The Personal Well-Tempered Environment

Sustainability and feedback loops, in the home and the city

Ed. This piece was first published at cityofsound.com on 15 January 2008, based on a talk I gave in Sydney in November 2007. This is now a set of old thoughts, but apparently surprisingly resilient, in their own way. While I’d more thoroughly critique ideas of simple feedback loops, gamification and “social software” now, with the benefit of hindsight, this piece does convey some of the nagging doubts I had about a basic implementation of individualised and socialised energy feedback, or ‘persuasive visualisation’ via simplistic smart meter interfaces. And I love my faint hope that Facebook would soon be departing the scene. I’d think, and write, about this very differently now. Though I remain interested in developing the core ideas, and indeed, in the subsequent decade after posting this, I worked on many similar concepts, for a number of urban projects. But in the spirit of self-reflection, this is posted as it was. As a result, ten years on, several of the references, or products, mentioned below don’t exist anymore, or links may have broken. Apologies.


This is a somewhat overdue, extended write-up of my talk at Interesting South, November 2007, with notes, references and slides.

Caveat: I’ve often seen my blog as essentially sharing my sketchbook, so please bear in mind that what follows is no more than a sketch, and series of notes, rather than any attempt to envision a fully-formed product. Any attempt at the latter would entail these sketches being tested by a more coherent design and research process. For now, this is simply a sketch, a kind of un-built architecture, and a simple idea drawn up for a swift 10-minute presentation at a highly multi-disciplinary event. Please take it in that spirit. I’d like to see something like this realised as a product on the market, which is part of my rationale for publishing here. In other words, feel free to make this — or some version of this — a reality yourself. If you find that the central idea doesn’t ring true, I’ve written in such a way that you may still find some of the references or thoughts useful.

Essentially, the idea is for a system that makes previously invisible aspects of people’s behaviour visible, in order to help change individual and collective behaviour. In this case, the primary drive is towards leading a more sustainable personal life, encouraging less consumption and more contribution, also taking into account the context of your behaviour in wider neighbourhood and city. By tracking your energy and resource usage, and playing this off against possible contributions made through generating energy or resource, systems are able to build simple aggregated profiles for these aspects of a person’s or household’s behaviour. Using popular techniques drawn from social software, these profiles provide users with historical trends for their behaviour, and allow the profiles to be compared, contrasted and recombined with those of others. By opening up these data feeds through APIs, within appropriate ethical and privacy frameworks, unforeseen applications of this information can emerge, even enabling the ‘gaming’ of consumption and contribution profiles, potentially encouraging civic and sustainable behaviour through competition. By conveying this information through multi-sensory feedback and persuasive visualisation distributed across discreet domestic interfaces, the effects of a person’s behaviour can thus be discerned in the everyday.

It’s a kind of real-time, responsive, itemised bill for all the different kinds of primary resource usage (electricity, gas, water, transport etc.) in your life, which also takes into account the contributions you make. A sustainable lifestyle, leaving aside the thorny definition of such a thing, could at least become a little bit more tangible.

As it concerns this somewhat over-used word ‘sustainability’, I wanted to start the talk with the following image of the Sydney Morning Herald to indicate that I was less interested in apocalyptic headlines or hectoring people into submission, and more interested in giving people tools and information to encourage positive behaviour, and to explore ways of taking personal control of a more sustainable way of living (More on ‘Apocalypse Sydney’ here).

John Thackara has also noted this problem with the sustainability message:

The house is cold, someone keeps turning the lights off, and the greywater toilet is blocked again. As a way of life, sustainability often sounds grim. The media don’t help: they tell us we have to consume our way to redemption. The shopping pages are filled with hideous hessian bags; and ads that used to be placed by double-glazing cowboys now feature wind turbines, and solar roofs. Adding mental discomfort to the mix, politicians scold our bad behaviour as if we were children dropping litter. And preachy environmentalists expect us to feel guilty when we fail to embrace their hair-shirted future with joy.

