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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

Dana Centre

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.

Workshop images  Workshop images
Workshop images  Workshop images

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.

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 (dan.lockton@rca.ac.uk) 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 (flora.bowden@rca.ac.uk) 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.

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.

Read More

Design and behaviourism: a brief review

by Dan Lockton

In a meta-auto-behaviour-change effort both to keep me motivated during a very protracted PhD write-up and demonstrate that the end is in sight, I’m going to be publishing a few extracts from my thesis (mostly from the literature review, and before any rigorous editing) as blog posts over the next few weeks. It would be nice to think they might also be interesting brief articles in their own right, but the style is not necessarily blog-like, and some of the graphics and tables are ugly.

“It is now clear that we must take into account what the environment does to an organism not only before but after it responds. Behaviour is shaped and maintained by its consequences… It is true that man’s genetic endowment can be changed only very slowly, but changes in the environment of the individual have quick and dramatic effects.”
B.F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, 1971, p.24

Behaviourism as a psychological approach is based on empirical observation of human (and animal) behaviour–stimuli in the environment, and the behavioural responses which follow–and attempts in turn to apply stimuli to provoke desired responses. John B. Watson (1913, p.158), in laying out the behaviourist viewpoint, reacted against the then-current focus by Freud and others on unobservable concepts such as the processes of the mind: “Psychology as the behaviorist views it… [has as its] theoretical goal…the prediction and control of behavior. Introspection forms no essential part of its methods, nor is the scientific value of its data dependent upon the readiness with which they lend themselves to interpretation in terms of consciousness”.
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