söndag 8 oktober 2017

Swedish Energy Agency's final "Energy, IT and Design" conference

I attended the Energy Agency's (final) conference in the program "Energy, IT and Design" (EID) this past week and the theme for this year's conference was "Design for an energy efficient everyday life". I will cover the program shortly and will write more in depth about a few things that I found notable and/or interesting. I wrote a blog post about last year's conference and you can find it here.

The day started with a talk by Mari Broman who is an industry representative and a member of the program's steering committee. She is also someone who has followed the whole 10-year long program from start to finish. Mari framed the program, discussed its development over time and then described the three phases of the program (2005-2008, 2009-2013 and 2014-2017) in terms of moving from a focus on technology to a bigger emphasis on consumers, on design, on visualization, on everyday use of products and services and on lifestyles. The third and last phase saw the funding of 18 projects of which I have worked in one together with my colleague Björn Hedin. Several other colleagues of mine at KTH have worked in other EID research projects and KTH was in general well represented at the conference (and in the Q-and-A sessions).

The second speaker, Anita Aspengen, works at the Energy Agency where she is the head of the department for energy efficiency. She gave a talk about "The new energy" and described the energy landscape and the shift to a more sustainable energy system. Her message mirrored Mari's about moving away from a focus on the technology and on energy production to a focus on users and on energy usage (consumption) as a way to reach various energy and climate targets for 2030, 2040, 2045 and 2050. She received a number of specific and sometimes pointed questions (including from colleagues of mine) about the absence of air transportation in these calculations, about the absence of indirect energy use (food, vacations etc.) and the absence of embodied energy of stuff manufactured outside of Sweden.

The most entertaining and enthusiastic speaker, but also perhaps the most confusing talk of the day was professor of informatics Bo Dahlbom's talk about the future. So many clusters of ideas were connected and so many one-liners were hurled at the audience that I'm pretty sure there's quite a lot I don't agree with or that I at least would like to discuss, but the tempo of the delivery makes it hard to untangle and analyze it all. Here are some thoughts though:

- 20th century = oil, cars and systems. 20st century = data is the oil of the 20th century and power emanates from platforms (think Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple).

- Since I teach a course where this year's theme is "The future of work/work of the future", I saw many more implications of Dahlbom's talk for the future of work than for the future of energy. I itched to ask work-related questions, but this event wasn't the time or the place. Something I do wonder about though is this: if increased effectiveness in production (robots, computers) led to fewer industrial jobs in the 20th century, are there any particular reasons to believe that increased effectiveness in services (robots, computers) will lead to more rather than to fewer service jobs in the 21st century?

- Dahlbom contrasted abundance with scarcity and said he "preferred" abundance. He thus affiliated himself with a view of sustainability that eschewed "austerity", "saving" and "making do without", and instead argued for sustainability in terms of increased energy efficiency through digitalization. I found this opinion (I can't really call it an argument) lacking for several reasons. The first is that while the opposite of scarcity is abundance, the opposite of saving is not energy efficiency. Both saving and energy efficiency are instead two different examples of how to handle scarcity. In a state of abundance, there is on the other hand no need to save (or make things more efficient). With true abundance there is no reason not to squander, so while saving and (increasing the) energy effectivity are two sides of the same coin, their opposite is instead waste.

- The other reason for why I found Dahlbom's argument lacking is because increased energy effectiveness can have the same effects as lowering the price on energy and this can result in increased rather than decreased energy use. The first steam engines (early 18th century) squandered coal. Only a few generations later, steam engine technology had made progress in leaps and bounds and a ton of coal could now make a ton of difference. And... the demand for coal shot through the roof. This particular second-order/rebound effect is called Jeevons paradox.

- Dahlbom at one point said that "we painted ourselves into a corner" (in the 20th century). I don't remember exactly what he referred to - it might have had something to do with oil, with systems and with our infrastructure. Which, he argued, should be replaced with data, with platforms and with increased resource efficiency. But I do distinctly remember that I couldn't really figure out how we - following his or anyone else's recommendations - could be sure that we are currently not painting ourselves into another corner...

- I don't remember if it was Dahlbom or perhaps Aspegren who referred to a report about nudging that said that "it should be easy to do the right thing" (which rhymes in Swedish - "det ska vara lätt att göra rätt"). But if The Right Thing is always easy, then nothing is ever difficult. But what we don't talk about though is what to do when The Right Thing is difficult or painful or even detestable. Which would seem to be the case quite often when it comes to reducing our energy consumption.

My colleagues from KTH, Josefin Wangel and Loove Broms gave a great talk about how design can (re)shape the future. I didn't take any notes but it was terrific.

The last activity I will write about was a brainstorming exercise followed by a discussion about what focus (we participants wanted) the next research program to have. We were randomly divided into groups and I believe opinions can differ significantly between, say, future- and design-oriented researchers like my colleagues (above) and the man who represented a company that sells lamps. I however thought it was really hard to formulate concrete suggestions. My thinking then went like this: this is a program about saving energy/electricity and it has been made abundantly clear that we (nowadays) should put the (energy) user at the center. But taking a step back, I had to ask why - officially - we want to save electricity. Do we (Sweden/The Energy Agency) want to save energy so as to decrease carbon emissions? Or do we expect the price of energy to rise in the future, so why not explore/test today what will become necessary tomorrow? Or do we want to save energy because we can then export the savings? Or because the energy system is bursting at the seams? I felt that I would want an answer to that question before I can figure out what the next research program should contain and what it should emphasize.

As for me, I believe that our electricity bill at home corresponds to less than 2% of our household expenditures. So is there really a rational reason for me to try to decrease the electricity bill by 10% when many other types of expenditures weigh so much heavier in our household economy? But that means it might in fact become rational for me not to care about my electricity bill and my electricity consumption. This creates a huge problem in a research program that on the one hand wants to focus on the user and her usage but where that user might in fact (for good reasons) not care about saving energy! So how do you convince a person who doesn't really care? Or, should we sneak in savings by automatizing and/or exchanging existing technology? But honestly, wouldn't an alternative be to steamroll the user and force new behaviors on her? If coercion is too harsh to be a winning strategy, why then not settle for manipulation - which might be ok if we instead call it "nudging"? If the goal is to husband electricity and sell the savings to other countries, the perhaps we should instead put the nation - Sweden - at the center rather than the user?

There was also a discussion about how research results from the project could reach further and make a difference. It felt like two suggestions popped up recurrently. The first and most popular was an emphasis on commercializing results. Make stuff (prototypes) into real products and start up companies! The other suggestion was to reach out to the citizens through the municipal climate- and energy advisors. Which happens to be the organization we have worked together with in our research project. Which is nice - for us. I do have to complain about the sloppy use of terms at times though. It is not clear if we should put the "user" at the center of our activities or perhaps rather aim for "the consumer", "the citizen" or "the individual"? Different words have different connotations and my favorite would be to put the citizen at the center.

One goofy idea I had was to follow up the much appreciated research project that some colleagues of mine have conducted, "a car-free year", with a project called "an electricity-free year". It could be hard to recruit informants (understatement). While that project is far to hard, I did in fact formulate another idea for a research project that could be suitable for the next phase of the EID program. I'm not going to say anything more about it here except that it would involve the KTH Live-in lab.

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