Johanne Mose Entwistle

Johanne Mose Entwistle is an anthropologist and works with User Driven Innovation in the project Minimum Configuration Home Automation. The project is funded by the Danish Enterprise and Construction Authority and the project partners are the Engineering School of Aarhus, the Alexandra Institute, Develco Products and Seluxit.
The project aims at generating new methods for User Driven Innovation through the case of developing an energy control unit for private homes so that people can monitor, control and reduce their energy consumption. The development of the energy control unit is based on User Driven Innovation, which in this case means close involvement of the users in all stages of the development process. This is done through interviews with users, observations, mock-up workshops etc. and this process of user involvement provides essential inputs to the technical partners in the development and testing of the energy control unit.

Rethink energy consumption and the role of technology

Will technology save us all?
Yes - But only if we RETHINK our perception of energy consumption and the role of technology 

The current idea of what drives people in relation to changing their energy consumption is often simplified and reduced to two stereotyped voices: economy or environment. Instead we need to RETHINK our perception of energy consumption and consider it as a more complex phenomenon with several conflicting voices, which express different needs, drivers and barriers. This will enable us to develop technology, which will be useful and relevant for people because it will meet the complex needs of people’s everyday lives.  Doing this will allow us to RETHINK the role technology can play in changing energy consumption habits.

The current situation
Energy consumption in private homes constitutes 22 % of the total consumption in Denmark and expenses in relation to private consumption have almost doubled since 1990. At the same time saving energy in the home is thought of as something negative, which will reduce comfort, be time consuming and generally be a nuisance in their everyday lives. This attitude poses a challenge that can be met by rethinking the role that technology can play in optimizing and minimizing energy consumption, and at the same time offering people added value and comfort when doing so.

But technology doesn’t use itself.  In the discussion of technology and its potentials, what is conspicuous in its absence are the voices of the everyday people like you and me - the people who are supposed to be using this technology in our everyday life. If we take these voices into consideration we can answer questions like ‘what does added value and comfort mean?’ And ‘how can technology add value?’ And by answering these questions we can develop technology that is useful and relevant for everyday people. -- Technology that will induce a change our consumption habits.

Rethinking Energy Consumption
But changing people’s energy consumption habits through technology is a complex process and it becomes clear that we also need to rethink our current perception of energy consumption as a simple and practical practice. Energy consumption is a ‘mediated consumption’ because it seldom is a direct intentional action. In other words: We consume energy as a consequence of many of the other things that we do in our everyday lives – practices which we to a high degree ascribe emotional, social and/or cultural meaning as well as practical meaning. These embedded emotional, social and cultural meanings make the changing of these practices quite hard and complex, even though many of us would like to do ‘the right thing’ as responsible world citizens.

Through an exploration into these emotional, social and cultural meanings, which are ascribed to the practice of energy consumption within the home, we will be able to provide insights about peoples’ needs and barriers in relation to energy consumption. These insights are necessary to implement in the development of energy optimizing technology for the home. They will ensure that this technology will be relevant and useful for people in their everyday lives in which energy consumption is often the least of many concerns and motivations. This is the challenge that we have taken on in the research and development project ‘Minimum Configuration Home Automation’  and it is insights and experiences from the anthropological user studies within this project that we present in this article. 
‘Meaningful Voices’
What mainly characterizes the consumers is that the various and sometimes conflicting concerns and motivations are all part of the cacophony of negotiating voices inside our heads when we act and consume. We can call them ‘Meaningful Voices’ and they give an insight into the complex meanings and needs that comprise energy consumption in people’s everyday lives. All these conflicting meanings and needs make up spaces of possibilities for technology like home automation and these voices need to be considered if we wish to be successful in developing technology for changing habits of consumption.  In order to break with the current simplification of energy consumption we need to deal with eleven meaningful voices on three different levels:

1) Personal level
The first level is the practical and personal level, which considers the themes that drive people as individuals. These are the meaningful voices of convenience, security and safety, economy, technology, indoor climate and light. These voices offer spaces of opportunities or challenges to be met by technology such as home automation. This is shown by the two examples given below:  

The voice of convenience - Bill and Annie:
“We are not rich people, but we won’t have to abandon our house and home if we have to spend 1000 kr. more a month, or 2000. That's not it at all! But we would like to save energy, where it doesn’t hurt”.
Energy saving is seen as inconvenient and this makes it important to stress the added value of home automation technology in relations to convenience e.g. when home automation saves unnecessary energy consumption without active engagement from the consumer. 

