As part of our research for ‘The Power of Curiosity’ report I came upon a particularly arresting turn of phrase that encapsulates one of the major policy issues of our time: ‘the energy trilemma.’
“There’s what we call the energy trilemma; three great forces for change, but pulling in different directions. First of all you’ve got our commitment from the government around climate change, so we must reduce fossil fuel generation but this will need more investment in renewable and possibly nuclear generation. The second one is that we’ve got to keep the lights on which becomes more complex and costly with renewables as it’s less predictable and controllable. The third part of the trilemma is trying to manage the bills that you and I are faced with, in the context of the first two parts of the trilemma, in recent years we’ve seen bills rise higher than the rate of inflation and bills are hurting people.” - Daniel Taylor, Head of Innovation, British Gas
Trilemmas are every bit as real and pervasive as dilemmas, just not as widely discussed because they are significantly more complicated, and debates surrounding them are more difficult to follow. In this case, the issue at hand doesn’t just apply to energy companies, so let’s make it a bit clearer:
- We have to reduce the impact of anthropogenic Climate change which means we have to significantly reduce and perhaps gradually eliminate fossil fuels from our energy supply.
- And yet we also have to retain a secure and stable energy supply with renewable forms of energy that are often thought to be less reliable (‘the sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow’)
- At the same time, while considering those trade offs and the costs incurred due to the fact(albeit an increasingly contentious one, and related to government subsidies for fossil fuels) that renewables tend to be more expensive, we have to recognise the existence of cost of living pressures on families throughout the country, especially those facing acute fuel poverty who sometimes literally freeze to death because putting the heating on has become too expensive.
It is hard to argue with the general validity of each of these imperatives, but we can, I think, question whether they deserve to be treated with equal strength and importance, and question some of the assumptions underpinning them.
Personally, I don’t think we need to debate the first point at all, and I find myself motivated to challenge the validity of the second two imperatives. But before doing that it’s important to keep perspectives and biases in mind. If you work for an energy company that relies on the supply of fossil fuels or if your responsibility is to keep the energy supply stable across the country(especially hard when people return from work apparently, when there is a huge surge in demand caused by heating and lights going on and meals being prepared); or if you struggle to pay your energy bills, or are a politician aware of the growing political importance of energy bills as an electoral issue you might be more inclined to problematise or interrogate the rather abstract and remote sounding first point, regardless of scientific opinion.
Those attacking the first horn of the trilemma might not question the reality of anthropogenic climate change, but they could question, for instance, the validity of the 2 degree global target, or question whether this country should take any kind of leadership on the issue when other similar or more culpable countries are doing less.
Those attacking the second horn of the trilemma could ask: Surely we can significantly reduce our energy demand? Or ask: How secure and stable do you need the energy supply to be? Isn’t it ok if the power goes off every so often? Couldn’t we live with back-up generators maybe, as many in India do? Or perhaps that argument is too weak, and you accept the need for reliability and predictability, but you don’t accept the contention that renewables alone can’t provide that stability. In a previous post on ‘The Third Industrial Revolution’, the idea of an energy internet was suggested to deal with precisely this challenge.
Those attacking the third point might begin with the old suggestion to wear jumpers rather than turn the heating on, but that’s a bit facile. The tougher question to pose, surely, is: Aren’t the energy companies simply charging too much? In light of the importance of climate change and the security and stability of the energy supply, could a case be made that profiting out of energy provision is somehow morally wrong? If so, should there be some sort of cap on profits, or make it mandatory that profits are reinvested in renewable energy, or could there even a case for renationalising control of our energy?
You will notice, in each case, that none of the arguments or suggestions sound completely convincing, and even where they feel necessary, they sound politically implausible. That’s why it appears to be a genuine trilemma. Something has to give.
Do you care about climate change? Do you think you have a role to play in helping to reduce carbon emissions? Would you make small changes if you knew they would make a difference? What’s stopping you?
I’ve been thinking a lot about these sorts of questions recently, not least because I’m now working on an exciting and important piece of work looking at behaviour change for climate change. In doing so, my imagination has been particularly captured by the work of Elizabeth Shove (rhymes with cove not love). Professor Shove’s work has looked particularly at changing social practices and the implications of these for energy demand and climate change.
