Yearly archives of “2013

Introducing AcrossRCA: Seeing Things

Please see the updated schedule for the week

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 set both internally and by external partner organisations.

This year, from 28 October to 1 November, the SusLab team are running an AcrossRCA project, Seeing Things. This builds on the ‘energy visualisation’ theme of SusLab to challenge students – potentially from diverse RCA programmes including design, architecture, communications, fine art, materials and humanities – to explore visualising a broader range of hidden patterns in everyday life, relating to either human behaviours or environmental conditions.

Nearer the time, we’ll be blogging about some more of the ideas behind Seeing Things, and other relevant projects, but in the meantime, here’s the project outline:

Seeing Things

Brief: Visualise invisible patterns relating to human behaviours or environmental conditions.

Number of people 12-20

Keywords: Visualisation, Sustainability / Environment, Human behaviours


Seeing Things has emerged from the SusLabNWE project, on which the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design and SustainRCA are partnering with Imperial College London and the Institute for Sustainability.

SusLab focuses on domestic energy use and the social practices, behaviours or activities that result in that energy use. Energy is largely invisible and one of our interests on the project is in visualising and communicating these invisible patterns.

In Seeing Things we would like you to think more broadly about visualising invisible patterns, relating to either human behaviours or environmental conditions. Through the project you will have access to a range of sensing technologies, as well as insights that have emerged from our interviews and co-design workshops with a diverse range of householders over the summer as part of SusLab. You can therefore generate your own data about energy use or human behaviours, or can use other source material (SusLab’s or your own) as your subject matter.


This is a full week project, but you are free to arrange your time how you like on the Wednesday and Thursday. There’s no ‘homework’ as such. You are free to form your own groups with people you’d like to work with, up to a maximum of four people per group, or work on your own if you prefer. We’ll be around to help and provide mentoring, but it will be up to you to decide what you want to do.

Depending on your background, interests and expertise — and those of the people you choose to work with — your projects could be very different, potentially involving anything from automatically generated data visualisations to hand-made installations. So the equipment you might need will vary. We have a project website for SusLab — — which will be updated during August and September to include more details of Seeing Things.

The projects you create will be presented to invited guests from the design, built environment and sustainability sectors on the Friday, and there will be further opportunities for them to be installed and exhibited in the Institute for Sustainability’s SusLab ‘Living Lab’ house early in 2014.


Monday 28 October

9am Introduction

SusLab background including insights gathered on human behaviours and energy use (Phase 1), results from co-creation and next steps for the project

Seeing Things presentation — case studies of other projects about ‘visualising the invisible’

10.30 Break

11am          Brief and Teams

Brief: Visualise invisible patterns relating to human behaviours or environmental conditions.

Spend time talking to other students about your interest in the subject and form teams of up to four people. You can also work on your own.

1pm Lunch break

2pm Presentations from guest speakers (tbc).

Speakers will address projects on visualising the invisible, human behaviours and energy use.

5pm End

Tuesday 29 October

9am Introduction to sensing

Introduction to the data and sensing equipment that will be available to use. Opportunity for students to try out different technologies and look at data produced.

1pm Lunch break

2pm Teams begin project work

5pm End

Wednesday 30 October

All day Teams work on projects at College

with mentoring from HHCD and SustainRCA

Thursday 31 October

All day Teams work on projects at College

Friday 1 November

9am Teams finish projects at College and install in [space tbc]

3pm Project presentations from teams in [space tbc]

5pm Reception with invited guests

Please visit the AcrossRCA blog for more details and to sign up (by 17 October).

Our ethnographic approach

This is a guest blog post we were invited to write by Gabrielle Ackroyd, one of the organisers of EPIC 2013, the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference, taking place in London from 15-18 September. Our paper, ‘People and energy: A design-led approach to understanding everyday energy use behaviour’ [PDF] will be presented by Dan on Wednesday 18 September. The post originally appeared on the EPIC 2013 blog.

People, energy and everyday life in London

Dan Lockton & Flora Bowden,16 Jul 2013

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of blog posts introducing some of the (perhaps lesser known) ethnographic activities taking place in and around London, particularly in line with this year’s theme of widening the EPIC gene pool.

Based at the Royal College of Art, the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design and SustainRCA are partners in SusLabNWE (2012-15), an interreg-funded European collaboration between research organisations in the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany and UK.

The overall theme of the collaborative projects is the reduction of domestic energy use through encouraging behaviour change, via developing and testing new products, services and interfaces. This encompasses a broad scope of work and expertise, and the team includes environmental scientists and architects, alongside design researchers. The project benefits from ‘Living Lab’ instrumented houses in each country, which will provide a platform (albeit artificial) for demonstrating and trialling the interventions developed.

Understanding energy use in everyday life

Reducing energy use is a major societal challenge–there is a vast array of projects and initiatives, from government, industry and academia as well as more locally driven schemes, all aiming to tackle different aspects of the problem. However, many approaches, including the UK’s smart metering rollout, largely treat ‘energy demand’ as something almost homogeneous, to be addressed primarily through pricing-based feedback, rather than being based on an understanding why people use energy in the first place–what are they actually doing?