So this is an idea to make sustainability something personal, intimate, meaningful and orientated towards positive contributions, as well as connecting the individual’s actions to the wider urban context.

Software precursors

It’s an idea that I’ve been kicking around for some years. At the Design Engaged conference in 2004, I gave a talk about how some examples of social software enable a kind of (limited) self-reflexivity, which can be useful to understanding aspects of your behaviour (as well as enabling a more adaptive product design). I talked about how wearing a pedometer for a week made me walk further; how using Last FM to track my listening has made me play more music, and to certainly be more aware of the music I’m playing; how using Flickr to store, organise and communicate my photos has probably made me take more photos in the first place, and again to certainly be more aware of my photos (even if it hasn’t made me a better photographer).

These systems allow you to learn from personal behaviour, in a sense, even to reinforce patterns of behaviour. The best services here act as a side-effect of your behaviour; that is the product is simply a manifestation of your behaviour, providing a measurement of it. They’re generally highly-focused on one device or activity and can simply infer data from that (again, the pedometer is a good exemplar, but Last FM is also a good example.) Those that require more active engagement (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter etc.) are less useful for tracking intrinsic behaviour. Built for more general purpose usage, they require the user to create the data themselves, rather than the data emerging through use. Flickr and Dopplr are somewhere in the middle, perhaps; focused on an activity, though requiring active updates (TripIt’s ability to infer itineraries from forwarded flight confirmation emails places it a bit closer to ‘side-effect interaction’ than Dopplr, currently, even if the latter is more useful in its stated goals. Flickr draws metadata from a digital camera automatically, a useful side-effect of using that particular device as part of a interface on photography.)

Nike+ provides another perfect example, deriving behavioural (running) information direct from the shoe/iPod combo and collating online. But Russell Davies is also right to point out that the most delightful, innovative aspect of that project is that … “it’s a talking shoe!”. The information emanating from the physical product, stimulating by your running on it, is smartly organised and shared. Yet the unlikely input device is the truly innovative aspect, allied to the side-effect method of behavioural information gathering. (Were Samuel Johnson alive today, he might find the preaching shoe appealing: “Like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprized to find it done at all.”)

So the interesting aspect of the best social software, in terms of assessing behavioural characteristics, might be centred on focused activities in which information is gathered as a side-effect of a particular behaviour, rather than a sporadic series of conscious inputs.

(This sense of maximum information coming from a minimum of conscious engagement is also reminiscent of Buckminster Fuller’s notion of ‘trimtab’: “small amounts of energy and resources precisely applied at the right time and place can produce maximum advantageous change.”)

Historical precursors

Other precursors are historical, and drawn from architecture and engineering. In particular Reyner Banham’s concepts of ‘the Un-house’ and his book Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment, from which the title of this talk is taken. Summarising wildly, Banham’s view was that the service layer in the home was the newly important layer — in his day, electricity, plumbing and particularly air-conditioning — as this layer transformed the house into a genuinely new kind of building, and defined the most innovative, interesting aspect of the building. You could almost dispense with the house altogether.

Now of course that service layer is informational too and hold that thought. (Relax, Banham fans, the nod to ‘Well-Tempered Environment’ is no more than that, drawing solely from the idea that services are architecture as much as materials. The other element is the ‘well-tempered’ motif Banham may have alluded to: Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier. That is, with the right feedback, you can tune the environment around you.)

I also collided a few more texts. Bruce Sterling’s Shaping Things is a wonderful tour guide to a blurred space between now and the near future, in which products and objects begin to acquire an informational footprint far larger than their physical presence. Connected together, everyday products become devices become processes in which, thanks to the converging technologies of software-based modelling, rapid prototyping with 3D printers and RFID/GPS-based networking, simple objects can be specified, constructed, recombined and ultimately disassembled and recycled. The products themselves can convey their state constantly, generating longitudinal data about their behaviour, which all ends up online of course. Much of this technology is now in common use in various areas of manufacturing and engineering, though Sterling extrapolates a fair bit, into his imaginary object called the ‘spime’.

