Christmas Choices

In the past months, it has been impossible to ignore the cries for our world leaders to commit to combating climate disasters. From COP 26 to World Earth Call Day we see people coming together to share their stories of climate change and to try to make a difference.

Many of us have responded to the challenge of greener homes in recent years, perhaps by recycling more, by installing SMART energy meters or by switching to electric cars. Making greener choices.

Alongside the images of a warming planet what has also been striking is the level of wasted resources. Pictures of oceans full of plastic waste and of vast landfill sites are shocking indicators of a “throw-away” society.

If we look deeper and closer, we find other pictures. Those of people whose lives and livelihoods are affected by the wastefulness and “throw-away” actions of others. The places where children as young as seven work in dangerous conditions to produce the goods for a wasteful world. The homes where families are separated by the demands of punitive shift patterns. The very worst thing we can ever waste is other people. So a good question at any time of year, and especially at Christmas, is how do the choices I make in my home affect the choices and homes of others?

To do this we need to make informed choices. To take the time and trouble to find out where the things we are buying this Christmas come from. That gift might be packaged in bright and shiny wrappings but what are the conditions like in the far-away factory where it was made? Sadly, not so shiny in many cases.

In the midst of the busyness of our own lives, it is not always easy to take the time to find out, but increasingly charities and producers are helping us by making clear how, where and by whom things are made. In the United Kingdom Traidcraft has been a pioneer in this work. They sell only fairly traded and produced goods and gifts, often from small co-operatives working in developing countries. There are many other examples of this approach now. Ethical Consumer is an example of a site dedicated to providing real information on the products we buy.

This Christmas, as we very rightly take pleasure in decorating our homes and buying and receiving gifts, it would be good to know the glow was shared by those who made them. Truly, “Happy Christmas from my home to yours.”

AI at home? Let’s reflect!

Last week we had the opportunity to participate in a virtual meeting with the Argentinean association MIF, Mujeres Independientes Federales. On this occasion, taking advantage of the publication of our latest book ‘The Home in the Digital Age‘, they invited us to share the main conclusions about digital homes and the impact of technologies in our homes.

Matilde Santos, professor at the Complutense University of Madrid and author of one of the chapters of the book, focused her session on the impact of Artificial Intelligence in our lives. Obviously, the home is one of the places where we spend the most time and where our relationship with technology has the greatest influence since it is the space in which we guard our privacy.

Professor Santos, after a theoretical and practical presentation, in which she explained what Artificial Intelligence is and how present it is in our lives, encouraged us to reflect on the relationship that we decide to establish with technology. We cannot live in fear and worry about how this will affect our families, our children and even our relationships, if we do not make a calm and thorough analysis of what exactly our relationship is with these “smart devices” that we have incorporated into our lives. And how does one go about this reflection?

First, we must be aware that we are not talking about futuristic or galactic houses, but about real houses, our own homes, in which artificial intelligence lives with us in a natural way. This is changing the way we relate to each other, but are we aware of what we have changed by relying on Alexa or Siri to translate something for us or to tell us to take the potatoes out of the oven?

Would we be able to vacuum the house again, or redo the shopping list, or cook again if there were no intelligent robots? Would we be able to get to an unfamiliar place by car or on foot without GPS? In other words, to what extent do these gadgets that do things for us, override our abilities or even make us dependent?

Automating tasks that, for the person, and in this case, the homemaker, can be tedious, tiring and require little intelligence, saves us time and allows us to dedicate that time to other things, but are we aware that technology can sometimes fail? What are the consequences if the robot that feeds our dog fails? Do we have all our expectations placed on a machine? Is the fact that they make decisions for us overriding our thinking? Have we stopped thinking by mechanising decisions? Let us not forget that they help us, they do not replace us.

Finally, it is important to be aware that these “electronic devices” are little spies that analyse our behaviour, supposedly to offer us what best suits our tastes, our way of being, our way of life… But doesn’t the fact that they only offer us what we like impoverish the offer? Doesn’t it reduce our horizon? Doesn’t it limit our options?

In short, there are many questions on the table that require calm reflection in order to know individually how technology affects us and thus be able to assess and decide what impact we want it to have in our homes. The decision is ours, it can never be imposed.

The impact of technology in the home

“The levels of mental disorders, depression and even suicide have increased among the new generations of university students. It is an epidemic that has to do with the impact of technology on our way of life”, Ignacio Aizpún, director general of ATAM.

