What can a technologist do?

I was interested to come across this article by Bret Victor, looking at different ways technologists can play a role in responding to the threat of climate change.

While I haven’t had a chance to fully dig in (it’s pretty comprehensive), there was one passage that caught my attention (in the Consuming Energy section:

If efficiency incentives and tools have been effective for utilities, manufacturers, and designers, what about for end users? One concern I’ve always had is that most people have no idea where their energy goes, so any attempt to conserve is like optimizing a program without a profiler.

Many of these projects are unsuccessful and possibly only marginally effective. I don’t think this means that efficiency feedback will always be unsuccessful — just that it needs to be done well, it needs to be actionable, and most importantly, it needs to be targeted at people with the motivation and leverage to take significant action.

Individual consumers and homeowners might not be the best targets. A more promising audience is people who manage large-scale systems and services.

This really resonates with me on a number of fronts.

Firstly, Yolande Strengers work in this space suggests that patterns of energy usage behaviour are divorced from a “resource manager” mindset. This suggests that even the idea of someone wanting to “optimize”, which requires a resource management or commodity mindset/framing, doesn’t necessarily even resonate with the “average electricity consumer”. We don’t see or know where the energy goes. And often the way this information is presented is at odds with how we perceive its value.

Secondly, I too question the efficacy of many energy monitoring tools and approaches. In part because of findings like those from Yolande, in part because it seems that there’s limited empirical evidence been gathered at the individual/household level as to their effectiveness (last time I checked, anyway). Related, the current crop of tools only seem to focus on a small number of the overall market—for example, those that are interested in tech gadgets and home automation—rather than the broader set of energy consumers.

I believe we need a variety of different models and interfaces (as in user interfaces, form factors, devices), not just graphs and smartphone apps, to reach this broader market. And I suspect there’s a lot of market opportunity in this space (thus my recent thoughts experiments). Think: your house as a Tamagotchi. Or kids games that result in real-time energy reduction.

Lastly, Bret’s comment about larger systems I think is really valid. For example, what happens when we end up with a distributed energy grid across multiple properties, ideas along these lines being suggested by thought leaders like Dan Hill. The Internet of Things may significantly change the landscape. What happens when the ideas surrounding blockchains and cryptocurrency get applied to energy markets?. (This last point is why I’m so excited to be attending the Random Hacks of Kindness hackathon this weekend.) Or when these same ideas are applied as a “reward” for energy consumption reduction?

I’ve been concerned with the technology-centric focus of much of the work in energy management, that misses the socio-economic and behaviour change aspects of the problem space. But this does not dismiss the positive role that technology solutions, and by extension the technologists behind them, can play in reducing our environmental impact. It’s great to have such great references as what Bret has produced to support the recruiting effort ;)