As we may understand: A constructionist approach to ‘behaviour change’ and the Internet of Things

Find Alternative Route, Old Street

In a world of increasingly complex systems, we could enable social and environmental behaviour change by using IoT-type technologies for practical co-creation and constructionist public engagement.

[This article is cross-posted to Medium, where there are some very useful notes attached by readers]

We’re heading into a world of increasingly complex engineered systems in everyday life, from smart cities, smart electricity grids and networked infrastructure on the one hand, to ourselves, personally, being always connected to each other: it’s not going to be just an Internet of Things, but very much an Internet of Things and People, and Communities, too.

Yet there is a disconnect between the potential quality of life benefits for society, and people’s understanding of these — often invisible — systems around us. How do they work? Who runs them? What can they help me do? How can they help my community?

IoT technology and the ecosystems around it could enable behaviour change for social and environmental sustainability in a wide range of areas, from energy use to civic engagement and empowerment. But the systems need to be intelligible, for people to be engaged and make the most of the opportunities and possibilities for innovation and progress.

They need to be designed with people at the heart of the process, and that means designing with people themselves: practical co-creation, and constructionist public engagement where people can explore these systems and learn how they work in the context of everyday life rather than solely in the abstract visions of city planners and technology companies.
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Drawing Energy and Powerchord at the London Design Festival 2014


The latest Powerchord prototype in use..

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The London Design Festival is a huge event taking place across London from today (13th) for the next couple of weeks, and we’re proud to say that two of our SusLab mini-projects, Drawing Energy and Powerchord, are featured, as part of two exhibitions.

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V_and_A_DiliffV&A Digital Design Weekend: 20 & 21 September

At the Victoria & Albert Museum, the 2014 V&A Digital Design Weekend, on Saturday 20th and Sunday 21st September, from 10.30am to 5pm, is a fantastic transformation of the V&A into “one big workshop… where visitors come together with artists and designers to discuss and think about objects, making and working collaboratively.” We’re honoured to be presenting our work in some very talented company, including James Bridle, Tine Bech and Bristol’s REACT Hub.

You can take part in Drawing Energy—please come along to see the collection, and create your vision of energy!—and play with Powerchord, and contribute to shaping the next stage of its development.

Dyson exterior_Helene BinetBreaking Through: New projects from the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design: 15-25 September

Our projects are also featured in the Helen Hamlyn Centre’s own exhibition and symposium, taking place in the Dyson Building at RCA Battersea, each day from the 15th to 25th September, from 10am to 5.30pm. Breaking Through “demonstrates how emerging ideas can shape alternative futures in areas as diverse as energy use, office life and ageing populations—when ethnographic research and people-centred design are considered in tandem. From designs for a new London taxi to innovations in healthcare and developments for digital communities, there is an emphasis on user push rather than technology pull as the driving force to improve people’s lives through design.”

We’ll be showing the results of Drawing Energy so far, and you can also play with Powerchord by using appliances and hearing how it responds.

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About the projects

Drawing Energy (What Does Energy Look Like?) is a drawing project led by the Royal College of Art to explore how people imagine and think about energy. It is part of the wider European SusLabNWE project that is exploring energy use in the home.

Over the past year we have asked over one hundred people – students, children, academics, energy experts, designers and members of the public – to draw for us what they think energy looks like.

The project is described in a paper presented by Flora Bowden at the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics 2014 Congress in New York:

  • Bowden, F., Lockton, D., Gheerawo, R. & Brass, C. (2014). ‘Drawing Energy: Exploring the Aesthetics of the Invisible’. IAEA Congress 2014: Congress of the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics, 22-24 August 2014, New York (paper PDF).

Powerchord is a prototype data sonification system, under development, which turns near-real time electricity monitoring, of multiple household appliances, into sound. The concept was developed from ideas suggested by householders during co-creation sessions as part of the SusLabNWE project.

The prototype uses the ‘guts’ of a CurrentCost energy monitor, connected to an Arduino which reads the XML data stream from the monitor and maps the power levels to particular tracks, played using a WAV Trigger. The current iteration uses birdsong, of different intensities, from recordings at xeno-canto.org

The project is described in a paper presented by Dan Lockton at the SoniHED Conference on Sonification of Health and Environmental Data, 12 September 2014, York:

  • Lockton, D., Bowden, F., Brass, C. & Gheerawo, R. (2014). ‘Bird-wattching: exploring sonification of home electricity use with birdsong’. SoniHED – Conference on Sonification of Health and Environmental Data, 12 September 2014, York (paper PDF).

