Man spinning fireworks in the dark

Resource Man’s adventures in household eco-visualisation

Recently I had some interstate travel that presented an opportunity to catch up on a (long) back catalogue of reading. There were three standouts that are related to the recent series of posts I’ve been writing on energy monitoring and behaviour change in a medium- to high-density residential context (the articles relate to themes that are broader than this domain).

The first two articles are closely related, both being written by Yolande Strengers who has done a lot of terrific research into household practices and energy consumption.

In Smart energy in everyday life: Are you designing for Resource Man, Yolande highlights the gendered nature of much of the dialogue and vision towards “smart homes.” This includes a dominant framing of energy consumption, personified in Strengers’ article as a fictional/stereotype “Resource Man”:

Resource Man embodies a unified vision for the smart energy consumer. He is an efficient micro-resource manager—or a “Mini-Me” version of his utility provider. Similar to the “scholastic bias” academics project toward the people they study, Resource Man represents the energy industry’s “resource bias” projected onto energy consumers. In his ultimate imagined state, Resource Man is interested in his own energy data, understands it, and wants to use it to change the way he uses energy. He responds rationally to price signals and makes informed decisions based on up-to-date and detailed data provided about the costs, resource units (kilowatt hours), and impacts (greenhouse gas emissions) of his consumption. For these tasks he needs information, dynamic prices, and enabling technologies, such as automated smart appliances and micro-generation systems, which allow him to transform his home into a resource control station. He is both in control of his energy consumption and assigns this control to technologies to manage on his behalf.

Humorously, with tongue firmly in cheek I suspect, Strengers traces the lineage of Resource Man:

Resource Man’s origins can be traced back to Rational Man, or Homo economicus, differentiated by his access to more advanced and sophisticated technologically enabled tools compared with his economically minded ancestor. Despite this distinction, Resource Man still behaves rationally and in line with sophisticated and frequent information about energy prices and consumption. Resource Man’s preoccupation with technologies also positions him as a close relative of Tool Man (Homo faber). Another branch on Resource Man’s family tree is devoted to Choice Man (Homo optionis), who has passed down an interest in making detailed choices about the best (energy) technologies and solutions to suit Resource Man’s needs in response to accurate and up-to-date energy information.

While it is clear that there are many “Resource Man” figures out there, Yolande argues there is room for alternative views—but the first step is to recognise the bias and dominance of this view in the products, services, framing, and perspectives on energy monitoring and management within the home. From there we can then start to imagine alternative scenarios that don’t rely on the “rational economic” mindset that has so thoroughly been debunked by behavioural economics and social sciences research.

There are many reasons to exercise caution with the ideas, assumptions, and framings of human action embodied in the Resource Man vision. The issue is not that these strategies fail to achieve substantial energy savings—they actually do, and there are numerous studies and extensive evaluations to demonstrate that. Rather, the critical issue is that strategies intended for Resource Man overlook, almost entirely, what people actually do in their homes. We do not see the daily domestic dynamics and routines involved in preparing meals; cleaning the body, clothes, and homes; and making spaces and people comfortable, many of which are still predominantly performed by women. Indeed, in some examples we don’t see any people at all.

She suggests some potential directions: Supporting mess; Designing for others; Designing for slow time; Assuming new assumptions; Reimagining everyday life. Strengers’ summary:

The challenge I pose here to HCI scholars and practitioners is to imagine and design for possible futures that don’t focus on smart energy. This means moving beyond Resource Man’s interest in energy as a commodity (cost), resource (kilowatt hour), or impact (greenhouse gas emissions) enabled by data and technology. Instead, it means engaging seriously with topics like laundry and heating and cooling; and looking, for example, at how energy is experienced through these practices within the dynamic site of the home. This represents a significant opportunity for the HCI community to do what the discipline does best: interrogate, reimagine, and design for low-carbon and less peaky human (and non-human) interactions.

In another article, Designing eco-feedback systems for everyday life (PDF 518KB), Strengers reviews a number of research studies on the effectiveness of in-home displays (IHD) with some striking findings.

She notes:

The content and design of eco-feedback systems draws predominantly on a resource (demand) management paradigm originating from the disciplines of economics and psychology. Demand management involves the use of financial incentives, market mechanisms, education, information feedback, efficiency measures, or other programs to modify the demand for natural resources. …

Such strategies are premised on the theory of rational choice, which emerges from the view (familiar to HCI researchers) that human action is determined by purposive plans. The theory of rational choice assume that individuals buy, consume or use resources in a manner that provides them with the most personal gain at the least personal cost.

There a lots of gems in the article, including the potential for misinterpretation of signals emanating from IHDs:

However, when householders were able to understnad [sic] their feedback, they often misinterpreted of misapplied the data. For example, because appliances such as an electric kettle, toaster, hair dryer, or oven made the IHD ‘scream red’ (e.g. display a red light or spike in consumption), householders assumed that these appliances consumed the most electricity in the home [even when this was not necessarily true].

This is something I touched on in a previous post. Strengers’ notes that perspectives on what consumes the most electricity—the “high electricity consumers”—are often shaped by social norms, rather than hard facts.

There’s plenty more in the article worthy of discussion, such as “The non-negotiability of everyday practices”, “Saving visible consumption, overlooking ingrained practices”, and “Acceptable and unacceptable consumption limits.” And again she touches on the household energy management dynamics highlighted in the previous article.

Well worth a read…

The third article I reviewed was a book chapter entitled Beyond Eco-Art: 21st Century Eco-Visualisation.

A video demo of the Wattson in-home display

It explores the effectiveness of a number of inspiring eco-visualisation examples and their impact on energy consumption, such as Nuage vert, Ambient Devices’ Energy Orb, the (now defunct) DIY Kyoto Wattson (and related Holmes software), and some of the concepts from the STATIC collective—some of my faves including the Flower Lamp and Power Aware Cord (more on these concepts).

I found the comparison between Wattson and the Ambient Orb, and especially the impact of the programability/customisation of the Ambient Orb, of particular interest. Both of these devices have some similar aspects to them, but the paper seems to indicate the Ambient Orb was more successful in achieving change. The different context of use was an important contributor (the Ambient Orb was used by high-energy consumers that seemed more actively engaged in energy management).

Dynamic feedback—when delivered in a visual ‘at a glance’ form—works to reduce energy consumption. Nudge vert, Flower Lamp, Disappearing Pattern Tiles, Power-Aware Cord, Wattson, and the Energy Orb all share the same aim: to use creative imaging—eco-visualisation—to encourage a local population to cut back their energy usage. More traditional curtailment strategies using numeric feedback on standard LCD screens could be doomed to fail especially in light of more innovative imaging data communications solutions.

Very interesting reading… a great resource for anyone seeking alternative models of data visualisation/representation to encourage behaviour change.

Feature image credit.

Also published on Medium.

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