SusLab aims to reduce household energy use through the design and trialling of new people-centred products, services and interfaces, developed collaboratively with householders
Reducing energy use is a major challenge for society and the need to change our behaviour is receiving increasing attention. However there is a need to integrate the ‘what’ of quantitative data with the ‘why’ of people-centred design research. Why do people use energy in everyday life—what are they actually doing? And how can design address this?
Understanding energy use in everyday life
People don’t set out to ‘use energy’- demand is the result of solving everyday problems, meeting needs for comfort, light, food, cleaning and entertainment, often in emotional contexts. This is where research can provide insights directly useful for the design process. At the Royal College of Art, the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design and SustainRCA are partners in SusLabNWE (2012-15), an INTERREG-funded European collaboration between research organisations in the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany and UK, to investigate this issue. In the UK, we are working with Imperial College London and the Institute for Sustainability to combine quantitative research processes with ethnographic design methods.
The focus of SusLab is on reducing household energy use through new design interventions, developing and testing products, services and interfaces. The project draws on a broad scope of expertise, including environmental scientists and architects alongside designers, and each region is creating a ‘Living Lab’—a specially designed test home for short-term studies on sustainable living.
We are currently in Phase 1, researching ‘in the field’ to establish baseline information about householders’ everyday routines, energy use and understanding of energy through in-depth home visits and probe studies. Through deeper insights into everyday interactions, we are aiming to help frame the ‘problems’ and contexts of energy use—and address them through design—in more nuanced ways.
This autumn we will move into Phase 2, which will be centred on the ‘lab’ – a specially designed test home for short-term studies on sustainable living, being constructed in the London Sustainable Industries Park, Dagenham by the Institute for Sustainability. Using our insights from Phase 1, we will employ co-creation processes to create new prototypes that will be tested by users and iterated in the lab. In Phase 3, the final phase of work, our product, system and service prototypes will be tested with wider user groups in their own homes, validating the research and design process.
The Royal College of Art’s role
Central to the project is the development of people-centred design research methodologies that can provide insights to other partners about the usability and adoption of sustainable innovations across many sectors. The RCA is leading on the development of design research methodologies and, together with project partners, has created a kit of methods to be used across all three phases of the research, drawing on the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design’s Designing With People kit as well as inputs from TU Delft, Chalmers TH and the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment & Energy.
These involve observational techniques, self-reporting methods, and product and service prototyping, as well as new research methods developed specifically for the project, such as user re-enactment. The research methods kit has been disseminated to all project partners and is informing the design research undertaken in all SusLabNWE regions. A public version will be released later in the project.
The RCA is also collaborating with Imperial College London to establish the sensing technologies that will be installed in the UK Lab to measure domestic energy consumption and monitor human interaction with energy-using devices. This collaboration will enable new comparisons to be made across qualitative and quantitative data and will lead to deeper insights for design research processes.
Research Associate: Flora Bowden
Senior Associates: Catherine Greene (2012-13); Dr Dan Lockton (2013-15)
Principal investigators: Rama Gheerawo (HHCD); Clare Brass (SustainRCA)
Research funder: INTERREG IVB NWE Programme
UK research partners: Institute for Sustainability, Imperial College London
Other research partners: TU Delft, Chalmers TH, Wuppertal Institute, CityPorts Academy, Hochschule Ruhr-West, Innovation City Ruhr, Johanneberg Science Park, Woonbron Housing Association.