Home Energy Hackday: the results

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On Saturday 9th November, about 35 designers, developers, makers, researchers and other interesting people came together at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre. We had everyone from energy startups to service designers, venture capital to building performance and energy consultants, along with participants from our SusLabNWE partner organisations, Chalmers (Gothenburg) and Imperial College London. (Full list of people who signed up).

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The hackday brought together both more ‘technological’ and more ‘human’ perspectives on energy use in the home, with a range of interests, experience and expertise.

As such, while we had a table of electronic prototyping bits – and more brought by participants, and kindly lent by Imperial -  groups were free to use whatever methods they liked to explore, prototype and demonstrate their ideas, including digital and paper prototyping.

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And they did: over the course of 12 hours of intensive (but hopefully fun) work, teams addressed two quite broad briefs / themes arising from our co-creation work with householders earlier this summer and autumn:

In/visibility of energy

▶ Householders have told us that not being able to ‘see’ the energy they use (and what’s actually using it) limits their ability to change how they use it. This doesn’t just mean visualisation via numbers and graphs – what could be new ways of communicating energy? Following on from this, are there opportunities for more ambient (e.g. audio) interfaces for energy use?

Thermal comfort

▶ Heating uses the largest proportion of energy in homes, but the area of thermal comfort is complex and it is not as simple as merely turning down the thermostat. Can we look at this question not directly through temperature, but instead from the perspective of householders’ comfort and their sense of control over the home environment?

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Seeing Things: The projects

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Visualising invisible patterns in human behaviours and environmental conditions

Go straight to the projects

On Friday 1 November, in the Senior Common Room at the Royal College of Art, twenty students from twelve different courses presented the outcomes of their week-long Seeing Things projects to invited guests, including participants in other AcrossRCA projects run by Sustain and the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design. AcrossRCA is a week-long programme of cross-disciplinary working at the RCA, bringing together students and staff with different expertise, interests and perspectives to collaborate on a wide range of briefs.

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AcrossRCA Seeing Things: introducing the week

We now have a diverse group of twenty students, from 12 different RCA courses, from all six schools, signed up for Seeing Things (28 October – 1 November). The programme we posted earlier in the summer has changed a bit (see below) though the overall pattern of the week is similar.

Our challenge over the week builds on the ‘energy visualisation’ aspects of SusLab to explore visualising, or making experiential in new ways, a broad range of hidden patterns in everyday life, relating to either human behaviours or environmental conditions. The interests, expertise and perspectives of students from many different backgrounds and creative disciplines will, we hope, enable a really interesting set of outcomes.

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We’re also delighted to welcome four wonderful guests, who are all doing intriguing things with visualising, translating or making tangible different kinds of data and patterns:

On Friday 1st November, from 4-7pm, the students will be showing the results of the week’s project, at a reception in the Senior Common Room of the RCA, to a range of external visitors – if you’d be interested in coming along, please email dan.lockton@rca.ac.uk or flora.bowden@rca.ac.uk.

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Invitation: Home Energy Hackday, Saturday 9 November

SusLab Home Energy Hackday, Dana Centre, Science Museum, London SW7 5HD
Saturday 9 November, 8.30am – 8.30pm

Sign up at Eventbrite

Are you interested in energy, design, prototyping or user research? As part of the European SusLab project, we’re running a one-day hackday event to explore new ways of making home energy use more tangible, visible, or understandable, and we’d love you to take part. We’re looking for makers, however you define: hackers, coders, designers, artists, systems people, to come together and push this area forward.

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There’s loads of work going on about reducing energy use, feedback, behaviour change and smart metering, but a lot of it misses a fairly basic insight: people don’t understand energy very well, and it’s difficult to change what you’re doing if the feedback doesn’t mean much to you.

From user research with a diverse group of householders, we’ve found that two of the biggest problems are that energy is ‘invisible’, and the units are conceptually difficult for many people. Equally, it’s clear that people are not setting out to ‘use energy’ — they’re meeting everyday needs for family comfort, cleaning, food, entertainment and so on. And lots of energy feedback systems don’t really reflect this.

