Tuesday, 10 April 2007

Making waste visible: Uniblue Local cooling

Just read about this today... It's an application that claims to optimise your PC's performance by using a more efficient power save mode. Apparently, They say
If just 100 million of us optimize the efficiency of our computers’ energy consumption, we could prevent over 300 billion kg of CO2 gas emissions, equivalent to over 1.8 billion gallons of oil, in just the first year alone.
Some more information about PC power consumption here.

What's interesting is that they provide a way to make the savings visible with this little widget so you can see the effects of your actions, thus reinforcing your behaviour.

Another event: Futuresonic Environment 2.0

The annual Futuresonic event is coming up in Manchester in May... this one includes a strand called Environment 2.0, blurb below:

Environment 2.0 is a new international initiative seeking to explore the sustainability of future arts and technologies.

The project will seek to minimise the environmental impact of the Futuresonic festival and also to explore broader issues connecting Futuresonic's interest in mobile and social technologies with the new urgency surrounding climate change.

In Environment 2.0 two worlds collide. When the environment is mapped, tagged and digitised it becomes navigable, computable and manipulable. How can this approach to environment, one which is iconic for our times, be reconciled with the need to address climate change? Environment 2.0 will also explore Open Source Energy, looking at low cost and free ways that people can generate energy locally.

This mirrors some of the concerns of this blog-- what happens when information about our environment is easily available through digital means? Will we change our behaviour? How can this information be made available? Who will control it? Participatory Urbanism points to a future where citizens will be able to access and create this information, but is this valid for all situations? How will the political context adapt to coopt or corral this movement?

It sounds like a very interesting meeting-- unfortunately (again) I can't make it, but keen to hear about it from anyone who can...

Tuesday, 3 April 2007

Participatory Sensing

This follows on from yesterday's post... an event called Snout in London next Tuesday 10th April to explore the idea of 'participatory sensing'. They will use wearable environmental sensors to collect data and visualise pollution information. It's a collaboration between Urban Tapestries, inIVA and Birkbeck College School of Computer Science and Information Systems. Looks very interesting. I don't think I can make it but would be very interested in hearing from anyone who does...

Monday, 2 April 2007

Participatory Urbanism

I read about this today on the Urban-Atmospheres mailing list, how mobiles could shift from communication devices to measurement devices, enabling us to process and share data from our environments. This could enable citizens to be more active in monitoring and controlling their environment. One of the examples they give is monitoring air quality in a particular part of the city, and contribute to a better overall picture of air quality across the city. People could then act on this information to campaign for better air quality (for example) or take evasive actions. It would be interesting to see how something like this would work. Would people become more engaged in democratic process? or would they vote with their feet?

Friday, 30 March 2007

Could a smart meter become an object of desire?

Not in their current form... I had a look for some images of smart meters... this one seems fairly typical. The problem with them as a tool for behavioural change is that they look like... well, meters. In order to be effective, they need to deliver real-time data on energy (and water and gas) consumption as and when it's needed, as well as analysis of usage patterns. So you would need something that could fit into your home. In short, something that looks nice. Potential here for product designers to take the humble utility meter and make it stylish and desirable. Like an iPod. And you'd also need some interface designers to take a look at the information interface and make it easy to use and appealing. The Design Council in the UK ran a very interesting project called RED-Future Currents in 2005 looking at this very issue and how energy monitoring could be integrated into the home. Worth a look.

I am also interested in how you might use objects and changes in shape or colour (or smell or sound or size!) as signals. There have been a few interesting concepts floating around about how to display information through objects, rather than information displays. This one from the Interactive Institute is called Flower Shade and shows a lightshade that opens and changes shape when energy usage has been low for some time.

This is nice because it offers a visual reward for low energy use and serves as a reminder of energy consumption. And it is also fun and beautiful.

The challenge with visual and other sensory cues is that there is the potential to be very annoying. Imagine sitting in your home surrounded by so-called smart devices beeping and flashing at you. The design would need to be very careful to include some way of asking permission for its actions as well as an off switch!

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Smart metering

I went to an excellent talk about smart metering a few weeks ago given by Ian Graham of Landis & Gyr (the largest metering company in the world). The talk was hosted by the IET in West London.