Madrid | 5 Nov 2021. On the occasion of the presentation of the book The Home in the Digital Age by the international think tank Home Renaissance Foundation, a round table discussion with experts took place last week at Telefónica Foundation to analyse the impact of technology in the home.

The impact of technology on homes and society as a whole is evident, “it is even transforming the way our minds communicate. This has consequences and is causing new diseases due to maladjustment,” explained Ignacio Aizpún, director general of ATAM.

The sociologist and member of the Academy of Sciences and Arts, Julio Díez Nicolás, stated that technology has been with us since the Stone Age, because human beings must survive. Thanks to human intelligence and life in society, people are adapting. “Technology has always been the fundamental factor of social change because it provides us with a different future. Today there are five inventions that will change our lives: artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D printing, holograms and virtual reality,” said Díaz.

But what is Artificial Intelligence and how does it affect our daily lives? María José Monferrer, an engineer and founder of AIverse, tried to answer this question. She defined AI as a “multidisciplinary field of science and engineering whose aim is to create intelligent machines that emulate human intelligence and, eventually, surpass that intelligence. Therein lies the risk.

Monferrer warned that we have implemented some technologies in the home, but we are only at the beginning of the uses we will be able to make of AI. So it’s a good time to stop and assess the risks. It is important to think about how we can apply the rules to protect the fundamental rights at stake: personal data protection, privacy and non-discrimination.

ATAM is clear about the use of AI, as Aizpún stated, “we need to be able to process the information that AI provides us with in the form of data to learn more about the person, their situation, their health variables, their activity, their functioning, their context. Only by transmitting, governing and activating this data in a secure way will we be able to generate responses and solutions that allow the disabled or dependent person to continue living at home in optimal conditions of safety, health and integrity”.

The three speakers and the Director-General of Childhood, Family and Birth Promotion, Alberto San Juan, who closed the event, agreed on the importance of putting the person at the centre of this technological transformation and on continuous, personal and family training as a solution to many of the challenges presented by technologies in the home. “The family must be cared for as the most precious asset and this is done with love, patience and training. The lifelong School for Parents is still essential and necessary. In the Community of Madrid we are facing real dramas due to the misuse of technology among young people,” warned San Juan.

In 2008, the Community of Madrid created a service to help families, inviting them to discuss their concerns about the misuse of technology in the home.  Alberto San Juan explained “we attend to families with children between 10 and 18 years old. Families come when they suspect that their children’s relationship with technology is not good and is not helping family coexistence. Young people are sometimes betting on each other having a 24, 48, which means spending two days in a row playing games and connected to the Internet”.

Despite the risks that technology can pose for households, it was clear that technology is neutral, it is neither good nor bad, in itself, it depends on the use that people make of it, although Aizpún wanted to stress that we have an important mission, “we must create new social institutions, new models of social organisation that allow human beings to adapt to these new environmental conditions that technology is creating”.

Would you live in a prefabricated house?

How do you imagine a prefabricated house today? I don’t know much about the market for prefabs, I’ve always thought of it as something out of an American movie. But I have read that following the pandemic, the sale of prefabricated housing increased by 32% compared to 2020. And taking into account the price per square metre of housing in Europe and how complicated it is to buy somewhere as a young professional or newly married couple, I can understand that perhaps pods like this, made by the Asian company Nestron, could be attractive.

Of course, prefabs are a far cry from traditional brick housing and you would need to buy or rent a plot of land (which isn’t necessarily cheap or easy to find, unless you’re placing it on a relative’s property)  – plus obtain the required planning permission. You can buy one for €85,000, delivered to your home ready assembled.

It is a rather futuristic house in terms of its exterior aesthetics and interior design. Moreover, it is minimalist at its best. It consists of a surface area of 35 square metres on a single floor distributed across a total of 3 spaces: kitchen with dining room, bathroom and a bedroom that is complemented by a desk area. It can be extended to 2 rooms depending on the buyer’s needs. Windows are also an essential element of the pod with a large window in the bedroom and smaller, rectangular windows in the kitchen area to let in natural light.

The structure of the house is made of galvanised steel that is earthquake, hurricane and typhoon resistant and is guaranteed for 50 years. 90% of the materials used are recyclable at the end of their useful life. You can connect to conventional water, gas and sewage supplies or take advantage of the solar panel system that powers both batteries and composting toilets.

In addition, there are technological devices integrated into the home such as electronic locks, electric blinds, motion-detection lights. It also offers smart mirrors, wall-mounted tablets for home automation control, smart appliances and even smart toilets. If you still can’t imagine it, here is a video.