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Introducing The Story Machine: Part 2

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Co-creation of the Story Machine

In Part 1, we discussed some of the challenges and ‘process friction’ in integrating digital storytelling into community activities, and introduced our initial work with The Mill, a community centre in Walthamstow, east London, which provides space and resources for local creative citizens to organise groups, events and activities. The next stage in our engagement with The Mill was understanding how storytelling could best be incorporated into the everyday running of the centre—the groups, events and activities that form the centre’s work.

Through autumn-winter 2013, some of the RCA team—Alan Outten, Lizzie Raby and Dan Lockton (myself) ran co-creation workshops with The Mill community (mostly active volunteers and visitors, young and old), together with Michelle Reader, a local Walthamstow artist whose sculptures and family workshops recycling scrap materials into animals and figures are been an important part of The Mill’s ambience. The workshops centred around the idea of a ‘Story Machine’, which at this stage was loosely defined as some kind of ‘system’ for capturing and sharing “stories about all the amazing things that happen” at The Mill.

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Initial questions included more divergent creative ones (e.g. whether the ‘machine’ should be one thing or several linked things, and whether it could be ‘enhanced’ over time through art and craft activities at The Mill), questions around reducing friction and increasing inclusivity and accessibility (how to make it so as many visitors as possible would be able to use it) and more practical questions relevant to the running of the centre (where the would machine live at The Mill, what security arrangements would be needed for it, how easy it would be to move, etc). We were conscious throughout of the need for the Story Machine to integrate with The Mill’s online presence—for the outputs to be directed to the website and social media in a useful way—but also of the possibilities of ‘lower-tech’ uses for the Story Machine that didn’t entirely rely on this integration.

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Introducing The Story Machine: Part 1

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Friction in integrating digital storytelling into community activities

For some community groups, the use of technology and digital media is built into the work they do—for example, the Wards Corner Community Coalition‘s very successful use of Stickyworld and social media to tell their story, integrated into the organisation of a whole range of community events.

For other groups, it’s something they would like to weave better into their activities, but which can be difficult to do strategically, for reasons including not just the diversity of skills within the group, but the time and organisational requirements for volunteers to coordinate everything alongside actually running the events. The challenges are rarely ones around motivation or engagement—volunteers are almost by definition engaged in what they are doing—nor indeed, in an era where many group members will regularly use mobile phones, social media and so on themselves, it is not necessarily solely a trite ‘digital divide’ problem.

Instead, in some cases it seems to come down to something like process friction: the route from someone taking photos or video or talking about what they’re doing at a group event, to those photos or videos or stories (in whatever form) being turned into an ‘output’ such as a blog post, an update to the group’s website, or being shared more widely beyond the group (perhaps even to promote it), can be strewn with gaps and bumps and contingencies which make it slow or fractured, from technology incompatibility to issues with user accounts to mental models of how systems work. The route probably involves multiple people, each with his or her own interests, skills and time commitments.

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Tools for ideation and problem solving: Part 1

Brainstorming  brainstorming

Back in the darkest days of my PhD, I started blogging extracts from the thesis as it was being written, particularly the literature review. It helped keep me motivated when I was at a very low point, and seemed to be of interest to readers who were unlikely to read the whole 300-page PDF or indeed the publications. Possibly because of the amount of useful terms in the text making them very Google-able, these remain extremely popular posts on this blog. So I thought I would continue, not quite where I left off, but with a few extracts that might actually be of practical use to people working on design, new ideas, and understanding people’s behaviour.

The first article (to be split over two parts) is about toolkits (and similar things, starting with an exploration of idea generation methods), prompted by much recent interest in the subject via projects such as Lucy Kimbell, Guy Julier, Jocelyn Bailey and Leah Armstrong’s Mapping Social Design Research & Practice and Nesta’s Development Impact & You toolkit, and some of our discussions at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for the Creative Citizens project about different formats for summarising information effectively. (On this last point, I should mention the Sustainable Cultures Engagement Toolkit developed in 2012-13 by my colleagues Catherine Greene and Lottie Crumbleholme, with Johnson Controls, which is now available online (12.5MB PDF).)

