Smart Thermostat a Little too Impersonal? Proposition Your Local Government

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.

A Kill-a-Watt meter from P3 International displays a current draw from a Christmas display

A Kill-a-Watt meter from P3 International displays a current draw from a Christmas display

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.


About Carol Stimmel

Carol Stimmel is the founder and CEO of Manifest Mind. Her responsibilities include managing key industry and client relationships, management of the research agenda, and personal contributions to consulting engagements and research reports. Carol has more than 20 years of experience in emerging technology markets including operating roles as well as extensive experience in market intelligence and analysis.


  1. The problem isn’t gadgets. There are tons of cool energy saving gadgets on the market. And it’s not lack of awareness to go green. It seems everyone – and every corporation – has jumped this bandwagon.

    The problem is not “how” to save energy. The problem is motivation. It’s safe to say pretty much every conceivable obstacle to reducing energy consumption has been addressed. But there’s no motivation on the consumer’s part. There’s no internal drive for the average consumer to actually implement these strategies. Solve the motivation issue, you get passed one of the biggest obstacles facing residential energy efficiency and conservation. I say turn it into a game.

    • We’ve been working on “turning it into a game” for the past four years:

      We’ve had some successes, but “turning it into a game” does not automatically produce motivation (or, in some cases, it produces the “wrong” motivation).

  2. George, thanks for your comment. The problem isn’t the gadgets, per se. The problem is the belief that if you give a consumer a gadget that will motivate the desired behavior change. As to the point about awareness, broad awareness doesn’t seem to be effective (conservation is good for the world). I do believe, however, that awareness is part of moving a person towards motivation (making awareness personal), and once that awareness hits home, providing tangible actions that can be easily integrated into the life stream. For example, it’s natural for many people to throw the can into the recycling bin instead of the trash. It wasn’t that way 10 years ago. Local government has played a huge role in that change. I think they can do the same with energy efficiency and conservation.

  3. Ivan A. Arcaya,Sr.

    I believe that the biggest obstacle for the working class consumer is the cost of energy efficient products. I include myself among these consumers. Until they make affordable energy efficient products; they will continue to be expensive toys for the middle class. Many of these people could care less about energy efficiency but they do care a bought keeping up with their neighbors. In conclusion; the problem is a class problem.

    • Ivan, thank you for bringing this issue up. There are many things we can do as homeowners to conserve that are cheap. Here are some ideas.. But, I completely agree. I always thought it was absurd for Utilities to be offering technology based ways for homeowners to save just a few dollars a month (such as PCTs), when they had holes in their roofs and broken windows they could not afford to fix. You may also have heard of the Prius Effect. You can read about it here. The idea is that people buy Prius’ in an act of “conspicuous conservation”. However as PHEVs and PEVs become cheaper and more available, then people will buy them because they will save them money AND help the environment.

  4. Too bad your report’s a bit out of my budget range! Thanks for putting these ideas out there. As a person working on energy conservation from the marketing/communication end, I have always found it fascinating that we put so much faith in gadgets. At last count, humans had two eyes and two ears. Gadgetphilia assumes that we have an endless capacity for inputs. Humans are analog (for now, anyway), but we keep allowing digital to drive the conversation, confusing the chip-based world’s capacity for limitless information storage and processing with human beings’ limited capacity for (or interest in) absorbing it.

  5. Consumer behavior is very difficult to change, especially if there is not a “significant” and positive benefit. Take for instance broadband into the home (as you mentioned above). I can now check stock of a retail item on-line, without having to go and make a phone call, I can fill out various government forms immediately on-line without needing to wait for them to be sent by snail-mail etc. Energy, unfortunately, is not one of those things where such a convenience to lifestyle can be appreciably observed. This suggests that the best solution to energy conservation and energy management is to implement a device that is set and forget, one that the consumer does not need to involve themselves with, yet will allow huge efficiency and monetary benefits. That was exactly the tack we took when designing or controllers ( And they are hugely successful. My view is that for technology that is not going to profoundly impact the quality of life or convenience of the consumer, fit the technology to the consumer, not visa versa.

    • Roman,
      I think you are absolutely on the right track of making the EE devices so transparent to the end user that it is invisible except to the point that it results in a monetary benefit to the end user that never quits giving. We have a working demonstration going on in Canada to this affect called PowerShift Atlantic that uses what we call Intelligent Load Management – centralized, automated control of end-use devices by Demand Management Service Providers (aka smart load aggregators) as a way to vary flexible loads to counter wind generation variability to better firm up wind. To date we have more than a thousand premises engaged and growing and we still have our first customer today for more that 2 years and counting.

    • There is certainly strong evidence to show that automation is the key to driving significant energy savings. What is not clear is who pays for these devices, what does the payback period need to be, and what is the expectation of privacy (for externally controlled devices).

  6. To a considerable degree, people seem to be dancing around the obvious lesson from the rest of the developed economies: raise energy prices and people will use less of it. They’ll drive smaller vehicles, and drive them less miles. They’ll live in smaller spaces and be more tolerant of how far the temperature in that space swings. They’ll make capital investments to improve their energy efficiency — for example, both Europe and Japan have heat-pump clothes dryers on the market that use half the electricity, but cost significantly more initially.

    • Michael, the superfrackers are hoping no one hears you.

      • Since I worry about the long term, at a macro level, I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to the current fracking boom. The official forecast by the North Dakota Dept. of Mineral Resources is that Bakken oil production will peak in 2014 or 2015 (at well under a million barrels per day) and begin to decline. There’s a growing body of evidence that the companies doing pure gas shale plays are losing money hand over fist at current natural gas prices. There are a number of things happening that seem to point to higher electricity prices (eg, SoCal Edison deciding to retire San Onefre, and shutdown of more coal-fired plants in parts of the East). I feel confident that energy prices will continue to increase.

        • I agree somewhat with your conclusion, but I would counter-balance that against the EIA’s expectation that demand in the US will essentially stay flat between now and 2030. Fracking is being seen as the key to American “energy independence.” I think it’s starting to sound like another ponzi scheme. I was at an investment conference where the primary focus was superfracking (t was supposed to be a renewable investment conference). I would guess that we will see a +4-5% yearly average increase in energy rates (electricity) for the next 20 years.

          • We’ve wandered rather far from your original topic — probably better to take this offline if we’re to continue. I am interested in sitting down and debating the EIA’s forecasting methodology and track record, particularly for oil.

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