Would you consider buying one of these prefabs now or in the future? What do you feel are the advantages and disadvantages of this type of home? Would it be suitable for young people seeking independence or starting a family? Perhaps for retired people wishing to downsize?

Are we living hyperconnected? Who decides how we spend our time?

What’s app and Instagram went down and I slept an extra hour. Yes, it’s that simple and that therapeutic. Whenever our routine is disrupted, the first thing we think of is the harm it causes. For hours we couldn’t text each other, we had to phone more than we had in a month and this generated certain moments of anger in us. We experienced the classic “want to and can’t”.

But if you think about it, that failure brought us peace. No one could disturb us during those 6 hours, we could focus on what we were doing without any interruption, and even, as I say, I went to bed earlier, after reading a couple of chapters of a book “The science of common sense”, which allowed me to relax and sleep peacefully.

The reflection is clear and, above all, worrying: how much control have these kinds of applications acquired over our lives? Is it possible that they dominate even our minutes and hours of rest? Are we less free with a smartphone? I would not like to be dramatic, because I myself see the advantages of rapid communication, I witness the incredible relationships that the Internet and Instagram have made possible and I realise the potential that these social networks have as a loudspeaker to launch positive messages and counteract the less good ones.

But the truth is that it all comes down to the same conclusion, the good and the bad of the Internet, its advantages and disadvantages are the result of the use we make of it. It is up to us to decide how we use it and for what purpose. We cannot hand over control of our lives to these technological giants. We cannot be so dependent on how they work. We need to be more aware of what we spend our time on and whether that is what we really want to spend it on.

Because that way, we will win back control and we will decide, not they. That way, we will be the ones who make the decisions and act accordingly, with the responsibility that this entails. And this reflection, as a result of what we experienced this week, reminds me that we simply have to apply common sense, that the science behind it is increasingly forgotten. Paloma Cantero has compiled a very interesting book about this subject. In it, she explains that happiness requires two irreplaceable components: the right attitude and the right decision making. Although this is not always linked to a purely pleasurable sensation.

The attitude is adopted by us, i.e. we choose how to face the world and the things that happen to us, either with a positive or a negative attitude. And when it comes to making a decision, Cantero proposes 4 golden rules: be well informed, decide with full will, analyse the expected results and be flexible to accept and manage the real results, which are not always what we expected.

And I would like to highlight one of the sentences in the book that I liked the most: “A happy life is not only defined by the destination we reach, but by the “style” with which we walk”.  You choose that style, make it your own, make it reflect who you are, not what the social networks, the Internet or the digital sphere expects you to be.

Where are you setting up your home?

Let’s do a very basic exercise. Think about the people who live around you, relatives, neighbours, colleagues and list how many of them live and have set up their current home in the city where they were born. How many of the people around you come from and live in the birthplace of their grandparents?

In my case, I find very few examples… I live outside my home country, and in an apartment building where there are people of many different nationalities. In Spain, I know people who come from countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Romania, Pakistan…

We use the word ‘migrate’ now, without any prefixes, so as not to offend anyone. We are no longer emigrants or immigrants, we are now migrants in the strict sense of the word. There are a variety of reasons why this change in the way we live has come about.  As we all know from media reports, it is one thing to flee your country, probably for good, and quite another to leave knowing that you will be able to return because your family is still there, waiting for you with open arms, trusting that this journey to another part of the world will allow you to grow personally and professionally.

Undoubtedly, although it is not comparable, there is a common link. You leave your home, the place where you felt comfortable, to start a new life. Difficulties arise, you have to set up a new home in a different environment, probably in a different culture, and on many occasions, unfortunately, integration is not easy due to a feeling of rejection from the country of your destination.

Uprooting, leaving one’s comfort zone or fleeing from a country at war, the instability experienced, are aspects that worry us. How all these details affect the person, their well-being, their mental and physical health, their development… Are these people ready to take on this suffering? Success stories are often shown in the media – people who crossed the ocean and today are elite sportsmen and women or were taken in by a family and are now pursuing a successful career, or left their country and managed to become leading politicians abroad. But many lives are cut short, and in most cases, the dream of achieving a better life is not fulfilled.

All these topics will be discussed at the next Experts Meeting, with more details available soon. If only something good could always be drawn from these life experiences: leaving your country to open up to a new one, leaving your family to find friends who will be like brothers and sisters, leaving your culture to get to know a new one that can open up new horizons. In a word, if only the desire or necessity to uproot ourselves and move elsewhere could be a life-enriching experience.