The article below is not intended to be a comprehensive review of the field, but was focused specifically on aspects which I felt were relevant for a ‘design for behaviour change’ toolkit, which became Design with Intent. I should also note that since the below was written, mostly in 2010-11, a number of very useful articles have collected together toolkits, card decks and similar things. I recommend: Venessa Miemis’s 21 Card Decks, Hanna Zoon’s Depository of Design Toolboxes, Joanna Choukeir’s Design Methods Resources, Stephen Anderson’s answer on this Quora thread, Ola Möller’s 40 Decks of Method Cards for Creativity, and Public Policy Lab’s list of Toolkits for Public Service Design. I’m sure there are others.


Problem-solving and problem-framing



“Engineers are not the only professional designers. Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. The intellectual activity that produces material artefacts is no different fundamentally from the one that prescribes remedies for a sick patient or the one that devises a new sales plan for a company or a social welfare policy for a state.”
Herbert A. Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial, 1969 (p.129 of 1981 MIT press 2nd edition)

Designers solve problems, but they are by no means alone in that. As Jack Schulze of BERG comments, ”so do dentists” (Kicker Studio, 2009). Design is not, then, identical to problem-solving, but it certainly involves addressing issues that are seen (by someone) as problems and developing new or changed products, services or environments (seen by someone as solutions) in response. This review is not going to fall into the ‘What is design?’ rabbit-hole, since that has been more than adequately explored by other authors, but it is important to understand how design processes can work, in order to identify the most useful characteristics for the proposed toolkit. [which became Design with Intent]

The view of design as being entirely about ‘problem-solving’—which, at its most mechanistic, is ”basically a form of means-ends analysis that aims at discovering a process description of the path that leads to a desired goal”—as espoused by Simon (1969/1981, p.223, and to some extent in the above quote), has become unfashionable in design research, and not just because of the implied lack of creativity in the process.[1] In particular, the reaction against the ‘problem-solving’ view follows Schön’s (1983) concept of The Reflective Practitioner, whose “inquiry is not limited to a deliberation about means which depends on a prior agreement about ends. He does not keep means and ends separate, but defines them interactively as he frames a problematic situation” (p.68).

Thus, design is seen as being as much about problem-framing as problem-solving, an exploration and co-evolution of both the problem and solution ‘spaces’ (Maher et al, 1996), questioning and refining the problem, changing focus and the boundaries of the problem as part of the process of generating solutions. [2]
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Introducing Powerchord (Blackbird edition)


Powerchord 1, housed in a Poundland lunchbox. In the video, you see a laptop (~40W) being plugged in, with, from 10 seconds, the Powerchord kicking in with relatively gentle blackbird song. (The initial very quiet birdsong at 4-8 seconds is actual blackbirds singing in the hedge outside!) Then at 30 seconds, a 400W electric heater is switched on, and the birdsong increases in emphasis accordingly. At 49 seconds, a second 400W element is switched on and the birdsong increases further in volume. There is some background noise of rain on the shed roof.

In the previous post, I introduced the exploration Flora Bowden and I have been doing of sonifying energy data, as part of the SusLab project. The ‘Sound of the Office’ represented twelve hours’ electricity use by three items of office infrastructure – the kettle, a laser printer, and a gang socket for a row of desks – turned into a 30-second MIDI file.

Going further with this idea, I’ve been playing with taking it into (near) real-time, producing sound directly in response to the electricity use of multiple appliances. Powerchord seemed too good a name to pass up. Again using CurrentCost IAMs, transmitting data to a CurrentCost EnviR, this system then uses an Arduino to parse the CurrentCost’s XML stream*, and trigger particular audio tracks via a Robertsonics WAV Trigger. I tried a GinSing to start with, which was a lot of fun, but the WAV Trigger offered a more immediate way of producing suitable sounds.