- The voice of economy – Karen:
“It is very motivating indeed to know what a kWh costs and see how much you can save in a week”
It is important to stress and give people access to view the economical advantages of home automation.

2) Social Level
The second level of meaningful voices expresses concerns in our relations to the people closest to us like family and friends. The social level contains voices on play and community, time, design and aesthetics, and social identity. These are the voices, which drives us as social beings:

The voice of play and community - Brian and Janet; Peter and Lily:
“There has to be some motivation, so that it [saving energy] doesn’t just feel like an annoying obligation: ‘Now I have to check that I do this and that’. It should be fun!” For some families the fun could be a competition: ”We compete against ourselves. In a summer week or winter week we tell ourselves: We should go lower than last week!”
This voice tells us that home automation should make energy controlling fun and a community based practice.

The voice of time - Heather and Mike:
 “I would like to live politically correct, but I really don’t! And honestly! You can’t! Or we can’t. Then you would have to be part time and everything”.
Home automation must turn energy saving practices into ‘quality time’ and home automation should release time in the families in their everyday lives.

The voice of social identity - Richard and Mary:
Social identity is about how people see themselves and want to be seen by the surrounding world.
Products that flash the family’s ‘environmentally conscious’ consumption are wanted: “Well I think they are cool, and they have a good indication value”.
Through home automation and visualization of energy consumption it is possible to flash environmental behaviour and consumption.

3) Community Level
The meaningful voices on ‘doing the right thing’ and environmental impact are voices, which are meaningful to us as members of a community. They reflect dominant discourses in the climate debate in the community around us and therefore affect the way we understand ourselves and the people around us. These are the voices, which talk to us as members of a community:

The voice of ‘Doing the right thing’ - Jack and Jill
 “I would like to use a visualisation of my energy consumption in relation to changing my practice. I would like to use it to become wiser when it comes to using energy and other things right”.
There is a need for home automation to help people navigate in the big sea of mis/information and support the ‘right decisions’

The voice of environmental impact - Anna and Simon:
“When I think about saving, it is not just about the money but more about the environment”. This means that people have a genuine interest in knowing how they consume and change their consumption. Home automation can provide the families with this information about their consumption.

The above is an extract of the eleven meaningful voices that constitute the emotional, social and cultural meaning of energy consumption. The voices point towards a role for technology as a helping hand and an added value in everyday life. The functionality of energy optimizing or saving money is not necessarily enough added value to get people engaged in changing their energy consumption habits. People generally have very high expectations of technology and both the technology and changing habits should be fun, comfortable and easy! But because there seem to be as many different definitions on what is fun, comfortable and easy, most importantly it must be flexible.

Rethinking lived technology
The meaningful voices give an insight into the complex meanings and needs that comprise people’s energy consumption. If we listen to them they will make up spaces of possibilities for technology like home automation when trying to change people’s energy consumption habits. The eleven voices in general point to the importance of added value and flexibility that home automation should provide in order for it to be relevant and useful within the daily hassles of busy family life.  If we RETHINK energy consumption and the role of technology in this way home automation could indeed help change consumption of energy in private homes.

So when asking ‘will technology save us all?', the answer is still ‘Yes’ - But only if we RETHINK our perception of energy consumption and consider the meaningful voices of everyday people when we develop this technology! And as pointed out above it is important to focus on voices, which drive and talk to us both as individuals, social beings and members of communities.

When stating this so bluntly the answer seems easy and simple. On the contrary, our experience from the research and development project ‘Minimum Configuration Home Automation’ tells us that it is neither simple nor easy. And when all this is said and done, several challenges pose themselves: like changing the mindset of the technical developers and show them the advantages of working user driven. Or designing and facilitating a user driven development process in praxis, which does not leave frustrated technical developers behind. But when we succeed in meeting these challenges, the result can very well be technology that actually changes people’s consumption habits.