Her seminal paper on conventions of Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience had quite an effect on me. In the paper, Shove talks about the changing dynamics of social practices and conventions in relation to, amongst other things, personal cleanliness. It has become normal – expected, even – in the Western world, to shower (or bathe) on a daily basis.
This is a relatively new development – Shove notes that it was less than a century ago that a weekly bath was the norm. But the social practice has very much taken hold, and the idea of showering any less than every day is largely unpalatable.
I recently discovered the extent to which people are repelled by the idea of less-than-daily-showering when I told some friends about my decision to halve the number of showers I take. My decision to do this was a direct response to reading Shove’s work, which made me see that I have succumbed, almost blindly, to participating in a social practice, for no good reason other than convention.
I recently discovered the extent to which people are repelled by the idea of less-than-daily-showering when I told some friends about my decision to halve the number of showers I take.
Like many people, I’m someone who is, in general terms, quite concerned about the climate change problem. I recognise that my actions contribute to over-consumption and that my behaviour results in a carbon footprint. I’d like to do more than I currently do to make a positive difference, but it isn’t always clear to me what I should do.
Showering less frequently appealed to me because it is such an obvious way to reduce the energy I use in heating water, as well as the amount of water I consume, without having a terribly negative impact on my life. So, for the past three months, I’ve been having a shower roughly every other day.
It was remarkably easy to make the change, and I haven’t felt uncomfortable, unclean or self-conscious. No one has said anything to me about me looking or smelling any worse than usual, so all in all I’d say the experiment has been a success, and I’ve (possibly) permanently shifted my habit.
Great, I thought, this is an easy thing that everyone could do: I’d better tell people about it. I did not expect my friends to react in the way they did. Comments included, “Don’t you feel disgusting?” “I can’t believe you went out for a meal without having had a shower – that’s so disrespectful to your friend.” “There’s no way I could do that, I’d be so embarrassed.” “Isn’t that a bit extreme?” Other reactions were more supportive, but, to my surprise, no one I spoke to was keen to give it a try. Even a friend who works as the sustainability manager for a higher education institution couldn’t imagine “feeling right” without having a shower in the morning.
I really was surprised by this – although I knew the social practices associated with cleanliness are embedded in our society, I somehow didn’t expect to find such deep attachment to them. Am I an extremist for showering less-than-daily? Is it really disrespectful to socialise without having showered? And more importantly, if social practices can become so widespread and so deeply ingrained within a generation, surely they can also be moderated or even reversed. What do you think – would you shower less to save the planet?
(If you are just too curious to see the actual RSA report to read this blog, go here, now, and come back and tell us what you think…)
Curiosity is the very basis of education, and if you tell me that curiosity killed the cat, I say only the cat died nobly. - Arnold Edinborough
Tomorrow Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, will visit the Eco Technology Show in Brighton - a national showcase of the latest technologies designed to protect the environment and make our daily business and home lives more efficient. No doubt there will be lots of great gadgets on show, and most of them will have arisen from forms of innovation that we urgently need to address our future energy challenges.
Urgent seems to be the right word. A combination of high levels of economic growth in developing countries, the perceived imperative of economic growth in developed countries, and a rise in global population means that, short of a radical overhaul of the
entire world economic and political system, the world’s energy needs will continue to grow. And yet research at the Stockholm resilience centre suggests we have already harmed the planet beyond repair in certain ways (biodiversity loss and
disturbances to the nitrogen cycle) and, on our current trajectory, are likely to continue to do so to an increasingly damaging extent, particularly in relation to the effects of anthropogenic climate change.
Our working definition of curiosity is “a focussed or exploratory inquisitiveness that motivates us to connect what we don’t know to what we do know.”
We need more energy, but we are running out of planet. In this context, while political (e.g. meaningful emissions targets) economic (e.g. viable carbon markets) and technological (e.g. more productive renewable energy) solutions are important, any progress on these fronts need to be supported by reductions in energy demand and improved energy efficiency. Moreover, progress on these fronts should not be viewed as additive, but as inextricably linked. We need technology to enhance society, but technological design relies on human insight.
Unfortunately, the recent social attitudes survey, and various market surveys suggest that people are developing a kind of ‘green fatigue’, and part of the urgency has to be finding ways to reconnect people with the energy they rely on, but never think about when they boil four cups of water for one cup of tea or pre-heat the oven for twenty minutes instead of ten. Despite rising energy prices, we don’t seem to behave as if we understood that energy is scarce.