The Powerchord prototype   CurrentCost IAM

Testing GinSing   Alongside CurrentCost EnviR

There are lots of questions – what sort of sounds should the system produce? How should they relate to the instantaneous power consumption? Should they be linear or some other relationship? Should it be an ‘alarm’, alerting people to unusual or particularly high energy use, or a continuous soundtrack?** I decided in this case, that I wanted to build on a number of insights and anecdotes that had arisen during discussion of representing energy use in different ways:

  • one of the householders with whom we’re working had mentioned in an interview that she could tell, from the sound of the washing machine, what stage it was at in its cycle, even from other rooms of the house.
  • a remark from Greg Jackson of Intel’s ICRI Cities that the church bells he could hear from his office, chiming every 15 minutes, helped him establish a much better sense of what time it was, even when he didn’t consciously recall listening out for them
  • Blackbird

  • the amount of birdsong I can hear (mostly sparrows and blackbirds) both lying in bed early in the morning, and from the hedge behind the garden shed where I work when I’m working from home. Reinforced by a visit to the London Wetland Centre in Barnes a couple of weeks ago
  • the uncanniness of the occasional silence as the New Bus for London or other hybrid buses pull into traffic, compared with the familiarity of increasing revs for acceleration
  • the multi-sensory plug sockets produced by Ted Hunt during our ‘Seeing Things’ student workshop last year
  • the idea of linking time and daily routines and patterns to energy use, e.g. Loove Broms & Karin Ehrnberger’s Energy AWARE Clock at the Interactive Institute.
  • the notion of soundscapes, e.g. Dr Jamie Mackrill’s work at WMG with understanding and manipulating hospital soundscapes.
  • a recording I made out of the window of my hotel room, on a trip to Doha, of the continuous sound of construction work, interspersed with occasional pigeons
  • the popularity of things like Mashup: Jazz Rain Fire
  • Gordon Pask’s Ear and attempts to recreate it
  • the ‘clacking’ sound of split flap displays (e.g. mechanical railway departure boards) as an indicator that the display has updated, as Adrian McEwen and Hakim Cassimally point out in their Designing the Internet of Things.

All of this led to using birdsong as the sounds triggered – in the video here, blackbirds – at different intensities of song (volume, and number of birds) depending on the power measured by the CurrentCost, at 7 levels ranging from 5W to 1800W+. The files were adapted, in Audacity, from those available at the incredible Xeno-Canto – these include Creative Commons-licensed recordings by Jerome Fischer, Jordi Calvert, Roberto Lerco, Michele Peron, David M and Krzysztof Deoniziak. I also made sets of files using house sparrows, and herring gulls, which proved particularly irritating when testing in the office.

Arduino, WAV Trigger and cannibalised CurrentCost EnviR   Arduino, WAV Trigger and cannibalised CurrentCost EnviR

The initial intention was to use multiple IAMs, with different birdsong for each appliance, played polyphonically if appliances are being used at the same time. This is the aim for the next version (and I’ll publish the code), but was stymied in this case by 1) my misunderstanding of the CurrentCost XML spec, and 2) a failed IAM, which conspired together to limit this particular version to one IAM (with multiple appliances plugged into it), at least to have it ready to be shown at a couple of events last week. The prototype you see/hear here, in all its Poundland lunchbox-encased glory, was demonstrated by Flora Bowden and me at the V&A Digital Futures event at BL-NK, near Old Street, and at the UK Art Science Prize ‘Energy of the Future’ event at the Derby Silk Mill. It was more a demo to show that it could work at all than anything particularly impressive.

What’s the overall aim with all this? It’s an exploration of what’s possible, or might be useful, in helping people develop a different kind of understanding of energy use, and the patterns of energy use in daily life – not just based on on numerical feedback. If it’s design for behaviour change, it’s aiming to do so through increasing our understanding of, and familiarity with, the systems around us, making energy use something we can develop an instinctual feeling for, much like the sound of our car’s engine – once we’re familiar with it – effectively tells us when to change gear.

The next version will, hopefully, work with multiple appliances at once, playing polyphonic birdsong, and be somewhat better presented – I’ll post the code and schematics too – and, later in the year, might even be tested with some householders.

*Using a modified version of Colin R Williams’ code, in turn based on Francisco Anselmo’s.
**The distinction between model-based sonification and other approaches such as parameter-mapping sonification is useful here – many thanks to Chris Jack for this.

Thank you to Ross Atkin and Jason Mesut for suggestions! Blackbird photo by John Stratford, used under a CC licence.

Design, people & understanding