We contend that people don’t set out to ‘use energy’: instead, they’re solving everyday problems, meeting needs for comfort, light, food, cleaning and entertainment, sometimes with an emotional dimension. Equally, people’s understandings–mental models–of what energy is, and how their actions relate to its use, are under-explored, and could be extremely important in developing ways of visualising energy use which are meaningful for householders. This is where ethnographic research can provide insights which are directly useful for the design process.

From our point of view at the RCA, Phase 1 of the project (which Dan will be talking in more detail about at EPIC 2013) –is based around a programme of home visits with in-depth interviews and probe/diary studies, paired with quantitative sensing of electricity and gas use and everyday activity (thanks to our partners at the Institute for Sustainability and Imperial College London).

By finding useful ways of integrating the qualitative and quantitative, we are trying to develop a fuller picture of the contexts and nuances of energy use in everyday life–hopefully working towards addressing Tricia Wang’s discussion around ‘thick’ data and ‘big’ data within the energy context, although not Carl Miller’s points about social media. Certainly, energy use is an area where there is a lot of big data around, but less usage which takes account of context and meaning.

A hackday this autumn will bring together our Phase 1 participants with the energy monitoring and ‘maker’ community of designers, developers and researchers, and we will translate the insights from our ethnographic work into co-created prototype interventions (which could be new products, services or interfaces). We’ll initially be trialling the things developed in the network of ‘Living Lab’ houses across north-west Europe in 2014, as well as in participants’ homes themselves in Phase 3. The London lab is being constructed in the London Sustainable Industries Park, Dagenham by the Institute for Sustainability.

Central to the project is the development of people-centred design research methodologies that can provide insights about the usability and adoption of sustainable innovations, across many sectors, to partners with other disciplinary focuses. Flora, with the RCA’s Catherine Greene and Rama Gheerawo, has led on the development of a design research methodology toolkit for SusLabNWE, including observational techniques, self-reporting methods, and product and service prototyping; the kit has been disseminated to all project partners and is informing the design research undertaken in all the regions of the project.

Learning from lead users

Following the Helen Hamlyn Centre’s established research methodologies, developed in the context of inclusive design, in our ethnography we’re focusing on lead users in one form or another – people who have particular needs around, or interest in, energy use at home, and who are indeed often self-described ‘edge cases’.

In our initial group of 10 participants, of a range of ages, backgrounds and family situations, we have:

  • Social housing tenants on very limited incomes
  • People who are already part of existing programmes aimed at saving energy (via home energy displays and online monitoring) and people who have taken it upon themselves to cut their energy use without using any kind of display
  • People with medical needs which mean they use higher than average amounts of gas for heating
  • People with strong environmental motivations and people much more focused on cost
  • People from the ‘internet of things’ and ‘quantified self’ communities, who have set up their own home energy monitoring systems for their own interest, and have incorporated using the systems into their everyday routines

What we’ve learned so far has already given us much deeper insights into phenomena such as the everyday strategies and routines people have around energy use, how they categorise and separate activities, self-imposed rules around payment schedules, household ‘policies’ on using particular appliances, unexpected use-cases for energy displays, and some intriguing conceptions of ‘what energy looks like’. In our EPIC 2013 paper and presentation, we’ll go into more detail on these insights and the implications they have for the design process.

Photo by Karolina Raczynska

Some of our ‘early adopter’ lead users could be in the vanguard of coming trends around technology use at home, but equally, trends also represented in our group, such as ageing populations and more in-home care provision, will have other effects on energy use. The idea is that through learning from these interested users–understanding their routines, their motivations, their interactions with technology (and in most cases having quantitative data about their actual energy use to integrate with the qualitative insights) we can identify design opportunities for interventions which take account of the real contexts of everyday energy use.

Main EU SusLabNWE project website | SusLab at the RCA website

Dr Dan Lockton ( is a senior associate at the Royal College of Art’s Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, specialising in links between design and behaviour, and public understanding of everyday systems, particularly with respect to the social and environmental impacts of technology. He was previously a research fellow at WMG, University of Warwick. His PhD at Brunel University, Design with Intent, involved developing a toolkit for the emerging field of ‘design for behaviour change’, and he also consults as Requisite Variety. At EPIC 2013, he’ll be presenting a paper about the SusLabNWE project described in this blog post.

Flora Bowden ( completed her Master of Architecture in Urban Design at the Bartlett School of Architecture in 2009 and is now a research associate for SustainRCA, at the Royal College of Art. She is interested in issues of time and space, place and change, and how we perceive and engage with change over time, and also in analysing uses of space, in mapping and visualising movements and patterns, combining this with a deep understanding of the social and cultural context, to explore how environments shape and are shaped by inhabitants and events.

Welcome: Introduction to SusLab

SusLab aims to reduce household energy use through the design and trialling of new people-centred products, services and interfaces, developed collaboratively with householders

Reducing energy use is a major challenge for society and the need to change our behaviour is receiving increasing attention. However there is a need to integrate the ‘what’ of quantitative data with the ‘why’ of people-centred design research. Why do people use energy in everyday life–what are they actually doing? And how can design address this?