So, our group of householders (you’ll get to meet some of them on the day) have collectively set a brief:

Build something that helps me understand my home energy use better, by making it more tangible, visible, audible, relatable in some way…. It should ideally also be directly useful or actionable – not just giving me data, but solving an actual problem: e.g. helping me know whether I’ve left things switched on, or helping me know whether what I’m spending is more than I should be.

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We’d like you to tackle / explore / challenge that brief, bringing your range of skills to bear in whatever way you see fit. Electricity and gas use are both in scope, together with other relevant variables – temperature (indoor and outdoor), occupancy, anything you feel is relevant.

You could make something physical, or digital, or (most likely) both, a product, a service, combining off-the-shelf bits in new ways, or doing something from scratch. Maybe you already have a project that you think is relevant or could be adapted, or maybe you have an idea and would like to find like-minded people to help you develop it.

What you build will potentially be tested in people’s homes, and in the Institute for Sustainability‘s Living Lab test house on the London Sustainable Industries Park in Dagenham early next year, and there will be the opportunity to develop your ideas further.

We’ll provide food and drink throughout the day, and there will be prizes. You’ll also get to meet and work with some lovely people — with lots of different skills and expertise. We’ll also provide some equipment (this list will be added to over the next couple of weeks!), but please do bring your own too (and add it to the list, if you like).


Please do sign up at Eventbrite, and let people know you’re coming! It’s a relatively small, quick, one-day event, but if you miss out, there should be more opportunities as the project progresses.

Any questions, comments, suggestions or ideas – please comment below or get in touch – dan.lockton@rca.ac.uk or flora.bowden@rca.ac.uk

Co-creation workshop

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At the end of September, five householders from London and beyond worked together with five designers from the RCA’s Service Design department and Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, participating in a SusLab co-creation workshop at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre in Kensington.

Our aim with the workshop was to connect a talented set of designers with some of the householders who have taken part in our ethnographic research, in order to explore further their needs and perspectives around home energy use, and help develop new approaches which reflect more closely the realities of everyday life.

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The workshop progressed through exercises exploring the ‘character’ of household appliances and possible improvements and refinements to existing and proposed ways of visualising and managing energy use, culminating with participants creating their own briefs for new systems which they would find useful, given the contexts of how they make decisions about energy use. It’s too early to reveal the details, but there are some exciting ideas.

These briefs, developed and synthesised, will be taken forward to the next stage of the project: a Home Energy Hackday, to take place on 9 November, where we hope they can be explored, challenged, and prototyped. We’ll post full details here as soon as we can.

Many thanks to all our householders for their time and enthusiasm, and also to Irene, Magda, Amy, Carolyn and Paulina for taking part.

Life Examined: SusLab at the London Design Festival

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Photo by Karolina Raczynska

London Design FestivalFrom 15–23 September, our work on SusLab will be featured in Life Examined, the 2013 Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design exhibition, taking place at the RCA’s Dyson building in Battersea as part of the London Design Festival.

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Photo by Helene Binet

Life Examined is the annual presentation of design projects by the Helen Hamlyn Research Associates, exploring design to improve people’s lives. Socrates famously observed that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. Here the theme of ‘life examined’ reflects the emphasis in the work on in-depth user research with different groups of people – from taxi drivers, hospital patients and office workers to care home residents with dementia or autism. These interactions with individuals and communities are captured in a series of specially commissioned photographs that will form the backbone of the exhibition.

The Helen Hamlyn Research Associates programme provides a platform for new design graduates of the RCA to address key social challenges, and is supported by a wide range of business, public sector and third sector partners.

As part of our SusLab display, we will be presenting insights and outcomes from our ethnographic research and inviting visitors to explore their understanding of ‘what energy looks like’, visually. This is part of an ongoing theme within the project, aiming to understand better people’s mental models of energy, to enable us the design of new interfaces for showing energy use, in Phase 2 of SusLab.

Alongside Life Examined, two other exhibitions are taking place: Mind the Gap looks at the challenges facing modern urban transportation hubs and the design strategies used to respond to them —a collaboration between RCA Design Products’ Platform 17 students and the National Cheng Kung University in Tainan, Taiwan; and Lazy Bytes, a collaboration between EPFL+ECAL Lab, the Kudelski Group, the RCA, ENSCI – Les Ateliers, and Parsons The New School for Design, asking ‘Can the TV remote control become a valuable object?’