Notes on Birmingham Household Energy Seminar

I recently attended a one day international seminar on ‘Household Energy Consumption, Technology and Efficiency’ where I was invited to do a talk around my HCI focused research in designing technology-supported household energy interventions. The event was held at the University of Birmingham’s European Research Institute. Invited speakers are listed here with abstracts of their talks with presentation slides here. It was easily amongst the best of its kind I’ve been to, with a diverse range of projects presented from researchers in the social sciences as well as HCI and computer science. The majority of the projects presented were social sciences orientated and explored a very different research landscape from the design-centric HCI perspective I’m used to; a real eye-opener was the scale and outreach of these projects, of which I’ll talk a little bit about.

The seminar itself was organised under the auspices of the EPSRC ADMIER project based at Birmingham. It looks at the concept of using ‘slanty’ technology devices for sustainability ends in the home that don’t always operate in the way you would expect them to. Parallels can be seen in LiSC’s conceptual ‘Nagbaztag’ work around embodied agents dishing out aversive feedback on energy consumption. Central to ADMIER is a student-focussed study using a digitally augmented kettle, or ‘angry kettle’, which can suddenly become argumentative and refuse to pour water for your cup of tea depending on how much water/number of cups of tea consumed previously. Progress in the study is almost at the live-deployment stage and I hope to read more about the naughty kettle soon, although I suspect it may be a lot tamer than our uncouth Nagbaztag outbursts…..

A really interesting theme that came out of many of the presentations, particularly from the social sciences, was social practice. This is the idea that end-user energy demand behaviour (or any behaviour) is complex and made of a set of many smaller ‘practices’ which are significant in their own right, with any one of these smaller practices being the catalyst for the behaviour exhibited. In short, social practices create energy demand. Crucially, the introduction of new technology may not fit in with currently carried out social practices. An example is someone using energy to bake a cake; in some cases it is so much more than just switching the oven on; it is done at a certain time of the day, the satisfaction of watching the cake rise, and may include the use of supporting technology to create icing and whisk the mix. Right away you can see very complex use of energy that is difficult to pick apart to introduce efficiency measures through intervention, which may detract from the enjoyment of the individual baking the cake. So in many cases energy interventions and new technologies could be seen as constraints that limit the symbolic social practices that take place in the home space. Designing energy interventions that attempt to integrate social practice will certainly be a challenge in the HCI research space, with work carried out also having relevance in other HCI research such as designing for healthier food practices, where themes such as culture, place and social inclusion all have to be picked apart and understood. Some of examples of social practices in the home and work spaces are shown below, taken from Prof. Gordon Walker’s slides:

Sarah Darby, whose previous energy feedback work has been highly cited by the HCI sustainability community, presented really interesting work on future ‘smartgrid’ energy demand and demand response. Sarah states that in the future demand will be based on social practices shaped by technology, materials, rules, know-how, and social norms. Other concepts put forward were energy de-centralisation, where active/peak demand may be met at a more local level as required, however infrastructure is not yet in place to enable this i.e. substations would need upgrading.

If you are interested in the area of household energy interventions then I do recommend you have a look at the presentations linked in the opening paragraph, some really interesting and informative work taking place.

As is tradition, I’ll end with a short beer paragraph J Unfortunately Birmingham hasn’t seen the light yet with craft beer, although there is a Brewdog opening up shortly. In the meantime the two best places to grab a decent beer are; The Wellington  – great pint of Oakham Citra,  and the Post Office Vaults – good selection of craft beer including American bottles.


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