In search of lost time

Enlighten • Pulse #3 • 5 min
By Joa Scetbon

In many Western societies, the notion of time has become an important tool for policy-making. The creation of time offices in Europe has helped cities to unlock real social benefits for their citizens.

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“Time offices promote equality among citizens.”

2 min

The way we spend our time is very different from how people may have done decades ago. Major economic, social and cultural changes have pushed European policymakers to be more sensitive about time­related issues experienced by citizens. And this, in turn, has led to the creation of “time offices” and temporal policies, i.e. policies that integrate timerelated issues. But how did they come about ? What are they exactly ? And what do they do ?


In order to understand the emergence of time offices, we need to grasp the depth of the changes that have occurred over past decades and how they have impacted our relationship to time.

Since the 1950s, habits and lifestyles in the West have changed dramatically. The roles of men and women have evolved, resulting in the development of women’s work and childcare services, for example.

We also now work differently, often part­ time or on weekends. In the European Union for example, 18.8% of workers have part­time jobs, and about 14.2% work on a regular basis on Sundays (Source). And, we no longer collectively follow a single social or cultural model.
This means the divisions of time (school time, working time, leisure time, travel time, etc.) are increasingly individualised and diverse.

The emergence of a gig economy, in which independent workers are contracted for short­ term commitments, is amplifying this phenomenon. Typical examples include the work provided by platforms like Deliveroo, Uber, Lyft and so on. Changing work schedules are reflected in the way our cities operate. Conventional rhythms that previously dictated city life – night vs day, weekdays vs Sundays – are slowly disappearing.


With these social, economic and cultural evolutions, new issues have arisen. Take for example the social change in Italy during the mid­1980s, when women voiced their discontent about the difficulty in reconciling and preserving the professional and personal spheres in their lives. Since more women were working, they requested that opening hours of public services be adjusted (Source). This demand led first at the end of the 1980s to a proposed bill put forward by Livia Turco, then to the 142/90 law that encouraged cities with over 30,000 inhabitants to reassess public services schedules. This moment can be seen as the birth of temporal policies, which are now well integrated into cities like Turin, Genoa, Milan and Bergamo.

Inspired by the Italian experience, a French parliamentary report in 2001 recommended the creation of “time offices” (Source). Several cities (including Lille, Lyon, Rennes, Paris, Montpellier and Poitiers) set up formal institutional structures to promote temporal policies. Similar initiatives took place in Germany, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands. In 2009, Barcelona, the first Spanish city to be endowed with a time office, launched a European network of temporal policy advocates.

In 2013, the association Tempo Territorial took over the management of this network (see interview of Katja Krüger). This new approach to policy­making implies a cultural shift and a certain amount of financial resources. This explains why temporal policies are not yet the norm everywhere.


These time organisations investigate time­related issues and support temporal policy­making. They act as independent experts and tackle every time related topic that could make life easier for citizens. Jean­Yves Boulin, associate researcher at Irisso­Université Paris­Dauphine­PSL, mentions several: “One example concerns the opening hours of public and private services. They help cities provide services that are compatible with citizens’ busy lives. They also investigate regulations for business hours on Sundays, advocate for libraries to open on Sundays instead of shops, and help organise city nightlife and public transit during the day and night. Temporal policies can help make better use of facilities.”

In Groningen, in the Netherlands, a temporal analysis of a public school showed that the facilities were under­utilised outside school hours and could be used to enhance social cohesion. So, the city decided to make the school accessible to neighbourhood residents outside school hours in order for them to engage in various programmes.


Time offices tackle multiple issues related to mobility. In 2008, for example, policy­makers in the Netherlands and the local time office explored how to reduce commuting time as well as carbon emissions. This led to the creation of Smart Work Centers, first in Amsterdam and Almere, along the model of what is now called a “third place”, i.e., a location that is neither home nor the traditional workplace. A year later, results showed that “users had saved an average of 66 minutes per day by using the SWC instead of commuting to their companies’ offices (Source).”  Third places similar to the SWC provide further benefits creating local community centres, acting as a market place for services or reducing costs for companies.

Today, third places exist everywhere across Europe.

In Rennes, France, together with Keolis, the local time office acted in 2012 as an independent and legitimate expert to help alleviate public transit congestion by encouraging university to modify class schedules in order to reduce the number of students travelling simultaneously to and from the university. On a similar note, an experiment is currently being launched to reduce public transit congestion during rush hours in the business district of La Défense, near Paris. Public authorities are working with companies to spread out employees’ arrival and departure times in the morning and evening. The plan also involves encouraging working from home and using third places. The goal is to decrease employees’ rush hour transit by 5 to 10% within a year.

Italy remains a pioneer in this domain. As Jean­Yves Boulin notices, “Time management has become an integral part of many urban planning policies. Interestingly, it is the only country with a university programme focused on the subject. Students of the Politecnico di Milano School learn about chronotopic and chronographic mapmaking, which are tools used to study the accessibility of public transit and services in a city, and thus help to develop strategies to improve mobility”.

Time offices have proved their worth by supporting local authorities when they implement solutions that boost the welfare of city residents. They certainly have the capacity to inspire more decision-makers worldwide.


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