In fact we take many extraordinary things for granted. Clean running water, functional plug points, vanishing rubbish bags, warm white radiators, reliable car pedals, predictable light switches, safe gas hobs, and enormous metallic vehicles that somehow fly through the sky. We get used to such things, and learn how to live with them and through them. But is something lost when we cease to be curious about the things we rely on? In what ways might it help to be more curious, and what kinds of curiosity might currently be most needful?
In our report, launched today: The Power of Curiosity: How Linking Inquisitiveness to Innovation could help to address our energy challenges we explore these questions in detail.
we take many extraordinary things for granted. Clean running water, functional plug points, vanishing rubbish bags, warm white radiators, reliable car pedals, predictable light switches, safe gas hobs, and enormous metallic vehicles that somehow fly through the sky.
Our working definition of curiosity is “a focussed or exploratory inquisitiveness that motivates us to connect what we don’t know to what we do know.” However, the first chapter probes existing definitions, measures and dimensions of curiosity in more detail, and we attempt to create an empirical measure of curiosity based on six questions adapted from the existing psychometric literature. The survey was used to gauge existing levels of curiosity throughout the UK.
One result in need of further analysis is that Scotland appears to be the least curious part of the UK, and Wales the most curious. We don’t really know why yet, which has made my job rather difficult today because on regional and national radio stations the presenters all want a clear explanation for that result(in itself an example of the information gap theory of curiosity that we mention the report). “What’s wrong with Scotland?”, was in fact the opening question of my interview with BBC Radio Scotland this morning. “Nothing!” was my reflex response, being Scottish myself, but they kept digging- could it be about education? confidence? I’m not sure, though I managed to slip in one of my favourite questions as a way of suggesting it might be ‘contentment’ : “If ignorance is bliss, why do we seek knowledge?”
I hope you can read the report, but if you want the jist, here is an extract from our conclusion:
Understanding curiosity can help to create more effective feedback on home energy consumption, improve how we communicate environmental messages, and develop more sophisticated strategies to change behaviours that are habitual in nature.
Our research indicates that curiosity may play an important part in stimulating innovation in ways that we urgently need to meet energy challenges in Britain. Understanding curiosity can help to create more effective feedback on home energy consumption, improve how we communicate environmental messages, and develop more sophisticated strategies to change behaviours that are habitual in nature. We also explore several ways that we could try to build on the natural curiosity of young people in educational settings.
If there is an overarching impression worth ending on, it is that curiosity may have been hollowed out in some sense.
If there is an overarching impression worth ending on, it is that curiosity may have been hollowed out in some sense. Shallow curiosity can now be quickly satiated through Google or similar devices, but deep curiosity that arises from sustained focus and engagement is arguably not supported and protected in the culture at large as much as it could be. Creating a truly sustainable economy is an issue worthy of deep and sustained engagement from all of us, and it is hoped that a deeper appraisal of curiosity in all its forms may help to achieve this.
They say a rainy day is no match for a sunny disposition, but London’s wet, windy, monochrome sky is enough to make the cheeriest soul wish they were elsewhere.
While weather and climate are related, weather is immediate, salient, shared and self-evident, while climatology is statistical, abstract, systemic, chronological and inaccessible. Indeed it is far from clear what kind of mandate the link between weather and climate gives us, and whether it is perhaps safer not to rely on weather as a way of communicating the climate challenge.
For instance, George Monbiot writes today about how selective attention to weather patterns is used to reinforce the narratives of climate change doubt and denial, while many have criticised Al Gore for linking extreme weather events in China and Pakistan to the need to act with urgency.
The connection between weather and climate is a narrative challenge. We want to tell a story that links them, because it makes the issue vivid and real, but the links are tentative, non-linear and probabilistic i.e. they are not good ingredients for an inspiring narrative to galvanise action on a global scale.
And narrative matters. It has been argued, for instance, that despite major policy initiatives, Obama’s green jobs initiatives never really took off because he didn’t have a compelling vision for how the myriad of policies could be woven together to create a vision of the future that people could figuratively and literally buy into.
we urgently need a narrative that is complex enough to capture the dimensions of the problem, but simple enough to make intuitive sense to billions of people. If weather can’t do that, what can?
