Tim Smedley

Frequent journalist, occasional ghostwriter, book author in progress.

BBC Future

How the world’s biggest cities are fighting smog

For three days in March 2016, 10 London pigeons became famous. Seeing pigeons take to the sky from Primrose Hill in north London was not unusual in itself. But these pigeons were wearing backpacks. And the backpacks were monitoring air pollution. Once in the air, the backpacks sent live air-quality updates via tweets to the smartphones of the Londoners below. In almost all cases, the readings were not good. London’s air pollution problem has been getting worse for years, and it often rises to more than three times the European Union’s legal limit.
BBC Future

Is this the world's smartest toilet?

A warm toilet seat isn’t most people’s idea of heaven, typically indicating a previous occupant only recently departed. And turning to your side to find no toilet paper, only smooth walls and a remote control, may seem positively hellish. However, this remote control has washing and drying options. Press it, and a robot arm slides out underneath you, offering a range of water jet speeds and angles, followed by a hot air finale. When you stand up, the toilet closes its lid, flushes itself, and then self-cleans using UV-light.
The Guardian

Why leaders ignore new technology at their peril

Business leaders used to get by without knowing much about technology – they had an IT department to deal with that sort of thing. However, technology products and services now pervade every industry, and businesses that don’t understand them are in danger of being usurped. Uber’s impact on the taxi and automotive industries is a case in point. While established manufacturers and car hire firms continued to focus on hardware – the cars and the user experience – Uber’s simple software app linked...
Raconteur, The Times

Developing countries lead in clean energy

Renewable energy used to be deemed unaffordable for developing countries. Wind and solar were rich country luxuries, while 'third world' economies could only be expected to grow on a diet of dirty fossil fuels. As recently as June 2014, Bill Gates blogged: “Poor countries… can’t afford today’s expensive clean energy solutions and we can’t expect them to wait for the technology to get cheaper.” However, the past two years have seen this received wisdom turned on its head...
The Guardian

Wearables for babies: saving lives or instilling fear in parents?

Following the success of adult fitness wearables like Fitbit, new companies are connecting babies to smartphone apps and giving parents live information about their baby’s breathing, skin temperature, heart rate and sleeping patterns. The Owlet has adapted pulse oximetry technology (the clip they put on your finger in hospitals to monitor heart rate) to create a baby sock that monitors heart rate and oxygen levels. Sproutling has integrated the same technology into a strap that goes round th
The Guardian

Swings, slides and iPads: the gaming companies targeting kids' outdoor play

Three-quarters of UK children now spend less time outside than prison inmates, according to a new survey, with the lure of digital technology partly to blame. But, in a world where gaming and screen time are an everyday reality, could the right technology actually get more kids to play outdoors? Hybrid Play is a Spanish start-up which uses augmented reality (AR) – patching computer imagery on to real life – to transform playgrounds into video games. A wireless sensor resembling an over-sized cl
The Guardian

Flight of the robobee: the rise of swarm robotics

Swarm robotics is a concept that's buzzed around since the 1980s, but now the technology is starting to fly. The idea is to replace a large, complex robot with a swarm of simple robots that work together to perform complicated tasks that each could not do individually. The environmental applications being explored range from coral restoration and oil spill clean-ups to precision farming – even the creation of artificial bees to pollinate crops. A team of researchers at Sheffield University las
The Guardian

Drones’ new mission: saving lives in developing countries

The prospect of drones delivering parcels to your doorstep is still some way off. But the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for humanitarian work in developing countries is already happening. When medical nonprofit Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, set up a tuberculosis diagnosis station in Papua New Guinea in May, one of its first calls was to Silicon Valley-based UAV firm Matternet. “They called, and said it was impossible to do this [mission] in a traditional way, b
The Guardian

Power-to-gas energy storage could help displace use of fossil fuels

The intermittent nature of renewable power generation has long been a potential barrier to a low-carbon future. Electricity only generated when the wind blows or the sun shines isn't always needed at that exact time. As more intermittent power comes online, the grid has to turn down more energy. Between October 2011 and March 2013, 224GW hours of potential energy were turned down from UK wind farms alone (receiving £7.6m of the total £170m curtailment and balancing payments in 2013 – effectivel
The Guardian

