XXXI.2 March - April 2024
Page: 18
Digital Citation

Energy Civics

Jonathan Bean

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In a scene in the Netflix adaptation of the graphic novel Bodies, a talking refrigerator signals a shift to a near and ostensibly better future. "You have garlic, carrot batons, and one jar of hummus. Temperature loss and energy waste increasing with the duration of your decision," a cool, robotic voice intones. It's funny because this kind of gentle nannying about energy use is part of so much current technology. Car dashboards and Nest thermostats sprout graphical representations of leaves to reward behavior that saves energy. You might have your iPhone set to enable "clean energy charging," which delays charging at peak times when energy is generated by dirty, high-carbon energy sources, while your phone might encourage you to choose a route on Google Maps that "saves 9% gasoline."

The capabilities of current consumer technology—and the collective imagination of what technology will do for us in the future—suggests that many of us are operating under the assumption that the responsibility of dealing with energy use will continue to be off-loaded to technology. One paper on smart home energy systems found that more than half of academic work on those systems focused only on the potential of technological controls, cutting the very possibility of behavior change out of the loop. The authors put it succinctly: "If the technology is primarily charged with controlling energy use, why does the user need to change?" [1].

In human-computer interaction research and, more broadly, in studies of consumption and buildings, there have been repeated and clear calls for different ways of thinking about energy. In 2012, James Pierce and Eric Paulos identified four emerging energy systems that remain largely relevant today: smart grid, smart meters, demand response, and distributed and renewable power generation [2].

These technologies for distributing and generating energy are too complex to explain succinctly here, but referring to them simply as technologies falls flat. They are better thought of as bundles, networks, entanglements, or agencements, or one of another cornucopia of terms from theories that aim to produce a more accurate reflection of a messy and changing reality. One theory, widely used in the literature on energy transitions, is the multilevel perspective, which was usefully elaborated by Frank Geels [3]. In this way of seeing, innovations pass through three levels. Starting in a technological niche, successful innovations become increasingly intertwined with other technologies, infrastructures, cultural meanings, and other factors, establishing a sociotechnical regime. For a small-scale example of this process, think about how the spread of coffee pod machines has shifted how often people drink coffee and what type of coffee they drink, not to mention the supply and waste chains associated with the pods. In this example, the innovation of coffee pods arguably constitutes a landscape development, the third level in Geels's schema. Pods have shifted the broader context and structure of what it means to drink coffee.

Energy is often treated as a variable to be managed or optimized rather than as an inextricable and fundamental part of every equation.

The energy systems that Pierce and Paulos identified, still relevant today, can be mapped onto this three-level schema. For example, distributed power and renewable power generation seems well on the way to a literal and metaphorical place in the landscape—just look at all those rooftop solar installations. Demand response, however, seems to still be sputtering in different and disconnected niches. While the basic technological capacity for the power company to turn appliances on and off remotely has been available for quite some time, it turns out that people are reticent to relinquish control over the comfort of their own homes. Interestingly, there is evidence that people will conserve energy during emergencies simply if they are asked to [4].

With the frequency and scale of power outages increasing fiercely, the terms for energy systems are arguably more familiar today than they were a decade ago. But the diffusion of knowledge about the basic operation of the electric grid should not be conflated with an understanding of energy. We need much more nuance to effectively guide the development of policy and technology. HCI can play an important role here, but only if we can get past the idea that the only strategy needed is to increase awareness of energy use through feedback mechanisms such as dashboards or games (or nagging refrigerators!), or by making the technology cut back for us by running everything in eco mode.

One problem is that, despite the centrality of energy to our everyday lives, no single discipline has embraced its entangled complexity. Energy is often treated as a variable to be managed or optimized rather than as an inextricable and fundamental part of every equation, of nearly every part of life. I am far from the first to make this observation. Speaking to researchers interested in why people buy goods, sociologist Alan Warde put it succinctly: Consumption is only a moment in practice. Energy, in a parallel view, is a means to an end. What has been missing from the picture in multiple fields is a clear understanding of ends-means relationships. It is not simply a matter of tracing energy's journey from wind turbine or coal mine through the wires of the distribution grid to our screens. Rather, we need to instill a sense that energy exists within and because of relationships primarily determined by ongoing choices and layered social relationships. Energy exists only secondarily as a result of technological developments. This shift in perspective would highlight the need for social expectations to change in concert with technology. That is asking a lot of any individual profession or field, but this challenge calls forth the innovative tradition of HCI: things like design probes, futuring exercises, and other ways of exploring not what is, but rather what might be.