This is no minor point because we urgently need a narrative that is complex enough to capture the dimensions of the problem, but simple enough to make intuitive sense to billions of people. If weather can’t do that, what can?
(image from voiceseducation.org)
Of all the RSA talks I attended last year, Jeremy Rifkind’s Third Industrial Revolution made the deepest impression, because he addressed the challenge of finding the right narrative head on. He spoke eloquently, passionately and coherently without prompts for 45 minutes, and it was the first RSA talk where I had to hold myself back from starting a standing ovation in the great room. (The Twitter feed suggests I wasn’t the only one).
Before I continue to wax lyrical, I should express some intuitive doubts about the speaker that I can’t quite put my finger on. He came across as warm, wise and brilliant, but I am mindful of the saying that if it sounds too good to be true then it probably is, and there is something about Rifkind’s clarity and certainty that, while it inspires, it also makes me a little nervous. For instance he valorises Europe to an American audience in way that doesn’t ring true, and appears to name-drop to a suspicious extent. He also seems over-fond of highlighting just how influential he is. These reservations might be ill-founded, or perhaps just grit for the pearl in the oyster, but I have them for whatever they are worth.
And yet, Rifkind offers a vision of the future grounded in an economic, environmental, technological, political and psychological diagnosis of the present that sounds coherent and feels compelling. Who else does that? I strongly encourage you to listen to the talk to hear the argument for yourself, jump to the wikpedia page, or buy the book where it is unpacked in detail.
Here is my quick summary.
- All industrial revolutions are based on an interplay or energy and information (An ontological aside- is there ultimately anything else in the world?) The first Industrial Revolution brought together print and literacy with coal steam and rail, while the second combined the telegraph and telephone with the internal combustion engine and oil. The Third industrial revolution is about bringing together renewable energy with the internet.
- We misunderstood the financial crisis. Everything was mis-priced because we didn’t factor in the true cost of energy. We thought it was about the housing market, toxic assets, and debt, but these were corollaries of of gradually diminishing fossil fuels and increasing oil prices. We witnessed: “extraordinary binge buying designed to keep the economic engine artificially revved up while the real economy was winding down.”
- ‘Peak globalization’ occurred in in July 2008 where ‘peak oil per capita’ happened (linking population growth to oil production). We need a completely new industrial model.
- The new industrial revolution has five pillars:
- Shifting to Renewable Energy on a grand scale.
- Turning all buildings into power plants i.e. DIY renewable energy for everybody.
- Storing this energy, principally with hydrogen.
- Reconfiguring the world’s energy grid along the lines of the internet, allowing people to share energy, and overcoming the main problem of renewables (“the wind doesn’t always blow, the sun doesn’t always shine”…)
- Creating electric transport vehicles to transport energy that can be plugged into the main power grids.
All of these steps beg questions, mostly of a technological nature, but it appears that in all cases ‘we have the technology’, as they say, and the process is already under way in several parts of the world, including Rome, San Antonio and Utrecht.
This combination of renewable energy, distributed capitalism, lateral power and a change in consciousness forms the basis of the third industrial revolution. It looks like a vision worthy of the challenges we face. The Devil will surely be in the detail, but in the blueprint I sense the divine.
What is lacking is the political will to make this model the prevailing narrative of our time.
In this respect Rifkind builds on his earlier work on empathy to argue that these five pillars must emerge alongside a ‘shift in consciousness’, and he links this shift in consciousness to a political shift, illustrated in the Arab Spring in which the top-down power of the second industrial revolution is gradually replaced by what he calls ‘lateral power’- the power of non-hierarchical connections, or what is sometimes also called heterarchy. (If you listen to the audio, I ask about this shift of consciousness towards the end of the event).
This combination of renewable energy, distributed capitalism, lateral power and a change in consciousness forms the basis of the third industrial revolution. It looks like a vision worthy of the challenges we face. The Devil will surely be in the detail, but in the blueprint I sense the divine.
They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch, but today 5,000 people, including me, have had exactly that. The event in Trafalgar Square was the brainchild of Tristram Stuart, author of Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal. The aim of the event is to draw attention to the astonishing amount of food that gets thrown away every year.
