Homes, wifi and energy culture

In my last blog, I described my difficulties with my home energy monitor, My Not So Wise Owl. I felt very ashamed of myself as I was writing. I thought I must be dim-witted as well as increasingly dim-watted.  But in fact I am not a corner case and smart energy monitors have not yet (as far as the literature can tell me) won hearts as well as minds.  A wonderful study: ‘Making Energy Visible’ by Hargreaves et al, 2013, (1) documented the tangle of hopeful starts and frustrated endings of smart energy technology products in the home.  Having curbed an energy bill by perhaps 5%, they lose their usefulness and appeal, and end up stuffed away in a cupboard, out of sight and out of mind.   The Financial Times summed it up this week with an article headline saying :  ‘The smart home is still too clever for its own good.’   The family roles and conflicts documented in part in Hargreaves et al, are acutely pictured by the satirical comic ‘the Daily Mash’ in their article: ‘Dads begin obsessive relationship with thermostat.’

My motivation for my research on smart energy devices in the home (2) comes in part from my fascination with the cultural significance of the home. I have for the last year wondered whether a culture of sustainability actually exists, and if so – is it something like a social movement, or more like a life-style interest (like gardening or cooking) or is it ultimately only a policy intent from various different people? It speaks often, from the perspective of the UK, about a crisis for people in other places, or at other times.  Sustainability is not yet the water we swim in.

Cultures in politics and business are readily observable. Even where our own biases blunt our sharpness, there are enough witnesses  for some consensus to be created about what is happening, and what should happen. When we discussed gender diversity on our course, nobody said that actually mothers in the workforce are a costly drag. But I’ve heard that said in actual workplaces, or rather heard that it was said, and reported to me by my mole from an all-male room. Cultural norms and peer pressure play a role in building a consensus, at least in polite (and mixed) company.

Homes are very different. People do not (and should not) feel obliged to behave as though there is external scrutiny of their actions at home.  The culture of the home is private.  The web of pressures and desires in a home is influenced by the outside, as televisions and the internet provide metaphorical gateways to the rest of the world. The life of a home now is much more like one 50 years ago than a workplace is like one 50 years ago. Can homes be sustainable, and if our private lives cannot be, what does that say about changes we can make as a society?   Part of the friction is human and social, but part of it is technological and physical. In British Victorian houses in winter, cold air flies up through the floorboards and out through the badly fitted windows and uninsulated roof.  Energy, heat, and carbon do not stay private, in fact they become physically shared.  Our habits have effects on others, and on our future selves.  (In a side note on the way in which smart energy blurs the private and public, some people are concerned about the privacy of their energy usage as smart meters transmit very granular detail about a household’s habits to their utility provider.  Smart meters themselves, small and unassuming, are  signalling rapidly and constantly from a home to the outside world).

So I wanted to look at homes, energy, technology and behaviour.  I have written this blog because I have had some anxiety about the topic which is getting in the way. My economist friend, who works in a bank, said of my topic that her first instinct would be to look at pricing signals. That instantly felt like a harder-hitting topic, one where people would instantly see relevance. I come from a world where quantitative analysis is king.  I was worried, can you ever find out anything useful about behaviour?  And through a qualitative approach?

But when I read the Hargreaves study from 2010 and the descriptions of people interacting with their energy monitors, I was gripped. The family quarrels, the frustration with the usefulness of the device, the burst of good intentions that tail away in a few months, the retreat of the energy monitor from visibility to invisibility as the owner pushes the ugly object further back into a cupboard – these are the moments when change happens, or does not.

And technology is such an odd part of our culture. Technology gets smaller, more ever-present, more personal. But there are huge gaps in understanding between the producers and the users. The home can be built to include technology, but the profuse research on the lack of usability of much ‘smart energy’ technology in the home suggests that the resident in the designers’ mind, has in many cases been a figment of their imagination, and so the product is misused or ignored.

I hope that by understanding household cultures about energy a bit better, we can, add a brick to building a sustainability culture, by designing better products that do not frustrate both their owners and their own purposes.

(1) Hargreaves, Tom, Michael Nye, and Jacquelin Burgess. “Keeping Energy Visible? Exploring How Householders Interact with Feedback from Smart Energy Monitors in the Longer Term.” Energy Policy, Special Section: Transition Pathways to a Low Carbon Economy, 52 (January 2013): 126–34.

(2) My M.St. dissertation is on the use of smart energy devices in the home. Smart energy devices can include wireless energy monitors, programmable thermostats, anything which sends and receives information about energy inputs.

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