tisdag 6 december 2016

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

I'm working in a research project with the most complicated title ever; "Improved energy counceling and energy habits by Quantified Self Assisted Advisory". I mentioned the project briefly in the previous blog post. The internal acronym we use for the project is STEM - which in fact is an abbreviation of the agency that funds the project - The Swedish Energy Agency. Every year in December, they invite representatives from all the projects that are funded by their their "Energy, IT and Design" (EID) research program to a "program conference".

This year's program had presentations from no less than 18 research projects. I could only attend the first day of the conference and therefore missed about a third of the presentations. Most of the projects presented are ongoing but some were finished earlier this year (our project is funded until next summer). No less than 5 out of these 18 projects come from KTH (including CESC where I work and Green Leap - "a network for design and sustainable development" that is hosted by CESC). Another 3 out of the 12 project presented during the first day come of of the "Energy Design Studio" at the Interactive Institute Swedish ICT and I think there are many areas where our respective interests and projects overlap! Also, I know all three persons who represented and presented the Interactive Institute projects; Niklas Johansson (acting studio director), Anton Gustavsson and Stina Wessman. I got to know Stina recently when she attended our workshop on HCI and UN's Sustainable Development Goals at the NordiCHI conference in the end of October.

My colleague Björn Hedin is the project leader and he gave a 20-minute presentation of the project (I presented the project last year when he couldn't attend). I will not go thought his presentation but just briefly point out that he talked about some of the results from the project such as: 1) the great energy awareness educational tool kilowh.at and some of the results when we tested it on our students, 2) visualizing the indoor temperature by using ambient lighting and 3) "Grönkoll" (≈ Green tracking) for immediate, in-the-store feedback on the energy and CO2 footprint for foodstuff (by scanning barcodes). The latter project relies on a database that has been developed in the project and that is aptly called "Life Cycle Assessment of Food Database" (LCAFDB). Our acronyms are the best! Perhaps most exciting though (also to the audience) was the examples of work we will do this coming spring. Björn mentioned three projects and I'm sure I will come back to some or all of them later on this blog.

I will not summarize the program point by point but will instead discuss a five "extended thoughts" that were awakened during the day.

I attended a lunch seminar/workshop/kick-off at KTH last week (I might come around to write about it on the blog). They asked us to work in groups and discuss possibilities and threats (problems) with the proposed program and my first note said "Flying hither and thither", i.e. that we will fly a lot in our attempts to "save the world". So at that seminar I remember thinking "what if we put an internal price tag on airline tickets that was 2x, 5x or even 10x the regular price?". That would create incentives to fly less and we could use the money we put aside due to that "internal tax" for certain predefined purposes that we agree upon ("good stuff"). This idea came back to me when I listened to one of the Interactive Institute presentations. Electricity (and running water) is so inexpensive in Sweden that it's hard to justify husbanding it. But what if the price was 5x higher and the "extra money" was used/reserved for some specific purpose(s). Say that the money collected is used to lower the rent, i.e. your energy/water bills are 5x higher but most of the money collected comes back to your own wallet in the form of decreased rent. You might ask what difference it makes, but it does make a huge difference as your incentives to save electricity and water would skyrocket. It's even possible to collect that money in a housing association and distribute it back in some more or less "equitable" way that creates extra incentives to save, e.g. if you use less electricity than your average neighbor, that neighbor would in some small way subsidize your rent. What exactly "equitable" means in this context needs some additional thinking as one person living in a 100 m2 apartment has better chances of saving electricity compared to four persons living on the same amount of space (despite the fact that they today pay the same rent). Should the number of occupants in an apartment play a part in these calculations or only, say, the raw number of square meters? Again, the exact algorithm could be discussed but I think the principle is really interesting!