Partly, the idea is to encourage consumers not to overbuy and to use up food at home before it goes off and also, to draw attention to the shocking quantities of food that get wasted higher up the food chain. UK supermarkets have much more stringent cosmetic standards than our European counterparts, meaning that tonnes of perfectly good fruit and vegetables are sent to landfill simply because they are the wrong shape.
A delicious vegetable curry was prepared by Hare Krishna volunteers, made entirely from ingredients that would have otherwise ended up in landfill. In addition to the main meal, punters could help themselves to freshly pressed apple juice made from misshapen apples deemed unfit for our supermarket shelves. Fruit, including uneven bananas and pineapples were being given away and you could help bag up wonky carrots which will later be distributed to food charities. As well as the vegan curry, there were also tongue sandwiches, and seared ox cheek on offer. The queue for these was considerably shorter than for the veggie option, and, to my amusement a volunteer was checking with people that they knew what they were queuing for.
The whole thing was impressively well organised, with fast moving queues and plenty of volunteers making sure everyone got the message as well as the free food. I spoke to a couple of staff from FareShare, who explained to me how they manage to feed over 35,000 people daily through redistributing food waste. The examples of food thrown away by the industry were very surprising – even rice and pasta with more than a year left before the use-by date get chucked simply because of misprints on the packaging. FoodCycle volunteers handed me recipe cards for great meals you can make with vegetables which are past their best, and a woman from Love Food Hate Waste told me that the average family throws away £50 worth of perfectly good food every month.
Everyone attending was asked to sign the Feed the 5,000 pledge, committing to buying only the food they need, and eating the food they buy. For me, the most striking statistic of the day was that if we all stopped throwing away food that could have been eaten it would have the same carbon impact as taking 20% of cars off the road. I don’t know why this was the figure that had most salience for me – maybe because the carbon impact of car use seems more obvious to me than that of wasted food.
Not wasting food seems like such a simple and obvious thing we can all do, and really shouldn’t be that difficult. I guess like many of these sorts of challenges, it’s about subtle shifts and changes of habit, maybe a bit more in the way of planning before we go shopping, and more flexibility to use up what we’ve got once we’ve bought it. So, before the end of the day, I’d better eat the apple that’s been sitting in my desk drawer all week…
It’s a hideous cliché for product companies to say that their product is “the iPod of…” breadmakers, shopping trolleys, remote controls or whatever they make (though just another indication of how Apple have raised the profile of good design). But one product launch that took place yesterday had more right to use this title than most. Tony Fadell was a senior executive of Apple’s iPod division until 2008, but has more recently started Nest, a product development company.
Nest’s first product is the iPod of (sorry) thermostats. It’s simple, intelligent (its main selling point is that it ‘learns’ from the way you live) and wouldn’t look out of place in a Foster + Partners home (if they made homes). It’s an interesting example because thermostats are exactly the kind of product that are traditionally heavy on features and light on desirability and ‘human interface’.
Developing the last point, cognitive scientist and designer Don Norman used thermostats in his Design of Everyday Things (one of the inspirations for Thaler & Sunstein’s Nudge) to illustrate how the human interface of a thermostat often fails to match a homeowner’s mental model of their central heating system. Norman writes that people often think of the thermostat as either a valve (in which turning the dial up increases the amount of heat flowing through the system) or a timer (in which turning the dial up makes the system respond more quickly). Both are wrong, and both illustrate a problem with how people understand thermostats (for more see this post from Rattle Research and this post in response by Dan Lockton).
Why does this matter? Well, while possessing products that are well-designed might fulfil some of our desires, it also has an impact on big social and environmental problems. ‘Space heating’ is the highest percentage (61%) of domestic energy consumption in the UK (domestic energy is itself 32% of the UK’s overall) and with sky-high energy prices, more falling into fuel poverty & climate change, it becomes more important than ever that we can clearly understand and manage the energy we use. The way that we interact with our home’s central heating system directly affects our energy consumption.
Nest seem to be motivated by trends like these. They reckon that thermostats control about 50% of a US household’s energy bill, and that a well-designed and properly programmed device will be an attractive proposition to consumers. We’ll wait and see I guess (there’s price premium of about $100 more than competitors), but it could be another example of great product design not only making consumers happier, but also helping to solving social problems. As Nest’s website says: “Technology should be about more than newest, loudest, prettiest. It should make a difference”.
