Energy Futures
30 July 2008

Energy Futures examines potential forms of everyday energy consumption in the future. Learning from the field of future studies, the project is based in an examination of contemporary social trends and forecasts of possible energy futures. Drawing this into the realm of design, the project revisits the physical manifestations of behaviors and beliefs around everyday electricity consumption. The central concern has been to explore – and design for – a transition between the familiar now and the extreme future. In the form of provocative designs, presented as a (super)fictive reality, Energy Futures asks us to rethink – and, perhaps, to debate and change – our relation to energy consumption.

From the introduction to the project documentation by Dr. Ramia Mazé.

Energy Futures was done with Aude Messager and Basar Onal while we were interns at the Design Research Unit led by Dr Ramia Maze, at the Interactive Institute, Stockholm. It is part of Switch!, a design research program at the Interactive Institute sponsored by the Swedish Energy Agency.

We use electricity as and when we need it, without regard for any other factors. This convenience allows us to minimise the influence of natural conditions, like the time of day or night or the weather, on our routine. This unquestioned convenience also requires energy generators to maintain the capacity to cope with large peaks in demand. Smart grids and appliances have been developed to automatically help smooth these peaks, and some building climate control systems adjust themselves according to weather forecasts transmitted over the internet. But it’s interesting to speculate on adjusting their behaviour. If solar and wind generation do become substantial sources of energy (as is the hope), perhaps people wouldn’t mind altering their plans accordingly – especially once given enough information to do so.

The energy forecast suggests a future where ‘flick of the switch convenience’ is still around, but isn’t the overriding value. Variation to the pace of life caused by changes in the environment have been integrated into modern life.

We speculated about a future tradition emerging around energy use, an annual day which acknowledged the complexity inherent in peoples’ attempts to save energy, in order to fractionally reduce emissions they can’t see, while living in a consumer society.

Our traditional day would be held at the end of the summer. The idea would be to not use any electrical power, with friends and family getting together to cook an evening meal outside. All the electrical objects in your home would be wrapped up in white paper and paper tape. This means they can’t easily be used, but also gives these everyday items an abstract shape. The blankness of these transformed objects invites a consideration of their ‘place’. In addition, the wrapping-up reflects the unwrapping of gifts at Christmas. We imagined that some products might perhaps remain wrapped and unused for the three months to Christmas, and so becoming a reminder to not buy further unnecessary products.

The smoke produced by the whole neighbourhood cooking outside would combine into a haze, added to by ‘smoke decorations’. This makes the atmosphere ‘visible’. We see that our actions en-masse can effect the atmosphere – in this case producing a pretty red sunset (given the right conditions), and metaphorically bringing the emissions usually produced elsewhere in the generation of power, to the areas where that power is actually used.

“The objects are ‘socket bombs’. Socket bombing involves purposefully causing a short circuit in a buildings’ electrical mains. This trips the circuit breakers and so cuts the power to all the electrical sockets on that circuit.

The activists use cheap timer switches – by wiring a loop of cable between the Live and Earth pins of the plug, a short circuit is caused when the timer switches to ‘On’. Plugging these devices in to sockets in the public areas of buildings, the pirates can cause the main circuit breakers in the building to trip at a pre-set time, cutting power to many of the other electrical outlets in the building. Similar devices are used to cut the power to lights, and when a number of such devices are synchronised the power within an entire building can be cut.

The activists claim benign intent, and while no injuries have been caused thus far, it can cost money and create chaos when, for instance the power to the checkouts at a supermarket is cut.

The power remains cut until the device has been located and unplugged. The activists use this to create further inconvenience by plugging the devices in to sockets in out of the way areas like behind desks, seats, or display stands. ”

The concept of Energy Security is as much an issue as global warming in some political discourses around energy. This implies that energy use could become a highly charged political issue. The politicisation of energy fed in to our ‘creation’ of the Socket Bombers, imagined as an activist group of the near future.

With this scenario we wanted to draw attention to the physical interconnectedness of the electrical distribution network, and our strangely unguarded access to it in many public buildings.

More important though are the motivations of the socket bombers. Do they target institutions who use energy ‘wastefully’, or those that buy their electricity from sources to which they object? A shopping centre whose supplier is investing in coal fired power stations? Government buildings after the passing of an unpopular energy bill? And what of the response from the institutions – locks on all electrical outlets?

“At last! Energy Independence and Great Looks from just one mildly invasive procedure!

These days we do more, but what we do has changed – instead of grinding corn we crunch numbers! And while no-one told our bodies, there’s a supermarket round every corner… so there’s just no need to store the excess energy from our food and drink as unsightly fat.

The ‘Umbilicus’ device updates our bodies for our 21st century environment. It contains friendly bacteria, engineered to metabolise fats and lipids into electrical energy – power for the devices we rely on for our work and play. So you can eat, drink and be merry, safe in the knowledge your body is putting those calories to work.

Umbilicus – total energy freedom.”

Dan B says:

I think it’s great that companies have been making more and more energy efficient appliances to help lower power consumption. I also understand it’s good for people to be aware of how they are wasting power (plugged in chargers, leaving lights on, etc.)

It seems that there might be another solution people overlook. Countries that were the first to develop an integrated power grid, country-wide, still have a lot of the “old equipment” in place. Whether it’s the wiring that was run through the cities, or the machines used to deliver the power to the masses. This is also prevalent with the quality of cable TV and internet speeds. The US had some of the first power/phone/cable wiring integrated through the whole country, which is often why our average quality of connection or transfer speeds are lower than other countries in the world. I’m sure you realized first-hand the difference between the cables you used in your toaster, compared to newer manufactured ones. The purer the copper is, the faster electricity can pass through it. There is even less resistance in a metal such as gold. Less resistance means faster transfer, which means less wasted energy.

I realize that, upgrading all the wiring in a country would be massively expensive and time consuming. I’m just trying to throw out other solutions or ideas to help. And I also wanted to bring attention to something people aren’t talking about.

Thomas, please email me back if you want to respond.

MG MacKinnon says:

Dear Thomas,

I’ve just heard your interview on CBC radio here in Canada covering your toaster project. I’m wondering now, have you ever read “Energy and Equity” by Ivan Illich? As a specific point, his description of bicycles and ball bearings is fantastic.

Here is a link, and don’t worry, you can read the entire work in less than three hours (great for a train ride)


M.G. MacKinnon, Toronto

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