How Smart Citizens live

(as published by the Royal Society for the Arts)

As visions for Smart Cities gather momentum it is becoming clear that one of the major goals of urban areas will be to use data and technology to optimise cities’ resources and assets. 

Smart Citizens are already around us and are relating to their cities’ resources differently and innovatively. A couple of months ago, as part of the If You Want To project, we conducted an ethnographic study

in London to investigate how people are integrating their awareness of climate change in their daily life. Not for the first time, we were surprised at how many steps ahead of policymakers many people are in their lifestyles. All our informants are taking an active role in exploring new behaviours and their relationships to the resources that their city and the world offer them are evolving faster than many city administrators imagine. The transformations are quite profound as they signal quite radical shifts of values and cultural norms that are manifested in daily practices involving ways of eating, moving, living and consuming, but yet are not in contrast with a fast paced urban life.

London is a difficult city, with its housing crisis, the expensive transport system, congested roads and high cost of living. These shortcomings are transformed by the people we interviewed in opportunities to live differently. They cycle and walk to save on tube fares, they share flats and move regularly, they do part of their work from home, they are careful about what they eat and how they consume preferring quality over quantity. Everyone we met wanted to reduce their footprint and were painfully aware of what is happening to the environment. This awareness is present and ‘top of mind’ in many of the daily choices they make and determines what food they buy, what clothes they wear, how they travel and how they live.

These people were not activists but were responding to climate change and many of the other challenges of the economy and civic life. So when they cycle they are saving money, doing exercise and saving CO2. When they grow tomatoes on their balcony they are eating healthily, reducing costs and taking trucks off the road. Sharing flats is a necessity but also a way to be with other people. The themes of health, environment and savings are constantly intertwined and probably explain why their approach to climate change is much more personal than the previous generation’s green activism.

Food habits are among the practices that are changing most rapidly. Alongside the many vegetarians, most people we talked to eat much less meat than in the past. Similarly they are worried about food being flown long distances and therefore try to keep to local or European vegetables. Organic food is seen as offering some greater guarantee on the origin and processes and is preferred when possible. The concern for the environment is mixed with a preoccupation about healthy eating and expenditure and in some cases leads people to grow their own vegetables in allotments (if they are lucky enough to reach the top of long waiting lists) or balconies.

Not one of the people interviewed in London owns a car and owning a private vehicle was not seen by many as desirable. Many cycle to work regardless of their fear of accidents, most walk and take public transport. Quite a few had no driving licence and do not particularly intend to obtain one. Cars are occasionally rented or shared for weekend trips or on holiday. Not owning and using a car has a ripple effect on consumption reducing the size of what is transported and increasing the frequency of food shopping, for instance.

Consumption is described as a very thoughtful activity. Many described a distaste for shopping and a desire to buy as little as possible. For many reasons such as small flats, absence of cars, financial constraints and taste, fewer items are being purchased. Quality rather than quantity seemed to be the motto. Quality of fabrics, quality of materials, Fairtrade production, and origin were important in the choice of most goods and clothes in particular. Many were proactively changing their consumption and recycling habits. Everyone mentioned using Freecyle, an online service where you can advertise stuff you want to give a way for free and commonly used  websites and shops to donate and buy used items alongside the longstanding tradition of charity shops.

Finally, all were very conscious of their energy use. Living in rented flats meant that, in most cases, people do not have a say on their utility provider even when they would like to rely on a company offering renewable energy. A common theme however was the deliberate attempt to contain consumption and costs by limiting the temperature, the duration or the spaces that were heated or lit up. Over and over we heard the phrase “well I just put on an extra jumper when it gets colder”. And we witnessed first hand how chilly some of the flats were…

In all of our discussions it emerged that most lifestyle choices were extremely personal stemming from a desire to combine a lifestyle that is healthy, affordable and sustainable on many levels. The issue of mobility for instance is linked to choices of housing and work patterns. A few of our informants worked at least part time from home either because they were on part time employment, because they were freelancing or their employers encouraged them to work from home. The role of home as a professional space is increasing and determines many other changes in people’s relation to their urban environment.

Overall what emerges from our study is a view of citizens who are highly aware of their role in the world and the impact that even small individual choices may have globally. We often heard remarks such as: “you learn that you cannot just do whatever you want, it has consequences”. This awareness of both the environmental and social impact of personal practices does not however translate in a sense of renunciation but on the contrary in a sense of empowerment to do things better in a smarter way that can combine personal fulfilment with collective good. How smarter can you get?

If You Want to is a collaborative platform to map, organise and make easily accessible green services for a sustainable lifestyle.


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