My Dad is thinking of trading in his ten year old Renault Scenic under the government’s car scrappage scheme which launches today, and gives you £2000 to spend on a new car when you trade in your ten year old banger. The aim is to aid the economy by getting people spending, and to get older, more polluting, cars off the road in favour of clean new ones.
The scheme reminds me of when I was a design student and signed up for a course in “Environmentally Sensitive Design“, taught by Prof. Billett, which was the only final year option that had three hour lectures that felt like they flashed past in 30 minutes. One lesson that stuck in my mind was that the most environmentally sensitive behaviour is not always to keep stuff as long as possible – sometimes there is an environmentally optimum lifespan for a product.
This is often the case when a product consumes resources (like energy or water), and successive iterations of that product result in decreasing energy consumption. Ann Chalkley’s paper uses data about energy consumption of building and running a dishwasher and fits exponential curves to them, showing that the optimum lifespan of a dishwasher built in 1990 was 6.97 years, and predicting that the optimum lifespan of a dishwasher bought in 2009 will be 8.67 years.
It’s an interesting idea, but I’m not sure how universally applicable it is. I tried to work out the curves for my Dad’s Renault Scenic, but the fuel consumption for 1.9 diesel Scenics doesn’t follow the same pattern: the ’97 to ’99 model was 40mpg, the ’99 to ’03 did improve to 49mpg, but then the ’03 model spoilt it by dropping to 47mpg.
Which technologies are gradual enough to fit curves to? Can we design products that drop apart after their environmentally optimum lifespans and would we want to own them? Which cars are the period of ten years chosen by the government based on?
David MacKay, a professor in the Department of Physics at Cambridge has recently written Sustainable Energy – without the hot air, a book that aims to take the subjectivity out of the energy debate. Too many words are being stripped of their meaning by politicians, pressure groups and the media when deciding how we should power the the UK and not enough facts: “To make this comparison, we need numbers, not adjectives” he says.
MacKay wants people to become conversant with “back of the envelope” calculations, and adopts this principle in his book. His results are stark, as the Economist notes in a book review: “Meeting Britain’s energy needs from onshore wind power would require covering literally the entire country in turbines, even assuming that the wind was guaranteed to blow”. (Also covered briefly by my colleagues in the RSA’s Arts & Ecology centre.)
This is exactly the sort of book that many people involved in encouraging pro-environmental behaviour change will dislike (and probably those in the renewables business for that matter). For instance at one point MacKay says:
We are inundated with a ﬂood of crazy innumerate codswallop. The BBC doles out advice on how we can do our bit to save the planet – for example “switch off your mobile phone charger when it’s not in use;” if anyone objects that mobile phone chargers are not actually our number one form of energy consumption, the mantra “every little helps” is wheeled out.
Normally the idea behind such BBC-attributed advice is that in order to spark pro-environmental behaviour, you first need to foster pro-environmental attitudes. It’s hoped that getting people to think about their mobile phone chargers will encourage people to think about other ways in which their actions impact on the environment.
I’m with MacKay on this, and think that encouraging behaviour change in this way is wrong. Most studies report the link between pro-environmental attitude and pro-environmental behaviour being weak. And in any case, energy-consumption in most people’s minds is not a direct act of pollution like pouring a vat of chemical waste into a river. People are intuitive enough to feel (even if they don’t calculate) that unplugging their chargers won’t contribute much to the at times apocalyptic projections of the warmed-up world of the future.
I do think that behaviour can make a difference though, and as I wrote last month, I think one of the keys to that is in showing people, in an engaging way, that their actions contribute towards a larger effort. Finding the best way to motivate massive numbers of people is everything in behaviour change.
So in the following post, I’ll adopt MacKay’s style of rough calculations to show what sort of impact pro-environmental behaviour change could make.
Last year I read a report published by the IPPR that made me think. It was called Warm Words, and analysed the language and discourses used in the media and campaigns to talk about climate change.
