live|work: The Design of Prosperity / The Design of an Energy Economy

Last week Boras, in Sweden, hosted The Design of Prosperity, "possibly the best conference in the world" according to a friend of mine who attended. I didn't get a chance to go, but a conference that couples design, change and innovation and how this has the potential to give rise to prosperity is certainly going to be world changing.

It focused on the processes influencing change and innovation and how these give rise to new patterns of prosperity. And in particular, it challenged the "over-designed product-world where design is just addressing customers' wishes" instead of creating new needs that support prosperity. The dream of Modernity has made us ever richer in the West, but it has not made us happier. So, what are the interventions that will challenge the system that we've become locked into?

Well, 'energy' took a prominent role as an intervention, with the most excellent Jeremy Rifkin sharing his views on the Hydrogen Economy and the intrinsic link between energy and networked communication. He's talking about the design of an energy economy. I've written before about visualising domestic energy consumption and selling reduced energy use ie, putting tools in place that turn energy data into value for the consumer by creating awareness (about the data) and then platforms and services to share and trade energy savings. Our work in this area has focused on the design of energy reduction and the trade of "negawatts". (Sort of consumer carbon/energy trading). Rifkin argues that this conceptual framework coupled with the power of communication networks will create the next great economic and social revolution — a peer economy. The difference is that he is focusing on peer Hydrogen generation and not reduction of consumption within our oil-based economy. (I think one actually evolves seamlessly into the other).

What Rifkins argues is that Hydrogen provides the technological revolution that will drive a mass decentralisation of energy. As Amory Lovins explains, "Once you put a fuel cell in an ultralight car, you then have a 20-25 kilowatt power station on wheels". While you drive, you produce energy. So the 'power' is displaced; the consumer is the producer.

Now, couple this with social networks and bingo you have the technology and the platform to create a new peer economy, trading energy between each other. The challenge ahead is how we design the tools or services to support the shift. So, how do we make energy an accessible and understood form of value for the mass consumer market — how do we empower people? How do we turn energy (data) into tradable equity — what are the trading mechanisms? How do we make energy desirable? What are the particular qualities of the 'consumer as producer' that create desire and feed participation in the service?

Some thoughts (not answers) that are informing our design of new energy services:

Design tools to make energy visible to change the way we understand energy, and our consumption, and to make the industry transparent

Turn energy into a 'currency' and help value and conceptualise it for people

Create an open platform for trading energy or energy savings — new forms of currency — that is simple and easy to understand (don't follow the pattern of confusion around Carbon offsetting!)

Create a personal interface/place for sharing, comparing and trading energy, and a mechanism for expressing personal identity through energy use

Think about the service as a network, with a number of partners, for instance the many ways energy can be traded, invested or donated amongst service parties

Create local community trading or investing mechanisms as well as individual, to support economies of scale and to kick-start decentralisation from ground-up

Challenges ahead!

Written by Tamara Giltsoff