Super Normal: Sensations of the Ordinary, a compendium of “ordinary” products collated by the designers Jasper Morrisson and Naoto Fukasawa, gives a more grounded sense of the everyday objects that people build lasting relationships with, as a side-effect of their domestic use and quietly considered, fitted design. These products also tend to have a long life, accrete information as a side effect of use (as a well-worn Bialetti conveys its own kind of history) and become valuable in the true sense, without increasing in price. This interplay between Sterling’s hyperactive products and Morrisson/Fukasawa’s recessive objects provides an interesting oppositional relationship to think about domestic products. Imagine a combination of these two schools of thought.

Finally, I referenced Sense of the City: An Alternate Approach to Urbanism, edited by Mirko Zardini, which has been a favourite book for a couple of years now. It stands as a placeholder, just as Malnar and Vodvarka’s Sensory Design or Pallasmaa’s The Eyes of the Skin might, to remind us that informational interfaces can be something other than visual. Again, considering the ordinary products that are Super Normal, tactility provides a valuable feedback loop, as does sound, a sense which is far more finely grained that sight (the eye can respond to a range of intensities from one to a mere 10 billion, compared to the one to one trillion for hearing). So, as opposed to social software, richer interfaces for dealing with large volumes of data or discreet changes in ambient state may be conveyed best through a range of multi-sensory interface.

Existing devices and products

Moving from precursors to the here and now, there are a range of devices on the market which begin to expose the behaviour of people in buildings, through their use of energy and other resources.

For instance, the now well-known Wattson device conveys a real-time view of a house’s electricity use via this elegantly simple readout wirelessly connected to a sensor on your meter.

As does HomeJoule, by long-term innovators in this field Ambient Devices. In this image, the HomeJoule located over a plug point as if to convey usage at that terminal (I’m not sure that it does that; potentially confusing.) MorePower conveys similar electricity use information.

Poweraware, part of the Interactive Institute’s STATIC! project, suggests a smart way of visualising electricity usage through simple glowing cords. While this provides a more ambient sense of usage, akin to the multi-sensory point mentioned before, it couldn’t provide the detail that’s also required.

With water usage it’s slightly tricker to discern a real-time usage figure, but we have the iSave prototype or the STATIC! project’s Flow. Gas would also be possible to measure in real-time, but again slightly trickier than electricity. (It’s worth noting different countries have different implementations of all these supplies, so building a set of fully internationalised sensors would be formidably difficult, and best solved by publishing protocols for communication and letting individual territories contribute their own sensors.)

Plogg does something similar by “placing energy consumption data onto your PC”, as does the Australian PowerMate product and there have been numerous other projects in recent years in this space (check here for a frequently-updated listing of relevant projects). Further, there are an increasing number of ‘eco-footprint calculators’ which purport to tell you about your likely impact on the environment, for example these excellent tools from the Australian Conservation Foundation: the Eco-Calculator and the Consumption Atlas.

The UK’s Design Council ran a project in this area a while ago (Future Currents), and their series of scenarios — Home Monitoring, Energy Tracker and Energy Statement. The scenarios are not entirely convincing (though the Energy Statement’s simplicity is laudable, and indeed many statements are beginning to convey longitudinal usage data) so the main point I take from this is this: “studies show that if people can see what they’re using, they use up to 15% less energy.” In the workplace, there’s the hugely promising BOP study, based around wireless sensor networks yet not directly addressing the same area. For schools, Dott in the North-East of England has worked with students to develop ways of perceiving carbon footprints and other consumption patterns.

There are several attempts at discerning urban air quality, from Intel’s Urban Atmospheres project, to The Living’s Living City, to Air Korea. These aren’t strictly related, but interesting parallels (with The Living’s perhaps the most promising and ambitious.)

I’m keen on the ideas behind this attempt: a sculpture designed as a ‘barometer’ on energy use, though it appears perhaps too abstract, and unconnected to individual actions.

