The Bigger Picture

The drawings clearly show diverse interpretations of energy and most are vastly different from the ways in which energy is regularly communicated by energy companies through the media and the energy infrastructure. As we have seen, none of these drawings show energy meters or bills and none of them use the visual language of these dominant interfaces. Numbers primarily feature in mathematical equations, not in relation to amounts of energy used.

This disparity suggests that the ways in which we think about energy and the ways it is communicated to us are vastly different. What might our energy system look like if it were informed by the images of this study? How dynamic, colourful and relatable could it be? What if our energy meters showed us swirls, waves or drips of colour, textured, layered and changing over time, alongside our different daily activities? What if our bills showed us cups of tea and hours of television, rather than kilowatt hours? Would this help to create a very different relationship with the energy we use at home?

Moving beyond the kilowatt hour – perhaps through new ways of representing units – is another possibility that emerged through our research. It is a question that requires further investigation, but if changing the terminology could support people in understanding the subject in new ways, it is surely something worth exploring.

Looking across the collection of images, it seems that the drawings humanise the subject of energy and could go as far as to change the conversation about it. Current public debate often centres on the cost of energy for households, global markets, environmental concerns, or pressures on the National Grid – all of which are of course critical issues to address. But what the drawings add to that conversation is fine-grained detail on the everyday user experience and individual understanding of national and international systems. What’s more, and perhaps most interestingly, the images present the potential of what energy could look like: optimistic ideas of what energy might be in future and the ways in which people could relate to it.

There is great opportunity to reinvent the visual language of energy and the media through which it is communicated. We are increasingly seeing energy displays on phones and tablets, but there are surely other areas to explore: linking appliances, integrating displays into them, expanding on the visual to include other senses (e.g. sound: Lockton et al, 2014), or the form of objects (e.g. Bergström et al, 2013), finding new connections with time and routine (e.g. Broms et al, 2011) or even with architecture itself. As we see through the drawings, this invisible infrastructure can be interpreted, represented and understood in any number of ways, which creates great freedom for designers who choose to engage in this field. The drawings reveal a wealth of new design opportunities that exist in the energy sector to make images or perceptions of energy more connected to the lived experience of it.

From the in-home interviews we conducted with participants ahead of the drawing study (discussed in The Research Process) a number of valuable insights emerged that also illustrated people’s understanding of energy in interesting ways. We found that even when people use energy in very different ways (and in different quantities), they do not set out to be wasteful. They are trying to cook, keep the house warm, work, or watch TV, among many other things. They are carrying out the routines of daily life and juggling everyday activities and demands. Energy is a peculiar resource not only because of its invisibility but also because it is nearly always used as a means to an end. People do not just want to use energy, they want to do the things that energy enables. Thinking about it like this, it might in fact be counterproductive to ask people to reduce their energy use. Perhaps instead we should be asking ‘what are the new ways in which we can light our homes, stay warm, or prepare our meals?’ Shifting the emphasis and focusing instead on the goals people are trying to achieve as part of everyday practice might be a more constructive, people-centred approach to addressing our energy needs and designing new solutions for them.

Householders are of course not alone in their energy use. The products we use, the design of our homes, gas and electricity supplies and political decisions are all also influencing factors in our energy use and it is important to remember these contingencies. New designs could support not only energy interfaces and the ways people ‘see’ their energy, but creating new business models in conjunction with this could also support people to reduce energy use and drive a shift to the use of cleaner sources of energy. Through our research we have been fortunate to meet many people working in this area who have lots of new ideas to transform the energy system (energy start-up Open Utility, for example, is seeking to challenge the status quo by creating a peer-to-peer energy market that might offer new kinds of interaction and cleaner energy supplies for many households and businesses).

More support is needed for these kinds of ventures. Government and established energy companies need to nurture new initiatives and listen to the needs of individuals to create a sea change in our relationship with energy. Throughout this study we have found great enthusiasm from the public to engage with energy issues. People are excited by the opportunities that the energy system affords. Typically, they do not set out to be wasteful and they do not want to cause environmental damage through their daily activities. The passion and ideas displayed in these drawings suggest there is strong public appetite to transform relationships with energy, but that people should be engaged in exciting, productive and meaningful ways.