Let’s develop empathy

We have been through many months of pain caused by a global pandemic that no one could have imagined. Here at Home Renaissance Foundation we have tried to share stories filled with hope, especially at a time of rapid and widespread vaccination. But just as we return to work after a period of rest, the international scenario is once again intensifying.

One cannot remain unmoved by the crisis facing the people of Afghanistan. It is impossible. Seeing people fleeing, no matter how far away they are, no matter how different their culture is, no matter how little we have in common with them, cannot prevent us from understanding their suffering. They are people.

In developed countries, we enjoy freedom, democracy, education, welfare, without valuing the effort it took to get here. We argue over meaningless issues, we fight over small details and we live our lives with our backs turned from the rest of the world. But it cannot go on like that.

My heart sinks at the thought of all those people fleeing their own country, having to leave behind family, home, parents, grandparents, maybe even children… But what kind of a world are we living in? How can this be possible in the 21st century? What are we doing wrong? We need to be self-critical and try to help those who need it most, perhaps without going too far away. Let’s develop a little empathy in our own neighbourhood.

In this blog, we try to give guidelines about the building of a home, about the fundamental pillars for a well functioning household, about how to face the difficulties (difficulties!) to keep a family strong and well managed. Yes, here, in countries where we appear to have everything but perhaps lack the most important thing.

Have you ever stopped to think what it would be like to be forced to leave your country, fleeing from barbarism, and start over again elsewhere? A place where you are the stranger, you do not know the language or have the means to start strong, where you feel lost because the customs are different and you are forced to build a new home in an unknown environment, without loving support around you or anyone who understands you, trying to minimize as much as possible the pain that your children may be feeling because no one, especially not at their age, deserves this.

This situation worries us and makes us aware that as a think tank we must delve deeper into the reality of what is happening not just today in Afghanistan, but witnessed a few years ago in Syria, and is a part of daily living in Venezuela and other places in the world. Being a refugee, exile or migrant, is never an ideal situation for anyone. We are already working on a future Experts Meeting that we will tell you about soon.

Time to Reset

Reset is a current buzzword. It refers to the approach we have to moving on from the impact of Covid: not to just go back, “return,”  to where we were in 2019 but to learn lessons and make changes. To reset.

This is the theme of brand-strategist and author Elizabeth Uviebinené’s new book, called quite simply, The Reset, but offering “Ideas to Change How We Work and Live”. This is an ambitious project and Uviebinené’s premise is that now is not an opportunity to be missed. Her position is best summed up as:

“Being busy isn’t an Identity. Perks aren’t office Culture. Profit isn’t all we want from Business. Loneliness shouldn’t happen in a Community. We can all shape Society.”

During the pandemic, changes that business deemed too costly or too difficult and disruptive – flexible working from home – became overnight the only game in town. Our dependence on “key workers,” from those in the care professions to those keeping our supermarket shelves stocked was an overdue insight into the worth of hidden labour.

Uviebinené is right to argue that there should be no going back on these awakenings. It is though in her chapter on Community, where she looks at the pandemic of loneliness – predating Covid – that many of her points chime with the vision and the work of HRF.

We are living lives that are superficially connected (via social media and global newsfeeds) but actually disconnected as family and neighbourhood structures become stretched (by people moving far from their birth communities as well as by breakdown of relationships).  Added to this, the culture of “work-activism” has mistaken the pleasure and productivity of working lives for extended hours and high stress levels.

It is in our communities that we see this disconnection lived out – so many lonely and exhausted people living so close to, yet so separately from, other lonely and exhausted people – and it is also the place where the pandemic has pressed the reset button. Uviebinené sees the “stay at home” message of governments giving a chance for people to take stock of their own homes and relationships and the wider communities of which they are a part.

At its most basic level having to stay in our own neighbourhoods has opened our eyes to them: that park we never knew existed when we rushed for the morning train, that food bank where we found we could, after all, lend a hand, that neighbour whose name we now know because we had time to find out.

Although The Home is not a separate chapter in The Reset, the book is clearly about the ways in which people can become better connected, more fulfilled and learn and develop as employees, employers, colleagues, families, neighbours and friends.  Behind this is the remembrance of what had been forgotten, but never went away – the need for individuals to see themselves in relation to others, in terms of cooperation and care. These lessons are learnt in the places we all found ourselves back in: the home.