Some firms are beginning to monitor and display energy use in the workplace (Arup, for example), and discussion or presentation of performance of energy and other resources is an increasingly common feature of everyday life, from the Sydney Morning Herald’s infographics in their Green Card section to the numerous signs around Australia proclaiming tank water or grey water in use. So people appear to be interested in conveying their activity, organisations are monitoring resource use; NGOs and the media are reporting at city or state level, and so on.

But despite all this exploration, and several plausible products emerging onto the market, few if any of these projects appear to unify across these numerous sources of energy.

We’re left with a stream of data from a particular device, rather than a coherent, joined-up sense of behaviour, footprint or impact. Ironically, one could end up with more devices littered around, each using more energy than before. There’s nothing that aggregates and shares the large volumes of data beginning to emerge. Equally, there seems to be little that takes into account positive steps individuals can take. Further, there are several other areas that could be measured.

Summarising the above, we could measure electricity, gas and water consumption relatively easily (even if real-time measurement of gas and water doesn’t seem to be being developed at present.) So we have a few lights flashing on a new dashboard, but it’s not enough to grab the imagination.

Measuring contribution

But given the increasing interest in sustainable living, could we reinforce certain elements of this by measuring contributions? With rainwater storage tanks beginning to appear at all sizes now — the WaterHog closes the loop for those living in apartments or small spaces — we could begin to measure rainwater collected. (Indeed, the Swiss reHOUSE project develops several initiatives in this area.) Simple ‘dipstick’ sensors could measure changing water levels and communicate state easily enough.

Equally, greywater filtering systems are available, which can also measure accumulated water. This desire to track water is also increasing, particularly in the ‘Big Dry’ (aka the drought in Australia). This isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon, however: gardeners have used rain water gauges for years (see a week’s worth of Sydney rain pattern in our garden below).

Wind power is beginning to become plausible at the domestic level. Similarly, solar power is a viable domestic product and can generate significant amounts of stored energy (particularly combined with a green roof which can increase gain by 40%). Again, easy to measure.

Dashboard

So across our principle areas of consumption — electricity, gas, water — we have opportunities for production, or contribution. Comparing the consumption with the contribution, we begin to have a more engaging dashboard, which gives an overall ‘score’, based on consumption minus contribution. This can only be an abstract score — attempting to correlate litres of water with kilowatts won’t make much sense. The scale and performance of the units are very different. However, the trends are important. So it’s possible to imagine an abstract yet representative and reactive number that could enable a simple tracking of rate of change and at-a-glance comparison, as well as allowing for the setting of personal targets. If we do begin to visualise this as a dashboard, a rudimentary form of sparkline could provide a way of quickly “tracking changes over time, showing the overall trend as well as local detail” (Note, this is not a strict interpretation of the sparkline idea, but usable.)

(The dashboard metaphor, despite its obvious attraction for conveying multiple simple, real-time systems, is not necessarily the right way to convey this data. It also tends towards the geeky, which prevents mainstream usage. However, for the purposes of a presentation, the dashboard will suffice. The sketchy representation here reinforces that this ‘low-resolution idea’ should not necessarily be simply refined, if developed. It may be that sound provides a richer interface for conveying change over time, for instance.)

Data layer

This dashboard is enabled by a simple service layer for connecting things together, an open data layer between the sensors tracking consumption and contribution of energy. This in turn rests on a set of published and maintained standards, a kind of EnergyML. Noting how numerous web-based offerings have driven uptake and popularity on the back of third-party applications loosely-joined by published development frameworks, this system is as much about this data layer as about physical devices.

Physical devices

However, physicality is what will ultimately resonate with people, over and above surface attachments to particular web experiences. Thus far, people seem to struggle with placing real lasting value in the virtual, with good reason. So, this system would ideally manifest itself physically, as part of this principle about making the invisible, visible (or the imperceptible, perceived, bearing in mind the multi-sensory directive.) Again, the market is offering up devices that enable simple prototyping of wireless sensor networks — see Arduino or BugLabs, simple components that can be plugged together like Lego. Or it could be realised with a flock of hacked iPod Touches. Sterling calls this idea of numerous small, connected sub-PCs ‘motes’, and they’re best summarised by The Living, again in their Living City idea:

