Design for Green: EcoViz and Persuasive Design

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Everyone keeps talking about climate protection, but noone gets going. Even though our energy consumption is known to be a little over budget (with 11t per capita and year, 2008), it does influence our day to day decisions in prominent ways. The climate, and even more its slow and gradual change, is just too abstract and “far away”. It’s much easier for us to imagine the efforts of getting a new fridge (choose, check prices, pick it up, getting rid of the old one, …), than imagining the advantages which will pay off one day in the future in our purse or even globally climatically.

Sure, a lot of us are for more energy efficency in principle and would change their daily lives. But, how do you know where start best with these changes? And how do you avoid that your good intentions are not pushed back by other everyday tasks? Energy consumption in forms like electricity and heat is a pretty invisible and unremarkable thing by itself.

A good example are energy and gas meters which are located in the most obscure niches of our flats (who owns a chique meter, anyways?). Few will know what their meter showed yesterday or last year and whether that is considered comparatively high or low. The yearly bill at bet makes us focus on our consumption and the dull tables and numbers don’t even try to invite for contemplation.

Part 1: Interaction Design to the rescue!

Making the invisible visible” is the mission interaction design is on. Usually, this means designing the handling of electronic devices. One of the most basic features, energy consumption, didn’t play any major role here (except maybe showing the battery life).

The Visual Voltage exhibition from the beginning of this year showed how energy consumption can be an unobstrusive but persistent part of our everyday environment. Organized by the Swedish cultural institute (Svenska Institutet) and the Interactive Institute, a combination of several design research institutions, Sweden wanted to underline the focus of its EU council presidency. (IxDS, my employer, organized the Visual Voltage Workshop for designers from all over the world during the exhibition in Berlin).

One of the most prominent pieces is the Power Aware Cord, a power strip with a cord that is animated by glowing strings. You can literally see flow through the energy. The more is plugged in, the brighter and more hectic the cord glows but also small stand-by suckers get denunciated.

Another example is the Flower Lamp, a huge hanging lamp in the form of a blossom, which closes its face whn the power consumption in the houshold is high. That is, the light and spacial atmosphere change and make the energy consumption experiencealbe indirectly.

There are also really pragmatic solutions available, like the light switch and sockets that show how much electricity flowed through them � once you have seen them, these ideas appear just straight forward (Piotr Szpryngwald (2007): Strom visualisieren).

Part 2: Risks for EcoViz as Persuasive Design

The design of products can influence our everyday life pretty thoroughly, far beyond plain beautification that it often gets confused with (the granny of my colleague isn’t using her iPhone because it suits her “style” but because she understands the interaction concept).We can weave information into our surroundings, like having the power meter show a last-year value or denounce the most energy hungry device in the household. Design can also influence our behaviour (Persuasive Technolgy), e.g. when my energy control station shows me how much better I perform in saving energy compared to my neighbour (and with the link to facebook, I can even present my green heart to the public.)

But does this influence and power direct our attention to the critical points? Who (also who among the designers) would know that old circulation pumps for the heating is the biggest engery consumers in a household? Some might not even know of the existence of these devices inside their heater. Maybe the “eco switches” from above become the new status symbols that make you feel good when you switch off the light. But how much is gained if you switch off the light, leaving your appartement with a green conscience to fly to your friends in Australia and El Salvador five times a year? There are also some inconsistencies bringing your organic grocery home into your atmospheric, old building with pre-war insulation.

Regarding the impressive possibilities for designers to pilot people onto the path of energy efficency, one should not forget to think about the immediacy of each propagated method. Otherwise, a lot of attention is wasted quickly on marginal improvements. Huge amounts of energy are consumed inside your own four walls but you import it in various forms of products and services (starting with the internet transfering this article). This consumption is often considerable, but is pretty hard to determine (e.g. because you don’t know the process exactly) � and even harder to explain it to customers (there are related projects about “virtual water by Stefan Stubbe and Timm Kekeritz).

Design can help in many situations to make the world more understandable. It can direct attention on energy efficency while at the same time integrating it nicely into our everyday life. But it needs a critical feedback from other disciplines find and stay focused on the really promising measures. And finally: The CO2 disappear by styling. You need to get going yourself.

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