I knew it wasn’t sexy to study civic engagement for its role in helping citizens conserve resources in their homes. But we gave it a shot, because we recognized that the prevailing ideas about how to effectively engage consumers in conservation activities (such as recycling, participation in electric utility programs that help save energy, and composting) are falling desperately short. We wanted to discover if there was something more to the American consumer than the ever-growing depressing piles of trash and cranking air conditioners. The research presented in our report, Tapping into the Power of Civic Responsibility in Designing Conservation Programs, is a strong start to changing our perceptions and working positively with people for sustainable change.
No, another study on consumer engagement is surely not as enticing as an intelligent wall wart, and we’re already drowning in clever solutions to engaging consumers. Why, you must be asking, did we even bother? Well, it’s personal.
In my younger days, I was a software engineer at MediaOne Labs during the burgeoning days of residential broadband. Somehow, I ended up on a team of ethnographers and cognitive psychologists. As a bit-twiddler, I just assumed that if you wired up homes with fast connection speeds, any reasonable human being would simply walk towards the light. I was wrong. Just as many of us were very wrong in believing that consumers would gleefully embrace the opportunity to buy and use in-home gadgets that would increase efficiency and conservation potential.
In the course of their explorations, the team of anthropologists and psychologists at the Lab studied some of the earliest broadband users. They discovered a very important fact:
They bought it for speed, but used it for living.
It is not an understatement that broadband to the home has forever altered the way we live: The enabling technology of moving data faster, has dramatically changed how we interact with each other and changed the very fabric of our daily lives. It makes what we do easier, continues to evolve the nature of communication with our friends and families, and expands our notion of fun.
It also forever changed the way that I look at technology innovation. I came to quickly understand that whiz-bang technological innovation may initially be greeted enthusiastically, but really, massive success only arrives when that slick new product quietly becomes an expected artifact of our daily lives. Otherwise, those devices are just gratuitous — no how matter how great the intention in its creation – limited at best and absurd at worst.
When it comes to residential energy efficiency and conservation, entrepreneurs, well-funded startups and multi-national powerhouses want to change human behavior. And they want to do it with their technology solution; smart thermostats, even smarter thermostats, in-home displays, smart phone apps, wireless home devices orchestrated for maximum efficiency, glowing warning lights, and myriad other gadgets whose effectiveness may best be measured in MTKD (mean time to kitchen drawer). These products are missing the mark and the lack of market penetration of these solutions is the proof.
Product designers, looking for the holy grail of home energy conservation and efficiency, continue to strive for a breakthrough moment, and that’s a good thing. But, without integration into our daily lives, these technological advances are doomed to impotent and endless first dates. Perhaps it’s time that these innovators learn what my friends at MediaOne might instruct: Technology that helps us wisely consume energy must also empower us, in a way where the wealth of possibility becomes personal.
Civic engagement is personal — it includes working and serving (and even playing) with our friends and neighbors on issues that are important to us, including the careful use of our natural resources. Clearly, technology plays a key role in enabling energy efficiency and conservation, but even the sexiest device doesn’t stand a chance if the desire to engage falls flat. Our communities – guided by our local governments – can play a powerful role in increasing energy awareness and creating the opportunities for change that will ultimately make those devices a part of our everyday world.