Motes are tiny low-cost, low-energy computers with sensors and radios. When scattered around a local area, they create a mesh network, each taking measurements and efficiently communicating with the others.
BugLabs

Thus, sensors placed at point-of-consumption or -contribution (pinned to electricity meters, dangled in water tanks) can communicate wirelessly with small devices dotted around the home, which in turn can communicate with each other and the internet. Obvious protocols for wireless communication would be the current set of RFID, 802.11 and Bluetooth. Devices ideally have an ability to traverse all of these where necessary, as per a mobile phone, though calibrated to optimise low-power consumption. Obviously, with this application in mind, devices mustn’t consume much, if at all, so a combination approach to power (say, solar energy and wind where possible, augmented by lithium ferro-phosphate batteries, say) might produce results. The current rash of parking meters and bus stops that are solar-powered indicates that such a system could power itself, remaining in credit. (It has to contribute more than the energy used by the local devices — see the Average Brazilian problem below.)

Touch, physicality and sensory design

Given that these motes can communicate their state to the internet, aggregated real-time dashboards of the kind described earlier are an obvious interface to build. However, devices dotted locally could take advantage of discreet use of sound, as noted earlier, and recognise the importance of touch and tactility in conveying a form of embodied interaction (possibly through interactive textiles as much as sound).

Placed next to points of consumption or egress, they could begin to convey the contribution to the overall score for the house from that product. (In these sketches, motes are placed next to products enabling a conceptual ‘projection’ alongside or above, showing how much that device uses (a bit like the iPod projector idea I posted a while back.)

Imagine a device of sorts, rather than a projection, such as a panel conveying live data, as sparklines, by the front door. As you leave the house: electricity, gas and water readings should be more or less flatlining, but probably aren’t.)

Motes could be repositioned, calibrated or taken out of service easily by the owner. As with Vitsœ shelving, it’s a modular physical system, carefully crafted to be repositioned or recycled in another home. Ideally, as with Vitsœ and the modest ‘Super Normal’ products mentioned above, the devices aspire to be intimate, elegant and textured objects rather than the unremittingly ugly hobbyist devices on the market currently. This aesthetic layer, in the widest sense, is important if the devices are to play an ongoing and valued role in everyday life.

Beyond the home

Having started to measure and communicate energy and resource behaviour based around the simple sources in the home, it’s possible to see how the idea can be extended. For instance, tracking usage of public transport versus private transport should be possible. Again, taking the principle of ‘side-effect interaction’, RFID-based travel card systems such as London’s Oyster or Hong Kong’s Octopus provide all the data we need on public transport use.

Private car usage can be monitored with modern cars, to provide a comparison (or garnered from traffic systems such as London’s congestion charge scheme or Australia’s e-TAG toll payment devices. While this doesn’t strictly fall into the ‘consumption vs. contribution’ framework, there could be a way to aggregate this data into this overarching framework around behaviour. Air travel is the largest consumption issue at the individual level — and systems like Dopplr or equivalent could offer up a useful approximation of your travel data easily. In terms of contribution here, online carbon offset programmes could be registered. One could even incorporate Nike+, or usage of bike sharing schemes (Velib in Paris, Bicing in Barcelona, etc.) or car share schemes (like GoGet), which will increasingly collect data about usage.

The home has been the subject thus far, but the issue of transit bring up behaviour in the office (again, there are several companies tracking energy and resource use in offices). A loosely-defined system — based on protocols, APIs and common schema — should enable systems to begin to communicate data.

The sky’s the limit here. Credits for buying a TV with a good energy rating, or a front-loading washing machine (Sydney Water already gives $150 rebates to consumers who buy front-loaders versus top-loaders), and so on. Some consider consumption of consumer products to be the most significant problem in terms of, say, greenhouse gas emissions, but if the future described by Sterling in Shaping Things arrives even half-formed, products-as-spimes will effortlessly provide the data for a system tracking consumption (and the concomitant resource usage involved in enabling that consumption. Caveat: a richer understanding of the effects of consumption will be required, noting that, for instance, it is four times as energy efficient for a person in Britain to eat New Zealand lamb as opposed to British lamb. Counter-intuitive but true. So simply measuring food miles doesn’t give a true reflection of impact. See also). Another caveat: the system extends itself, some kind of rules are required to enable the comparisons described later. This could be an intriguing area of policy for city governments to consider.)

