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Design for Increased Energy Awareness
Regine Debatty, 2 Mar 05

lamptransf.jpgSTATIC! is a project by the Swedish Interactive Institute that revisits the design of everyday things to increase awareness of how energy is used and to hopefully empower users by increasing their individual choices with regards to energy consumption.

For example, the bathroom Disappearing-Pattern Tiles are decorated with patterns in a thermo-chromic ink that reacts to heat, fading away to reflect the intensity of hot-water use. The longer the shower, the less decoration on the wall.

The form of the Flower Lamp reflects the energy used. It "blooms" when energy consumption in a household has been low for some time. So in order to make the lamp more beautiful, a change in behaviour is needed.

The Energy Curtain is woven from a combination of textile, solar-collection and light-emitting materials. During the day, the shade can be drawn to collect sunlight and, during the evening, the energy is expressed as a glowing pattern.

The group is also working on a series of Erratic Objects that behave erratically when an individual is using too much power. For example, the Erratic Radio may “untune” when there are too many objects in the room consuming energy.

A few weeks ago, the MACEF design competition asked candidates to design home accessories that work with the concept of RE-cycling (water, energy, metal, plastics, paper, glass, etc.) Klaus Küppers got a mention for a clever energy index which displays energy consumption in the living room, allowing users to better understand and react to it.

This way of "making the invisible visible" is calling out the original Viridian notion.

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That's a pretty interesting set of devices.

I think there's also value in making things invisible, because up to now there's been a belief that you change behavior by making people think about every little thing in their life.

People already have a lot of information to process and burden to bear as it is. We could all learn something about the value of taking care of things for people to help them live their lives a little easier.

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 2 Mar 05

I'm always pretty skeptical of art-house products that raise awareness of environmentalism, etc. - honestly, I think projects like this perpetuate the mainstream perception that "environmentalists" are goofy if-well-intentioned head-in-the-clouds space-cadet types that get very little actual credibility. Sounds pretty callous and uninspired, I know, but the lowest-common-denominator consumer mind isn't really interested in bizarre lamps that inform them about their energy consumption. It strikes me that (a) awareness does not drive adoption, and (b) the two things that do are:

1. Lossless substitution - i.e.: a substitute product that does the same thing as the desired product, but that costs less in the long run - i.e.: hybrid cars.

2. Mandated replacement - i.e.: EPA guidelines for shower heads, etc.

So, the bottom line is, in my cynical opinion, I think the great minds that came up with these items would be better utilized if focused on deploying applied sustainability solutions for mass market (or at least sizeable niche market) consumption. Romantic? Nope. Artistic? Depends on the product and designer. Profoundly cynical? Yep - sorry, have a funeral to go to tomorrow.

Posted by: Rod Edwards on 2 Mar 05

Joseph -- one aspect of these technologies is that they (in theory) provide ambient, not intrusive, signals. See this entry from awhile back.

Rod -- while a healthy skepticism is good (and cynicism is, more often than not, warranted), I must say that giving people a way to see and understand a previously-invisible result of their behavior can have positive results. One important reason why hybrid cars result in better mileage is that drivers suddenly have an indication of how various aspects of their driving habits shape mileage. Hybrid mailing lists are filled with people taking about "driver break-in periods" as new drivers, given immediate feedback from the car, learn how to drive in a mileage-optimal fashion. Most hybrid drivers see a steady improvement in mileage over the first year because of this.

Would these pieces of smart art actually change energy use behaviors? Perhaps, perhaps not. But don't discount the very idea that new feedback can have positive results.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 2 Mar 05

I really dig these products, and I think they could be useful for lots of people in the real world.

For example, I know a lot of environmentally aware students here in Montreal who live in old apartments. These apartments often leak and require a lot of energy and money to heat in the winter.
People are willing to conserve but don't know what actions are effective at reducing consumption. For example, will covering a window in winter reduce their heating bills by 30 or 3%. These little gizmos could be a fun and beautiful ways of giving more immediate feedback on the effectiveness of different actions.

Posted by: Garry Peterson on 2 Mar 05

Jamais, you are exactly right about hybrids and the impact that MPG feedback has on drivers. I've been planning on writing something about how all carmakers should put (and even be forced to through regulations if necessary) to put MPG counters in all cars.

I believe that this would lead to much saner driving habits from all the well-intentioned people out there that just don't realize the impact that their driving habits have on the fuel-efficiency of their cars.

Mind if I quote you in my blog entry? You said it well.

Posted by: Mikhail Capone on 2 Mar 05

This is a discussion of the value of feedback. I agree with Mikhail and Jamais that real-time mpg feedback is a powerful tool to change driving habits, and should be a feature of all cars. But I agree with Joseph and Rod that feedback can be overwhelming, or draw attention to how "cute" or "cool" it is, rather than convey useful information. But as a general rule, systems work better with clear, compelling feedback. Find and read the essay, "Places To Intervene in a System," by Donella Meadows (in the archives here, among other places) and you'll see what I mean.

Posted by: David Foley on 3 Mar 05

Mikhail, go right ahead.

David, that underscores my point about these needing to be ambient, not intrusive, technologies.

A non-hardware example, if you will: in Mac OSX, applications can alter their icons in the "Dock" (essentially equivalent to the Windows taskbar). Some email programs, to notify the user that the background email app has new mail, will "bounce" the icon, making it jump up and down, drawing the eye -- that's an intrusive display, since we're wired to react to motion on the periphery of our vision. Other programs, in the same situation, change the icon to include a small number, indicating how many new messages -- an ambient display, as it doesn't pull the eye, but is within the field of view and provides information when noticed.

Similarly, a device attached to the electricity meter in a home designed to blare an alarm when consumption hits a certain level may well alert the user to over-use, but in an intrusive way. A device which gradually changes color or shape based on use can give the same information without being intrusive.

It is possible to design these things so as to provide information without contributing to information overload.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 3 Mar 05

Ron, Ron, Ron!

Someone has to lead the change, and usually it's people that are "goofy if-well-intentioned head-in-the-clouds space-cadet types that get very little actual credibility" (at least their heads aren't somewhere else!). Then eventually, as society changes, this perception recedes. This behavior is visible in everything to gentrification, to art, to fashion. A specific and recent example would be the gradual increase in demand for hybrid cars.

Sorry you think there's a lack of credibility in that, but that's how it goes. Look at the iPod: dreamed up by some "head-in-the-clouds" types. Adopted by like-minded "head-in-the-clouds" types and well now... you know the rest. So relax, take a deep breath, and enjoy these first efforts, be they odd, or "artsy" to you, because eventually you and everyone else will adopt them too, that is if they're not too "head-in-the-clouds". Amen.

Posted by: Jason on 3 Mar 05

I'd love to know who this "Ron" character is.

Posted by: Rod Edwards on 5 Mar 05



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