Following a discussion I had elsewhere, I proposed there was a tension between (political) decisiveness and "democracy". Decisiveness would correspond to forcefully showing the direction and getting things done. Democracy would correspond to discussions and individual decisions (think direct democracy). Is curtailing democracy necessary for getting things done? Do note that I do not equate "getting things done" with "getting the right things done"! It might also mean that inertia has its uses and that decisiveness can mean that we much more efficiently get the wrong things done. But we still get more things done if we are decisive than if we aren't. We already do trade away democracy for decisiveness when we choose representative democracy, i.e. when we choose our representatives and they make decisions we might not always agree with (or we would/might never get things done - which is exactly my point). I think it's possible to realize that decisiveness and democracy both can have advantages and disadvantages. Donald Trump certainly gives the impression of wanting to be decisive and that would perhaps be ok if not for the fact that much of what he wants to do are the wrong things. But I have on the other hand heard people say they would not object to being ruled by a benign green dictator... I hope I have managed to make a distinction between "steering" (decisiveness) and "freedom" (democracy) here. Freedom certainly sounds better but it might just mean that everyone can choose freely (like going away on weekend trips by plane every single weekend - which I personally disapprove of). And that less will be accomplished politically as many people will tend to pull in many different directions at the same time. My insight after listening to some random presentation though was how problematic "nudging" and "persuasive" systems can be in the space I have just sketched out if such systems try to steer people's decision while hiding that it is a form of (mild) steering. Perhaps the greatest nudger of them all is the system where people never come to realize they have been nudged? But the space for manipulation and deception (or of being accused of manipulation and deception) suddenly seemed infinitely large to me. My conclusion is that such attempts can harbor large possibilities of serious backlashes. So perhaps it's better to confront people with things they don't want to hear ("you are not allowed to fly more this year") rather than trying to gently nudge them into not flying as much? This reasoning could of course be applied to any area where nudging and persuation is used or has been suggested. Perhaps overtly raising the price of airline tickets (see above) or even outlawing "unnecessary flying" is a better and more fair way to affect change?

One presentation activated some thoughts I formulated last week at a seminar with my students. Many students realize we need to "do something" about energy, carbon emissions and the climate. But some students also take all practical concrete suggestions ("fly less", "drive less", "eat less meat", "use less energy", "don't develop those kinds of technologies") and put them in a box which they then label "back". The predictable next comment is that "we can't go back" (sometimes completed with some utterly meaningless catchphrase like "The Stone Age didn't end because humans ran out of stones"). It's hard to discuss concrete solutions or indeed even to budge someone just a little when every suggestion and every proposal is characterized as "going back". Who wants to go "back" instead of going "forward"? I am here talking about the connotations of the very words themselves - Lakoff & Johnson, Metaphors-we-life-by-wise. (From Wikipedia: "George P. Lakoff ... is an American cognitive linguist, best known for his thesis that lives of individuals are significantly influenced by the central metaphors they use to explain complex phenomena."). "Up" is good, "down" is bad. And "forward" is good while (going) "back" is bad. My conceptual breakthrough here was to adopt the use of the term "overdeveloped" for the kinds of affluent societies we live in instead of using the more conventional term "developed". The word "overdeveloped" implies that we have overreached, that we need to find an equilibrium at some "lower" level of consumption (etc.). That might not sound like a big change but it is. What some students (and many others) have termed "going back" can now instead suddenly be characterized as "going forward" - problem solved! This way of reframing the way we characterize our way of living and our lifestyles also imply that affluent societies in the Global North can learn important lessons from less affluent societies in the Global South, e.g. places where resources are husbanded due to the fact that they are more scarce. I like that! I will have to think some more on that.

I have heard and I have previously commented on the expression "data is the new oil". This expression took on additional dimensions when one project (from Interactive Institute, "Open Energy Playground") used data as a design material but where the data displayed during the presentaiton was just scrolling quickly over the screen (Matrix-like). "Data" wasn't entries in a database but a flowing river of characters. This firehose-like flow of data is of course connected to sensors and Big Data (and Facebook and filter bubbles and personalization and siren servers) but what shook me a little was the image of data as a running river rather than than as a huge filing cabinet with a near-infinite number of compartments. The question posed by the researcher in question in this project (Anton Gustavsson) was "how do you combine data from sensors in order to tell a story?". It really struck a chord with me. But what kinds of stories can you tell if your building material is raw data from sensors? Anton's example was that you can tell a story of people slacking off during the work week (attentive on Monday, cutting corners on Wednesday and having mentally checked out for the week on Friday afternoon). That's a story, I guess, but it's not a very exciting or compelling story. Are all the stories that Big Data will be able to tell us equally meagre and austere? It's hard to see any life-and-death, love-and-hate, good-vs-evil stories (that have captured the minds of listeners since the dawn of time) coming out of armies of sensors, big data and the processing power to crunch the data and visualize it... This made me think about the current project course I'm teaching and where my students are working on 11 different project about "The Future of Computer Games/Computer Games of the Future". One group is working specifically with Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, personalization and storytelling/emerging narratives. Their question is how you can use oodles of data about each choice you make in a game to personalize and enhance the story of the computer game - a story that has an auteur or many storytellers working together to deliver an experience and that still/also has a beginning, a middle and and end that is amazing and spectacular. Here's their project description (the final project will be presented on Friday December 16 - see this webpage for more information - you are welcome to attend!):