Interface

This complex series of contribution and consumption points can be summarised none-the-less in a relatively straightforward way. Given the local data is also online, it can be monitored in aggregated mode on numerous devices, mobile to PC to TV, as well distributing to the motes. Despite the inkling that multi-sensory feedback will convey the most usefully noticeable immediate, local information, a dashboard visualisation could convey meaning at aggregate level, in real-time and longitudinal form (though there are numerous ways of conveying aggregate information, as with these diagrams of energy flow in the USA. See also Tufte.)

So while this sketch involving numbers may not be appropriate — it may be more relevant to use carefully-constructed metaphors or icons (as with this excellent poster on water consumption) — the number will do as a short-hand, a reminder to do the job properly. It’s still useful to imagine one overall score, the sum of contribution (positive) and consumption (negative) for the household. We can imagine a number + sparkline floating over the house, beaming out the score in real-time. As occupiers return home from work and turn on the lights, the number twinkles, brightening and increasing in response (There are of course complexities in comparing households i.e. share houses vs. single occupants vs. large families, and so on.)

If a single house can be represented, multiple houses can. And if the right partnership framework is chosen to run such a project — public-private partnership between city government, utilities companies, and some decent-sized building services companies? — it would be possible to build neighbourhoods of data, each house or apartment or office on the block using similar protocols to share their state and behaviour over time. In this way, a house can be compared to its immediate neghbourhood, neighbourhoods to other neighbourhoods, cities to other cities.

If articulated just so, it becomes desirable to ‘game’ houses against each other, using the positive effects of competition to drive energy consumption down and contribution up. If handled badly, of course, all-out turf warfare could develop, with neighbourly one-ups-manship and sabotage occurring nightly in a Ballardian social meltdown that makes High Rise look like Sesame Street. A good civic relationship could be constructed by getting the organising framework right, with rebates from utility companies or city governments, as well as careful design and operation.

This series of sketches, with pen/paper and SketchUp, indicate the aggregate scores and sparklines floating above houses, and then blocks/neighbourhoods, and then scaled up to the city. At the city level, the dashboard is thus comprised of output from all the individual buildings, a form of City Information Modelling (CIM) that could be hugely useful in running the city. (Help yourself to the rudimentary SketchUp files for these buildings and the CutNPaste City.)

While these numbers and sparklines are conceptual at this stage, it should be noted that information can be embedded in the urban fabric, such as this sculptural, informatic wall by Tatsuo Miyajima at the TV Asahi HQ, Roppongi Hills, Tokyo.

Tatsuo Miyajima artwork at TV Asahi HQ, Roppongi Hills, Tokyo

The ensuing data

A vast interlinked array of data begins to emerge from these loosely-joined sensors. For a few years now, systems have been tuned to deal with these patterns — storing, aggregating, communicating, re-combining — as well as enabling the kind of competition mentioned above.

Using the current approach to such problems, data is aggregated over time, space, and the social graph of connections between people. In this way, it’s easy to evaluate historical performance and thus set targets for future. It’s easy to compare with friends and workers (based on crude but usuable methods for constructing such virtual stand-ins for rich real-world relationships.) It’s easy to generate a profile of the neighbourhood (could that be made genuinely visible, or perceptible, on the street? Note Quiet Revolution’s LED-based display turbines). From there, we can aggregate to city, state, region, country etc. Gaming cities against each other becomes possible, as well as neighbourhood and neighbour level.