Smart metering is exciting a lot of interest at the moment, mainly for its potential as a tool to combat climate change. In recent times, the drivers for deploying smart meters have been more economic and technical, including:

  • The ability to read meters in hard to read areas
  • Reducing cost of meter reads and billing
  • Billing requirements driven by legislation, e.g. in Sweden utility companies are not allowed to estimate bills
  • Load shifting e.g. in Australia non-essential electrical goods can be turned off if necessary.

Metering has not taken off in the UK, in the same way as it has in Continental Europe due to the deregulated market in the UK. It has been difficult to justify investment given the number of different players in the market, all with different objectives and roles: suppliers, distribution company and meter operators. The drivers and benefits described above would not accrue to the agency who actually purchase the meters, and more pertinently, consumers can change suppliers every 28 days. So if a supplier were to invest in a smart meter for a particular consumer could be wasted if they decide to change supplier after only a month of use.

Recent interest is being driven by environmental legislation and public pressure on government as well as the rising fuel prices. There is a range of relevant energy and environmental legislation from national and EU governments. Ian Graham identified the following:

- Energy End Use ESCO EU Directive
This requires meters to show information on time of energy consumption, provide regular accurate billing, and allow comparisons to previous consumption data.

- Stern report
There was a section in the Stern Report outlining the role of information and policy in changing behaviour.

- OFGEM 'Energy Review' and 'Innovation in Metering'- allows suppliers to tie customers in for more than 28 days thus potentially enabling suppliers to justify the investment.

- Government reports on the possible environmental benefits of smart metering and in-home displays

- £10m DTI funding for trials in budget-- trial technology. Manufacturers making proposals to supplier
Trials hope to prove that customers are better able to manage and reduce consumption if better informed. Current research shows that consumers save 5-15%. Government trials to validate.

Ian discussed the methods used to save energy, both the stick and carrot approaches.

Stick approaches included:

- Time of use tariff-- different costs at different times of use

---> shifting consumption around, using capacity on the network and reflecting the cost of generation

- Block or shoulder tariff-- different cost after a certain consumption
-- used to collect your standing charge.

- Budget model-- prepayment mode
-- meter will disconnect after a certain amount consumed

- Load limiting
e.g. don't allow more than 10 amps to flow at a gtiven hour.

However preferred methods should focus more on the carrot by persuading the customer to change behaviour.
persuade the consumer to change behaviour. Currently billing is a 3 month control loop. Consumer information is key-- need fast feedback. The act of consumption should be linked to its cost.

So what is needed in order to do this? The devices should have an interface to allow decision making, with communications between metering devices delivering rapid availability of data. All the data should be available in one display and the display should be mounted where the consumer wants it and will use it. The difficulty at the moment is that gas and electricity meters are often not together, and are often installed in relatively inaccessible places (under stairs cupboards, or in common areas in apartment blocks). Consumers need flexibility of installation.

The good news is that there are smart meters available on the market today which fulfil these requirements. There are some issues around interoperability between models from different manufacturers which are being worked on. The main obstacles to adoption in the UK are the commercial ones outlined earlier. It is hoped that a combination of consumer and legislative pressures will drive the market to make them available…

Sunday, 18 February 2007

As luck would have it...

I've just found an article by Alex Steffen on worldchanging.com on Use Communities which discusses the idea of sharing stuff between people, as an alternative to buying multiple copies of the same thing (which might remain unused). I’ve made a comment here (scroll down!).
John Thackara also writes well on these topics in his excellent book In The Bubble.

I really like these ideas. What is interesting is implications for the kinds of IT systems you might have to support sharing of things— reputation based systems (like ebay) that could help to create trust between members of the community, logistics systems to track the items… These kinds of systems might not be particularly necessary for informal networks such as small community groups but could be needed for larger networks where people would not know each other that well or at all.

In this way you can get around problems such as people returning stuff in bad condition (they get rated as such) and locating lost items and so on. You might even get some positive side effects—people get to know others in their neighbourhood and build up trust in them; or negative ones—some loss of privacy.

But the question remains, what kinds of things would people share, and how could it be done in an economically as well as environmentally sustainable way? The answers will be specific to particular geographies, demographies and cultures and the type of thing to be shared, among whom and how acutely they need it, will drive the particular solution. We need marketers who can divine these hidden needs and make them explicit… whether for private or public good (or both). It will be interesting to see where and how it succeeds.