The book concludes with Uviebinené’s belief that “the gift the 2020 gave us was space and chance to work out was good and bad in our lives and to reimagine [them]”

A reset that places and reimagines the home at the heart of society for every one of its members from youngest to oldest is a gift well understood by HRF. We can all shape society – starting at home.

Summer reflections (II)

In the Light and in the Shadow, the women who enlightened me
This post is an ode to women, to those who, without needing to be in the limelight, have worked hard and put in real effort for the family, yet always in the shadows. I have been fortunate to have been surrounded by several inspiring women who have made me realise just how overlooked they are in modern society.
From my surname you will gather that I am not English, but Spanish and specifically, I was born in a small town in northern Spain called Logroño, surrounded by vineyards. Fruit orchards, village life, summers on the river and bicycle races have been ever present throughout my life as I mentioned in the previous post.
I have grown up watching an enterprising grandmother who, together with my grandfather, always worked both inside and outside the home, and obtained licenses to drive both motorbikes and cars in order to visit their clients. My grandmother was also in charge of the housework, together with her mother (my great-grandmother), because in those days it was very common for grandparents to live in the family home right to the end of their days. Once he retired, my grandfather helped my grandmother with most of the household chores, so I never had to go without anything, because he was always there when he was needed.
My mother followed in her footsteps and together with my father, she ran a successful business and put three daughters through university, without appearing overburdened, but was instead able to prioritise one thing over another during certain periods of her life. Showing how to prioritise and being totally dedicated to the family are, without a doubt, her best legacy. Witnessing it first hand is nothing like being told about it, so anyone who has not been through the experience may think it sounds a little odd. But there are ways of living that do not go out of fashion and the benefits become obvious over time.
In short, I have grown up surrounded by great women, thanks also to their husbands who made a formidable team. They were intelligent men, and their women shone as wives, mothers and workers. And I experienced this not in a big city environment but at the heart of a tiny closely connected community, where the avant-gardes always arrive a little later and where common sense and a sense of responsibility were more important than studying for a career. Yes, dear friends, this happened in Spain in the 50s and 60s and is continuing today.
Most of my childhood friends have similar stories to share, which means that my family did not turn out to be an exception, but that Spain was full of families like us. And I would add that this is repeated in many other parts of the world.
My message is simple, women have always known how to work behind the scenes, without the need to be praised or awarded medals. But nowadays we do applaud them and thank them for their great effort and the good example they set us. The important thing is that we university-educated women of the 21st century, myself included, recognise the great work they carried out with such humility, never boastful or blinded by the limelight, aware of the values they transmitted.  It is thanks to their model example that I have become the person I am today, and I feel enormous gratitude.

Summer Reflections (I)

Back to the summer of our childhood
How happy we were in summer when we were little. In Spain, school ended at the end of June and we had two and a half months ahead to do everything that winter wouldn’t allow.

Eating ice cream, riding your bike, spending afternoons in the pool, playing cards, recreating characters from our favourite television series, making bridges with sticks in the river, building houses with cardboard and towels, looking for blackberries, catching snails when it rained… In short, feeling totally free.

I spent the summers in a housing complex in the middle of the countryside in northern Spain, away from any coastal or city dangers. We would see the shepherd walking the sheep in the afternoons and we would run with the dogs so that the flock would not get lost. Sometimes we would cough from the clouds of dust raised from the road, but nothing seemed to matter other than helping the shepherd. And when we got back in September with cuts and grazes, they were the trophies that proved our bravery and made us feel very proud.

But despite all this activity, we also needed to relieve the boredom and created the most fun games. We invented new competitions, played hide and seek and adapted sports to the number of children taking part. Of course, we were not all the same age and leadership roles were shared without egos getting in the way.

I was one of the little ones and I always felt cared for by the older ones. When we went out on our bikes along the road to fetch water from the source, our parents always entrusted the care of the little ones to the adolescents, and they assumed that responsibility without question.

We never watched television because after lunch, most of us did homework before going out to play, and in the evenings we loved being outside in the communal garden, telling scary stories or just gazing at the stars. It was never too late to go to bed.

How happy we were all summer. During the last few days of August, we felt the pain of it coming to an end, with afternoons spent running errands and buying uniforms needed for the new school term that was about to begin. We knew that we wouldn’t see each other again until the following summer but could look forward to the month of July arriving and continuing our adventures out in the streets and surrounding countryside once again.

That’s how my summers were in the ’90s. What do you remember about your childhood summers?