Socialising the data

So this becomes a form of the social software mentioned above, which enables learning from the behaviour of individuals, and from that of groups (no matter how crudely defined most social software is in terms of articulating these relationships.) This is in behavioural side-effect mode, simply sensing and aggregating behaviour at physical points, extrapolating to houses and neighbourhoods. Deploying a layer of more active engagement over the top, special interest groups can spring up around particular aspects — say, Waterhog users or solar energy enthusiasts.

Protocols like OpenSocial, should they materialise, begin to ensure transferability across different schemes. So it could work alongside other players in this area (for instance, the makers of Wattson have promised a software layer for their product, called ‘Holmes’ of course.)

Importantly, this data layer is open. If articulated correctly, and with privacy in mind (there are numerous texts on this), this should actually mitigate against misuse. Thus, in effect the building has an API on it, with a stream of data pouring out of it, conveying its state in real-time across numerous parameters (and it’s a 2-way pipe, indicating its performance in the wider civic context). It’s a real-time Building Informational Model, taking a platform approach to its data sources. (It also begins to provide a new kind of ongoing post-occupancy evaluation report for the building.)

As the data is open, people can build applications for it, another part of the social software world. Here we can see a mocked-up feed into a user’s Gmail in-box, a discreet link above the email indicating a neighbour’s recent performance in their well-tempered environment (look carefully: “Emily improved to +4”). This kind of benevolent ambient information, with the appropriate safe-guards and controls, could reinforce the gaming instinct positively.

This latter aspect is obviously already prevalent on Facebook — thus a mocked-up Facebook application, in which you can test your profiles against those of your contacts.

Neither of these suggested applications would be necessarily useful, particularly as Facebook will hopefully go the way of other examples of its genre fairly soon, but illustrate some basic examples of how the the system’s data can distribute itself given an open approach to personal environmental data. (Exporting to Second Life, Google Earth, or IBM’s ManyEyes would be others. Designers could contribute customised interfaces overlaid onto the data. It’d be interesting to see what Stamen might come up with, for instance.) Again, I stress the point about the appropriate safeguards and controls, not just for privacy, decency and ethical issues, but also in order to accentuate a civic relationship between people and their environment.

Civic elements

While much of the data, interaction and devices are at the individual level, by aggregating across some basic axes, the system could provide a framework for wider civic contributions. Such a system should help bind the individual into their city, via the intermediate scale of neighbourhood, as well as enabling self-selected special interest groups and contact lists.

Given the potential in a public-private framework as at hinted above, simple civic contributions (such as taking public transport wherever possible) can be rewarded and encouraged. Further, becoming a producer/contributor of resources can be encouraged and modelled, accelerating the increasingly popular practice of selling surplus electricity (derived from wind and solar) back to the grid (more on solar). See also Ambient Devices’ Joule, which “tells participants in an energy-conservation program that their local power grid is jammed and that their utility will pay them to power down”). Carbon offsetting programmes, such as Climate Friendly, could plug themselves into the system, as a contender for the ‘contributions’ column. Modules, built around a particular resource, just clip in and out of these consumption and contribution columns.

Here’s a slightly tidier version of the sketched dashboard (NB: the numbers don’t add up!):

(Note the home is the primary organising framework, ensuring a collective approach to the ‘tuning’ the building, but the next level on the dashboard is ‘environment’, which starts representing an individual’s wider impact in terms of transport and office life and so on. And then via ‘neighbourhood’ (which would be an average per capita or a total) and up to ‘city’ (ditto). This is switching modes and scales a little.)

There are numerous issues with these sketches First of all, it is of course entirely possible to be ‘carbon neutral’, for one thing, without the aid of this kind of technology — see Kangaroo Valley in New South Wales (though this system extends beyond carbon neutral). Other issues would include the ‘Average Brazilian’ problem, where the computers and networks used by the system itself becomes a major energy sink. There are numerous logistical issues of course, not least the problems of increasingly transient usage of place and space.

The privacy concerns could be relatively straightforward to overcome, but still require common sense and empathy, resources that are not particular abundant in the circuits of social software or consumer electronics.