The authors identified several discourses at the time of publication (August 2006 – so it’s a bit out of date now) that fell into three main groups; alarmism (we’re doomed), “settlerdom” and “British comic nihilism” (climate change is just too fantastic to be true), and “small actions” (messages that encourage people to beat climate change by doing little actions like turning off lights). I thought this was all fascinating, coming at the same time I was getting slightly power crazy after being exposed to the sort of sneaky public engagement strategy that campaigning organisations use, and the ideas behind social marketing and population segmentation models.
The report suggests most of these discourses are pretty ineffective, and among its recommendations are to improve the way the media uses the small actions discourse:
As mentioned earlier, populist climate change discourse (for example, in magazines) tends to put together alarmist and small-action repertoires, through features such as ‘20 ways to save the planet from destruction’. In bringing together these two repertoires without reconciling them, these articles feed a notion of asymmetry in human agency with regards to climate change.
This, the report says, is pretty disastrous, and makes people think that while their actions are responsible for climate change, they are also powerless to do anything about it. How can turning off my telly make any difference to rising sea levels and ecosystem collapse?
Their conclusion is to create a new discourse which they call “ordinary heroism”, an attempt to create a (very British by the way) language about climate change (more about heroism in another post soon). Their explanation of what makes this unique isn’t entirely clear from the report to be honest, but the examples they quote of early uses of this discourse in the media all have in common that little changes from lots of people add up to be significant.
This is absolutely one of the reasons that technology and the internet is so crucial to helping us change our behaviour. My own energy saving rituals (nothing odd, I promise) seem negligible until I’m connected to everyone else, when I realise that the cumulative effect of my and our small actions are beginning to bring about significant change. This, as well as the competitive and social proofing reasons, is why it’s great that socially-networked energy displays/smart meters are beginning to find their way on to the market.
But what else can we come up with?
I mentioned Onzo in a previous post about energy displays, but thought I’d re-visit the topic as they have recently released images of their first product. No mention yet of how they are using Sentec’s Coracle technology (presumably we have to wait for their next generation products), but their first display looks well-designed, seems to (from the image showing on the display) include a target for each day’s energy consumption, and has a clever technical innovation over most of its competitors; its sensor (the part on the right of the above image) that clips around the main electricity inlet of your house (near your meter and fuse box) harvests energy from the wire and as such doesn’t require batteries.
Here it is looking friendly on your noticeboard or fridge:
Onzo’s designers also have a blog which sometimes touches on design for behaviour change.
In related news, the Department for Energy and Climate Change opened a consultation into possible ammendments to CERT (the Carbon Emissions Reduction Target which requires energy suppliers to help you save energy by supplying insulation etc.). One of the changes they propose is designed to encourage more energy-efficient behaviour change, and is the promotion of real time energy display devices (like Onzo’s product).
The main requirements for such a display counting under CERT are that it displays a minimum of real time electricity consumption and cost on a portable or hand-held type display, can be connected to an existing electricity meter or to a new meter, and that it must be provided only to customers who want them.
DECC are planning to incentivise provision of these displays by putting a predefined carbon score on a real time display that equates to how much carbon will be saved as a result of supplying one to a home and will count towards the utility supplier’s CERT budget. The consultation distinguishes between a real time display that uses disposable batteries (either for the transmitter or the receiver/display) and one that does not – on the basis that trials show that most people do not replace the batteries when they run out. The first type will count for 3.5% electricity consumption over 15 years, and the second type will count for three quarters of this figure.
Interestingly, the consultation also dips a cautious toe in the water of design for behaviour change by suggesting that displays with advanced functions, like “detailed information about individual appliances, the ability to download data onto a PC for more detailed analysis of electricity use and the use of such data in social networking sites” should count for a higher carbon score.
I mentioned in previous posts that the most authoritative review of the literature seemed to indicate 5-15% reduced electricity consumption as a result of giving people direct feedback on their energy consumption. Although the evidence base is admittedly thin, DECC’s 3.5% seems incredibly cautious to me. A couple of weeks ago in a meeting, someone mentioned that although they thought their house was as efficient as possible (all low energy lightbulbs etc.), after buying a real time display they were able to save another 16% on their bill. These sort of anecdotal stories aren’t rare.
So why is the carbon score of the displays so low? DECC’s consultation cites evidence from a variety of trials, most of them using the cheapest, least engaging examples of interaction design I’ve ever seen, but none of them resulted in average savings of less than 6%.