One of the big advantages of being a freelancer is the ability to move fast, to make split-second decisions on what you do, where you follow up, and what to engage in.
And it was such a split-second decision which made me scramble for bandwidth at the Berlin Data Science day to organize a trip to the Birmingham ‘Seminar on Household Energy Consumption, Technology and Efficiency‘. A decision, which turned out to be the absolutely right decision to make.
Working on the Energy Industry in Germany, the specific problems and the context of the German energy transformation often get so embedded in you thinking that it’s at times necessary to step out and ponder the issues other countries are facing, just to give you back some perspective.
It turns out that Great Britain is facing many challenges itself, many of them very different from the issues we face in Germany. Whereas we are increasingly struggling with balancing electricity supply and demand in the face of ever greater contribution of renewables, Britain is working on interventions which range from energy savings to bettering the outlook for the undersupplied.
The core issues, however, seem to be almost exactly the same: how to engage people in a dialogue and bring energy to the attention in the first place. How to make people aware of their energy consumption, and maybe help them modify their behaviours in ways that contribute to a greener energy supply, less and more balanced demand, and a generally more conscious approach to energy matters.
Behaviour of Energy Consumption
Starting out the seminar was Prof. Gordon Walker of Birmingham, who posited we need to look beyond energy to what people actually try to do when their using energy. That very much sounds like the thinking which seems to inform a lot of design lately: don’t look at the product in the first place, look at what jobs people want the product to do. In order to have a shot at influencing peoples attitudes towards energy consumption, we need to understand the jobs people require that energy for.
That segues nicely into Benjamin Cowans presentation on how to design technologies to impact behaviours. One of the major points in his presentation were that pure numerical presentation of data (basically every In-Home Energy Display out there) doesn’t necessarily work1, and that trying to “gamify” energy efficiency and savings lead to short-term, unsustainable behaviour, such as using candles for light, to win games.
However, using a combination of numerical and ambient information, one should be able to tailor specific feedback to impact behaviour. The big challenge is that a lot of discretionary energy expenditure is habitual, and it’s hard to modify those habits.
Also working on Social Feedback Systems is Derek Foster of Lincoln University. The projects introduced (KillaWhats and Watts-Up) tied energy consumption into the social platforms people use to study how social pressure can affect energy consumption patterns.
Skinnerian Behavior Modification?
What struck me as particularly interesting is that a lot of the presented approaches seem to align with the core assumptions of an article I just read on the flight into Birmingham. In it, David H Freedman is tying weight-loss programs into the behavioural psychology of B.H. Skinner and sees huge inroads being made by technology driven solution in bringing down the costs of applying these approaches to a mass market.
However, the weight-loss market is a very different beast, in that you can assume motivation as a given when customers sign up for the program. This is not the case with a lot of the energy interventions that were discussed in Birmingham. Especially on the Smart Metering front, we are faced with a government mandate to deploy the tech to households, even if they may not at all be technologically inclined.
Any approaches trying to have broader impact will have to find a way to deal with people’s generally low interest in all things energy consumption.
One major take-away of the trip was that the academic discourse on those matters very much seems concerned with the Practice Theory, which beforehand I knew nothing about.
It tries to look into the broader context of specific behaviour in considering the technological artefacts used, the cultural norms and the skillset and intention behind actions and as such might prove to be a useful tool in analysing the root causes of specific behaviour.
What was noticeable absent from the seminar was some kind of economics influence (especially Behavioural Economics.)
When Prof. Walker talked about the Passivhaus Movement in the UK, for instance, he mentioned that, in keeping with the “behavioural triangle” above, they were talking about keeping the interfaces, layout and functionality of those houses roughly the same as to not run into acceptance problems with tenants, which, he thinks, want regular homes. This painfully reminded me of a Freakonomics episode, looking into why the Toyota Prius is such a massive success, while other Hybrids founder. The gist: the distinct design of the Prius has a signalling effect, portraying the driver as caring about the environment, whilst the other models are indistinguishable from their regular, gas-only models.
It seems to me that taking advantage of this signalling function could lead to a massive boost in adoption of energy efficiency tech, and really, that’s what’s at the core of social feedback mechanisms as those presented by Derek Foster, or commercialised by OPower.
I was promised that the slides of the event will be made available. As soon as they are, I’ll link to them here.