Concept: The Civic Orb

This public artwork is a behavior-change device that shows people how much CO2 their city is releasing by lighting up in different colors.

The Civic Orb in Brooklyn: A public installation that shows residents the amount of energy the city is using in real time, indicated by the color of the light, and by the disclosure of the megawatts used on a digital screen.

We at Hello World Labs came up with a simple idea to disclose a city’s total energy usage to its residents. The Civic Spectrum is a large illuminated sculpture that changes color according to the amount of CO2 (from electricity and gas) the city is using at that instant. It’s like a big, highly visible smart meter for the whole city. The city’s emissions are represented by a spectrum of seven colors, displayed using LED lights. Each orb also has a display screen that shows the number in megawatts to one decimal place and a simple visual key that explains what the different colors represent.

The Civic Spectrum, New York City
The Civic Spectrum, San Francisco

The Civic Spectrum would be paired with website visualization, so energy efficiency enthusiasts who can’t view the orb on site can check on the website to see how it’s performing. The website for each city would also show energy saving tips that suit the city’s climate and the season. The purpose of the orb and the website? To drive real and measurable change.

Look up your city’s performance easily online.

Each city that installs a Civic Spectrum would be automatically provided with a Twitter account that auto-tweets the hourly energy use of the city, along with energy-saving tips for local residents.

The Energy Problem

We waste a lot of energy. With a little bit of attention to details, we can cut the energy out cities use by a big chunk — maybe up to 40 percent.

In 2009, McKinsey & Co. released an eye-popping study demonstrating that the United States could hugely improve the efficiency of its homes, offices and factories, through strategies like sealing leaky building ducts and upgrading old appliances. By doing so, McKinsey estimated, the country could save $680 billion dollars over 10 years and do the climate equivalent of taking all the nation’s cars off the road. — The Washington Post

Then there’s the time of day we use the energy. We all use too much energy at the same time. It’s called peak demand. During breakfast, dinner, and the hottest parts the day, the electricity grid spikes in usage. This often leads to additional (and more polluting) electricity plants needing to be fired up to make up the difference.

But how do we get people to use less energy? It’s hard to do. Marketing campaigns often don’t work, and legislation is difficult and costly to implement. But there is another way that hasn’t gotten enough attention, and it’s in the realm of “nudgey stuff,” and feedback loops of data.

Simply showing people the numbers is an easier and less controversial way to motivate people to change. It’s a technique called disclosure and it has big potential. In a recent podcast interview I did with leading disclosure researcher, Archon Fung, a professor at Harvard University, he described several examples where the public disclosure of data has lead to impressive change. These case studies include the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, which lead to a 45 percent reduction in toxic chemical use, and the Los Angeles Restaurant Grade Cards, which led to a 22 percent reduction in food-borne hospital admissions. I wrote about both in my book.

How it works

The orb accesses energy data from the local energy utility. We at Hello World Labs build an API and an app that takes this data and interfaces with an Arduino micro-controller. The orb contains a cluster of LED lights, of each of the seven colors. The app tells the Arduino what colors to show depending on the data it is fed.

Why it works

People often think we can just make “an app for that.” But smartphones and websites are actually pretty terrible at communicating to us. Why? Because each function on the phone or website is competing with the other functions. Also because a person needs to consciously open the app. But there’s a whole other universe in how we can communicate — called ambient messaging — and when it comes to environmental messages, it’s supremely exciting, and largely untapped.

Ambient messages of data and color (like traffic lights) are a key dimension of communication. The information is placed environmentally — where we can easily see it — but it’s not invasive like the billboards or flashing signs you get in conventional advertising. Ambient messaging lets us tell an important story to people in a gentle and subliminal way. We simply show data, and the numbers speak for themselves. By adding color to the data, we can communicate profound concepts with little more than a choice of hue.

What if your city’s total energy usage was clearly publicly displayed? We need better disclosure of data that is designed is ways that makes it easy for people to understand.

The Civic Spectrum is inspired by it’s predecessor, The Ambient Orb, that was reported to cause it’s users to reduce their energy use by of up to 40 percent in some cases. If The Civic Spectrum can improve the energy efficiency consciousness of the city residents, it can catalyze a shared mission to change the city’s energy behavior. We think it has potential to reduce energy use in the city by up to 10 percent — and that’s huge for such a simple intervention.

What it needs

  • A real time json feed of total kilowatts of energy being used from the city.
  • Permanent access to electricity.
  • A public location.
  • PVC exterior shell, LEDs, Arduino micro-controller, 3G network access.
  • API and app converting the energy feed data into Arduino scrips to signal color changes.
  • Dashboard web app that shows a digital version of the orb.

Why it’s a good idea

  • It’s a big deal to implement color-screen smart meters in every apartment and home. But simply installing one for each district of city, might have a comparable effect, for a fraction of the cost.
  • It communicates the key concept of peak demand to residents who usually have not been aware of it.
  • It reveals seasonal changes in the city’s energy use.
  • It’s affordable to implement.
  • Public disclosure of data is proven to create change.
  • It will inspire social media posting about the state of the orb, photographs and tweets like “The orb just turned bright red — turn something off everyone!”
  • It encourages data literacy about energy consumption. Residents can see the number every time they walk past.
  • The novelty of the changing light will encourage interest and photo-sharing around the topic of energy efficiency.


What if the world’s energy data was open and easy for all to see? What if we could harness the intense focus and epic optimism that people have when playing games, and channel it into real-world issues? People are naturally motivated, but we need to find a way of tapping into that natural human motivation machine. Could we harness a collective pursuit of change when we’re all in the game together? What if we were all in the game of cutting energy use together? Could we use data like this to hack into our collective consciousness to change the world?

Related Research

E2e Partners, McKinsey Sustainability & Resource Productivity, American Council for an Energy Efficiency Economy, US Electric System Operating Data By EIA. Residential energy monitors include,,,,

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