Understanding energy use in everyday life

People don’t set out to ‘use energy’- demand is the result of solving everyday problems, meeting needs for comfort, light, food, cleaning and entertainment, often in emotional contexts. This is where research can provide insights directly useful for the design process. At the Royal College of Art, the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design and SustainRCA are partners in SusLabNWE (2012-15), an INTERREG-funded European collaboration between research organisations in the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany and UK, to investigate this issue. In the UK, we are working with Imperial College London and the Institute for Sustainability to combine quantitative research processes with ethnographic design methods.

The focus of SusLab is on reducing household energy use through new design interventions, developing and testing products, services and interfaces. The project draws on a broad scope of expertise, including environmental scientists and architects alongside designers, and each region is creating a ‘Living Lab’–a specially designed test home for short-term studies on sustainable living.

We are currently in Phase 1, researching ‘in the field’ to establish baseline information about householders’ everyday routines, energy use and understanding of energy through in-depth home visits and probe studies. Through deeper insights into everyday interactions, we are aiming to help frame the ‘problems’ and contexts of energy use–and address them through design–in more nuanced ways.

This autumn we will move into Phase 2, which will be centred on the ‘lab’ – a specially designed test home for short-term studies on sustainable living, being constructed in the London Sustainable Industries Park, Dagenham by the Institute for Sustainability. Using our insights from Phase 1, we will employ co-creation processes to create new prototypes that will be tested by users and iterated in the lab. In Phase 3, the final phase of work, our product, system and service prototypes will be tested with wider user groups in their own homes, validating the research and design process.

The Royal College of Art’s role

Central to the project is the development of people-centred design research methodologies that can provide insights to other partners about the usability and adoption of sustainable innovations across many sectors. The RCA is leading on the development of design research methodologies and, together with project partners, has created a kit of methods to be used across all three phases of the research, drawing on the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design’s Designing With People kit as well as inputs from TU Delft, Chalmers TH and the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment & Energy.

These involve observational techniques, self-reporting methods, and product and service prototyping, as well as new research methods developed specifically for the project, such as user re-enactment. The research methods kit has been disseminated to all project partners and is informing the design research undertaken in all SusLabNWE regions. A public version will be released later in the project.

The RCA is also collaborating with Imperial College London to establish the sensing technologies that will be installed in the UK Lab to measure domestic energy consumption and monitor human interaction with energy-using devices. This collaboration will enable new comparisons to be made across qualitative and quantitative data and will lead to deeper insights for design research processes.

This website is under development: in the meantime, please contact Flora Bowden (SustainRCA) or Dr Dan Lockton (Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design) for more details.

Project details

Research Associate: Flora Bowden
Senior Associates: Catherine Greene (2012-13); Dr Dan Lockton (2013-15)
Principal investigators: Rama Gheerawo (HHCD); Clare Brass (SustainRCA)

Research funder: INTERREG IVB NWE Programme
UK research partners: Institute for Sustainability, Imperial College London
Other research partners: TU Delft, Chalmers TH, Wuppertal Institute, CityPorts Academy, Hochschule Ruhr-West, Innovation City Ruhr, Johanneberg Science Park, Woonbron Housing Association.

Some news, mostly around writing

• My PhD, which was inspired and indeed sired by this blog, back in 2007, has finally been approved by the examiners. I’ve put the thesis online with a few comments. I’ll have a proper post reflecting on it all in due course – just need some time to think about it. Thank you to everyone who’s helped along the way.

• In March I joined the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art, as a senior associate working on the SusLabNWE project, and also some executive education work for partner organisations. It’s a wonderful place with some great people, and I’m very pleased to be part of it. There are some exciting events coming up around the SusLab project, which will be announced later in the summer.

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Designers, literature, abstracts and Concretes

Trinity College Dublin Library, by A little coffee with my cream and sugar on Flickr

Last week, I put a quick survey online asking how actual designers make use of academic literature.

It provoked some interesting discussion on Twitter as well as two great blog posts from Dr Nicola Combe and Clearleft’s Andy Budd exploring different aspects of the question: ways to get access to academic research, and the frustrations of the relationship between design practice and academia. Comments on Andy’s article from Vicky Teinaki and Sebastian Deterding helped draw out some of the issues in more detail (and highlighted some of the differences between fields). Kevin Couling has also blogged from the perspective of an engineer, drawing on Nicola’s post. Steven Shorrock pointed to his work with Amy Chung and Ann Williamson addressing similar issues, much more rigorously, within human factors and ergonomics [PDF]. Someone also reminded me that I’d already blogged about related issues back in 2007.

As of now, about 50 people have filled in the survey, a mixture of digital, physical and service design practitioners: thank you everyone, and thanks too to people who emailed comments in addition.

Here’s the full spreadsheet of survey responses (Google Docs) so far. I’ve had some good suggestions for other places to publicise it, so I’ll do this in due course to get a wider scope of practitioners’ opinions.
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