Hydroponics used to grow salad in tunnels under London

A few hundred metres from Clapham North tube station stands a padlocked gate. Behind the gate is a dark, damp entrance to a spiral staircase leading 33 metres underground. A series of tunnels built as a second world war bomb shelter large enough to fit 8,000 people have remained virtually unused. Until now. At the end of one tunnel comes a pinkish-purple glow from behind white plastic sheeting. The Breaking Bad comparison is obvious. But the produce being grown using hydroponics and LED lights i
FT Weekend

FT weekend magazine - The future of food

In their full-body protective suits and spotless white wellies, Kate Hofman and Tom Webster don’t look like farmers. And this doesn’t look like a farm. GrowUp, their aquaponic food business, is one of a long line of industrial units in Beckton, the untrendy end of east London, sandwiched between a wallpaper warehouse and a construction company. Visitors are asked to sign declarations that they carry no germs or foreign soils before entering.
The Guardian

Waste coffee grounds set to fuel London with biodiesel and biomass pellets

Sometimes an idea seems so good you can't believe it hasn't been done before. Using waste coffee grounds to make biomass pellets and biodiesel occurred to Arthur Kay when he was studying architecture at UCL in 2012. Tasked with looking at closed loop waste-to-energy systems for buildings, he happened to choose a coffee shop. But when he discovered the oil content in coffee and the sheer amount of waste produced – 200,000 tonnes a year in London alone – he jacked in the architecture and set about
The Guardian

A new carton recycling plant could mean an end to shipping waste overseas

I am standing in what will soon be the UK's only carton recycling facility in Stainland near Halifax, Yorkshire. In front of me are huge bales of waste cartons - Tetra Pak, to you and me – waiting to be recycled. I wonder where they're from. "That one's from the Nottingham hub", answers Fay Dashper, recycling operations manager, ACE UK, pointing at a bale seemingly indistinguishable from any other. "You can tell from the shape of the bale and the quality of the material... I'm a bit of a carton
The Guardian

Raise a glass to neat ideas for more eco-friendly whisky

It may have a heritage dating back centuries, but in the last five years the Scottish whisky industry has undergone something of an energy revolution. In 2009, the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) launched an Industry Environmental Strategy for its membership of 101 malt and seven grain distilleries, accounting for over 90% of the industry. Alongside commitments on water reduction and packaging, it set a target of 20% energy from renewable sources by 2020 and 80% by 2050. At the time of the s
The Sunday Times

Rooftop box unlocks city wind power | The Sunday Times

A Yorkshire company has developed a rooftop wind turbine that it claims could produce up to half a family’s energy needs without being an eyesore. The Ridgeblade is a narrow box that sits along the ridge of a pitched roof. Inside are turbines that turn like the reel of a combine harvester. Its developers say it benefits from the natural acceleration of wind speeds at the top of pitched roofs, will work even in mild breezes, and can cope with most wind directions.
The Guardian

Better city cycling routes? There's an app for that

Jacquelyn Hayward Gulati, a Toronto-based cyclist commuter, is considering whether to cycle through the coming winter. It is “only” -5C, she says, but temperatures can plummet to -25C and snow ploughs clear the roads for months. This winter, however, she is running out of excuses. For the first time, 49km of Toronto’s busiest bike lanes will be classified as “winter priority”, to be ploughed and salted. This is in part due to data collected by the Toronto Cycling App, a tool launched in May 201
The Sunday Times

Green Pioneers: Car charger moves into top gear

Erik Fairbairn stepped off a plane in Sydney in search of inspiration. It was February 2009, and his last business had just crashed and burned during the financial crisis. Ecurie 25 rented out supercars to weekend thrill seekers. In just four years it had grown to annual turnover of £1.2m. Then his City clients vanished as quickly as his stock depreciated. After selling what was left of the business to a rival, the former Britvic executive was left with just enough cash to seed a new business