"Inspired by today’s shift towards adaptive gameplay, which generates such elements as weather, foes and entire planets depending on the player’s choices, we present the Omnius narrative AI system. Where previous game systems have focused primarily on improving the gameplay within a rigid story, we look to leverage the medium’s interactivity to make for a much more compelling and personalized narrative.

Rather than being directly responsible for a game’s plot, game writers using Omnius instead focus on such broader-scope narrative such as world building and characters. Additionally, they would have to decide which parameters to keep track of in the user’s play style, and how to adapt the game to make it as engaging as possible. With the rules and boundaries set by the designers and writers, Omnious helps players tell a unique and personalized story through their gameplay."

My last reflection came out of a talk that among other things discussed the lack of standards in the smart home. The researchers (from The Swedish Institute of Computer Science, SICS - now SICS Swedish ICT) and everyone else assumed that things start out pretty bad (all the relevant actors have different standards) but they eventually come together over common standards and protocols to exchange information. I personally see it as a sort of defeat when coordination is only accomplished by adding (expensive, cumbersome) layers of added complexity on top of something that didn't work originally. The researchers compared this with the nascence of the World Wide Web and the browser wars of the 1990's. Every single browser (Netscape Navigator, Internet Explorer etc.) did things differently and it was impossible to write code once that would work for several or all browsers at the same time. This diversity (sprawl) has later been curtailed; when increasingly complex things have been made possible, standards have been developed that all browsers adhere to (but isn't it the case that there will always be now things the browsers can't agree on?). The researchers implied that it takes a decade or two decades for standards to evolve and smart homes/smart electricity therefore has some way to go before that happens. In the meanwhile we might want to command Apple's Siri to  turn the lights down but her answer today might (metaphorically) be "I can't turn down the lights because the light bulbs are manufactured by Philips and they don't take orders from me". So I was reminded of the story of the tower of Babel recently (don't remember in what context). Building that tower was off to a good start but later encountered insurmountable problems. Not being able to understand each other any longer, humanity was scattered around the world. I don't know what happened to the tower itself but perhaps we could agree on it "crashing". If not physically collapsing, then at least crashing in terms of it being a viable project with a future - kind of like a very large and complex software system that has internal problems and that is shut down before it's ever been launched. The story I hear about WWW/the browsers wars and of smart homes is that we are off to a shaky start but that the edifice we are building is solidifying as we go along. I have a hard time dressing that up in pictures in my head - it feels like we are rebuilding a ship while it is out at sea and that does not sound like a great way to do things, right? So my question is how to dress up such a process in a suitable metaphor or story? I would preferably like to find a biblical story that can explain how something that works passably at a later point in time (and through much effort and after long delays) step by step starts to work better and better. Moses walking for 40 years in Sinai between leading the jews out of Egypt and taking possession of the promised land has the delay part patted down but how about the "creating-value-out-of-nothing" part? Which reminds me of my colleague Ambjörn's idea of using excrement as the raw material for 3D printers. That idea holds the promise of revolutionizing our economic system by literally making it possible to have "shit in, value out".

Over and out by yours truly. Not a great recounting of the program but rather an explosion of ideas that came out of the Swedish Energy Agency's program conference on "Energy, IT and Design". My colleague Elina wrote a short, matter-of-fact description of the event (including a link to the full program).


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