni­tro­gen diox­ide within the first week of this year.

Af­ter fac­ing law­suits, cen­tral gov­ern­ment is fi­nally taking ac­tion with a new clean air strat­egy, while Lon­don mayor Sadiq Khan has rolled out plans to ban diesel ve­hi­cles from the cen­tre of the city.

But tech­nol­ogy could of­fer an an­swer, too. Air­labs is a Bri­tish startup that’s work­ing on smart street fur­ni­ture to clean up air in places we wait, such as trans­port hubs. Its benches and bus stops fil­ter out pol­lu­tion, with one test by King’s Col­lege Lon­don in 2016 show­ing the Air­labs fil­ter re­moved 87% of key pol­lu­tants.

City Green So­lu­tions has a sim­i­lar idea, but pairs the IoT and plants for its street-level fil­ters. The Ci­tyTree, as the first prod­uct is called, is a wall of moss that can be in­te­grated into a bench, which uses sen­sors to mea­sure air pol­lu­tion and to keep the air-fil­ter­ing mosses – not nor­mally at home in an ur­ban jun­gle – well fed and wa­tered.

Mean­while, stu­dents at Im­pe­rial Col­lege Lon­don and Royal Col­lege of Art have cre­ated wa­ter-mist-based air fil­ters called Pluvo that would sit at the side of roads to suck up and clean emis­sions, all while show­ing ad­ver­tis­ing in their ‘mist’. De­vel­oper Nick Hooton says air could be 60% cleaner af­ter be­ing fil­tered by Pluvo: “It should have quite a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on the level of air qual­ity on Lon­don’s streets.”

While clean­ing up the air for city dwellers is im­por­tant, we need to pre­vent pol­lu­tion, too. Elec­tric cars are one key tech­nol­ogy, and in­no­va­tions in bat­tery tech­nol­ogy make them ever more vi­able. Even if they’re pow­ered by elec­tric­ity gen­er­ated by coal, they’re at least not spew­ing fumes in your child’s face on the way to school.

An­other pos­si­ble so­lu­tion is drone-based de­liv­er­ies. As silly as Ama­zon Prime by Air may sound, courier lor­ries re­lease a sig­nif­i­cant amount of car­bon and other pol­lu­tion into our air; in the US, trucks make up just shy of a quar­ter of green­house gas emis­sions from trans­port, ac­cord­ing to re­search pub­lished in Na­ture

Com­mu­ni­ca­tions. That study re­vealed drones re­quired less en­ergy and emit­ted fewer green­house gases than trucks for small de­liv­er­ies at half a kilo­gram and be­low. Larger pack­ages didn’t see the same sub­stan­tial sav­ings, how­ever. The re­searchers also noted that there were other costs, such as set­ting up more ware­houses to make up for shorter flights, but sug­gest drone de­liv­er­ies could help clear the air in ur­ban ar­eas, mak­ing an oth­er­wise sillysound­ing idea sud­denly a lot more ap­peal­ing.


Clever ideas aside, it’s worth re­mem­ber­ing how much dam­age to the planet the tech­nol­ogy in­dus­try causes: the sec­tor eats up as much as 12% of global elec­tric­ity, e-waste is pil­ing up at a rate of mil­lions of tonnes a year, and it’s only go­ing to get worse as more and more of the world gets con­nected.

So while we look to tech for so­lu­tions to pol­luted wa­ter, air and planet, we need to en­sure we’re not mak­ing it worse. A smart home or IoT-en­abled of­fice can slash en­ergy use, but it’s of lit­tle use if the de­vices be­hind such en­vi­ron­men­tal gains are dam­ag­ing the planet in their man­u­fac­ture.

“This ex­plo­sive growth in in­ter­net de­vices is of­ten sold to us as a good thing: ‘smart’ is more ef­fi­cient and helps us save en­ergy,” notes Nesta data sci­en­tist Katja Bego.

“But what we of­ten for­get when we in­stall that smart ther­mo­stat is that the pro­duc­tion pro­cesses be­hind these prod­ucts have a sig­nif­i­cant car­bon foot­print and rely on the use of fi­nite, harm­ful and hard-to-re­cy­cle re­sources.” Cram­ming sen­sors and gad­gets into our homes and cities can help us un­der­stand where the worst pol­lu­tion is and as­sist with mop­ping it up, but let’s make sure green tech isn’t giv­ing us more to clean up, too. Drones that clean up pol­luted ports are great for our planet, but so are phones that don’t get sent to land­fill af­ter 18 months.

TOP: The Tesla Pow­er­wall draws power from the grid when de­mand is low

ABOVE: Nest claims its smart ther­mostats can save you money on your heat­ing bills

TOP: Kite Power Sys­tems uses an ac­tual kite to pro­duce en­ergy

ABOVE: Pave­gen col­lects en­ergy from foot­steps

ABOVE: Junk food: the WasteShark gobbles up rub­bish in pol­luted wa­ter

LEFT: The com­pany also pro­duces benches that per­form the same func­tion

ABOVE: The Air­labs bus stops fil­ter out pol­lu­tants from the air we breathe

ABOVE: Air fil­ters from Pluvo sit next to the road and clean ve­hi­cle emis­sions

RIGHT: City Green So­lu­tions’ wall of moss in­te­grates with a bench to mea­sure air pol­lu­tion

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