And of course there are questions over the basic premise of ‘persuasive visualisation’ (PDF). There at least two issues here. First, will this ambient approach to conveying information get noticed and aid change, or will the stick rather than the carrot be required to effect the necessary behavioural change? Second, will it lead only to anxiety about a persistently unsustainable lifestyle, as with heightened stress potentially caused by pervasive alert systems (e.g. AlertMe) and the general helplessness of the individual in comparison to global climate change? (Though the Design Council’s finding mentioned earlier seems to indicate that people can see what they’re using “they use up to 15% less energy.”)

Additionally, whilst some can’t see how anything can be managed without measurement, the very practice of measurement itself can nullify richness and complexity. In particular, civic relationships are so precious, sometimes precarious and delicately articulated as to resist this simple representation. The dashboard sketch above is deliberately banal and over-simplified, but would an attempt to add further complexity actually help?

The best way to find out might be through design and build.

Summing up

Sooner or later, it’ll seem ludicrous that we couldn’t exactly track our real-time energy usage, or sense the ongoing impact on our immediate environment.

This system tries to make that which was previously invisible, visible, in order to give real-time and longitudinal feedback on behaviour. This with the premise that it makes the effects of behaviour perceptible merely by observing and reporting upon the side-effects of that behaviour. By allowing contributions to be taken into account, it shifts relationships between individuals and their environment into a more positive mode.

It also articulates relationships between individuals and their buildings. The platform approach increasingly taken by proponents of Building Information Modelling (BIM) captures the performance of the building in real-time, but does not yet create a personal feedback loop to the individual, or groups of individuals.

By working solely at the service layer within buildings, drawing from Reyner Banham’s concept of the Un-House, this system attempts to ape the best social software by observing the side effects of individual actions on that service layer, and then create an organising software layer which offers up a new kind of plug emanating from the building, from which behavioural data flows, an API on the side of your house. In turn, as with both Banham’s and Bach’s ‘Well-Tempered’ idea, this allows you to tune the environment around you.

The sum of these individual actions may not have the largest effect, when shifting industry to a largely carbon-free economy is the biggest prize, but the domestic arena might prove to be a site of useful experimentation. And as a major contributor to emissions, buildings are worthy of such close observation, yet often the most complex issues are in existing building stock rather than new build. By working at this service layer, which is traditionally a little more malleable than the structural layer, we create a new form of architecture that supersedes structure by infiltrating and connecting across existing building stock as well as new build. In effect joining up many buildings into the new unit of organisation of the network.

Such a system could provide a framework for communicating and sharing energy usage across various scales, reinforcing positive trends across ‘powers of ten’ (individual, network, neighbourhood, city, country etc.) It forms part of real-time BIM, as an ongoing post-occupancy evaluation at all scales of building. In aggregate, it helps create the City Information Model. From the individual’s point-of-view, it provides a new way of tuning a civic relationship with their environment.

I’m interested in your feedback, and in finding out about other examples of work in this area.


Thanks to Arup’s Duncan Wilson, SuperColossal’s Marcus Trimble and University of Sydney’s Andrew vande Moere for useful discussions around these ideas before my presentation, and Rob Annable, Arup’s Cathy Crawley and QUT’s Marcus Foth afterwards. And also to Emily Reed for organising Interesting South and thus giving me a reason to think this through.

NB: In terms of sustainability, which this idea is necessarily pinned around, there are the obvious touchstones of Glenn Murcutt et al, or PTW/Arup’s Beijing National Aquatics Centre, or the quietly inspiring low-tech Yoshifumi Nakamura Nagano house, but I’ve also recently enjoyed thinking through the different ideas found in Jay Baldwin’s work with Buckminster Fuller and Jean Prouvé’s exploratory work on the Maison Tropicale. They, and numerous other projects, remind that a system can only be successful as part of a holistic multidisciplinary design process. The point I began with was this: as information can increasingly be thought of a material within building, it makes sense to consider it holistically as part of the built fabric, just as with glass, steel, ETFE etc.


Ed. This piece was first published at cityofsound.com on 15 January 2008, based on a talk I gave in Sydney in November 2007.