Looking broadly across disciplines and professions, work that productively pushes boundaries and reframes problems is desperately needed, especially as we aim to address complex and interconnected issues including climate change and entrenched poverty in a world mired in conflict and controversy. Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that calls for civics education in the U.S. have been increasing. At the appointed board that oversees the three state universities in Arizona, where I teach, we have been charged with giving students skills and experience in "civil discourse," "civil disagreement," and "civic engagement." By definition, civics deals with the rights and duties of citizens. How these principles will be enacted, of course, is a matter of debate. It is difficult not to think of this imposed obligation to teach civics in relationship to two U.S. presidential campaigns that have normalized bullying, not to mention debates over the role of free speech on college campuses. As we know from history, discourse, disagreement, and engagement can easily become tools to control an unruly mob—or to keep students and faculty from expressing unpopular ideas, even if they happen to be true.


My concerns about overreach aside, I wouldn't mind more kindness and courtesy in everyday life. But an integral part of civics is not only how we talk to one another, which certainly matters, but also what we talk about, which is enormously more consequential. This is where the parallel to energy research snaps into focus. In a well-intended focus on efficiency, conservation, and awareness of energy, we have essentially been talking about—and arguing over—questions of vocabulary and grammar, when it's really matter of teaching an entirely new language about what energy is and does. Energy has always been seen as fueling, in the literal and figurative sense of the word, human progress, inextricably linked to the promise of abundance and comfort. Energy heats our homes, grows food, moves water, and runs the technology that increasingly drives the economy. Yet the precise nature of a vision of a good society, or what Sheila Jasanoff and Sang-Hyun Kim term sociotechnical imaginaries [5], varies between places and cultures. In the world of energy policy, one of the big, and often unspoken, divides lies between a future imaginary where energy is unlimited and cheap and a competing vision where energy is limited and expensive. Both these ways of thinking are inherently compatible with a low-carbon, renewable energy future, but they result in very different priorities. Speaking broadly, it seems the U.S. is moving down the path with an assumption of abundance, whereas the EU is imagining a more constrained future. It might be worth reflecting on what your own imagination is of our collective energy future—and how this aligns with the imaginary evident in the places you live and work.

Scholars have observed that the funding mechanisms and institutions for energy research in the EU [6], along with parallel studies in the U.S., tend to focus on an imaginary that leans mightily to a focus on technology and narrowly defined behavioral change, such as nudging individual consumers to make different decisions. This imaginary is plainly visible in the sorts of quotidian technologies that introduced this column—nagging refrigerators, auto-optimizing phone charging, less wasteful driving directions—and that influences attempts to restructure the sociotechnical landscape through technical interventions such as smart grids, demand response, and distributed renewable energy generation.

But who is doing the imagining? Do we ask this question of energy enough, or are we letting others define what energy-related HCI research can and should be? Within the field of HCI, this and other questions relating to agency and power have raised the profile of how gender and politics are baked into technology. Rather than raising more questions, it might be helpful to instead surface and articulate the assumptions driving energy-related HCI research. This is different from calls for open data, for example, to advance the cause of climate change [7]; rather, designing energy futures calls for researchers and designers to clearly state and reimagine the problems we are setting out to solve. This would mean bringing on a larger team to knit together the larger implications of the material, social, and financial flows that shift as the result of any designed use of energy.

Energy civics is a term I think works well for this goal. Incorporating energy civics into HCI would mean describing not only what a given technology does but also for whom it works—and upon whose work it relies. This kind of an accounting, considered from the perspective of larger social, material, and energetic systems, could go a long way to getting us on a path where the use of energy is more generative than destructive.

back to top  References

1. McIlvennie, C., Sanguinetti, A., and Pritoni, M. Of impacts, agents, and functions: An interdisciplinary meta-review of smart home energy management systems research. Energy Research & Social Science 68 (2020), 101555.

2. Pierce, J. and Paulos, E. Beyond energy monitors: Interaction, energy, and emerging energy systems. Proc. of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2012, 665–674.

3. Geels, F.W. Technological transitions as evolutionary reconfiguration processes: A multi-level perspective and a case-study. Research Policy 31, 8 (2002), 1257–1274.

4. Toohey, G. and Petri, A. A text asked millions of Californians to save energy. They paid heed, averting blackouts. Los Angeles Times. Sep. 7, 2022;

5. Jasanoff, S. and Kim, S-H. Sociotechnical imaginaries and national energy policies. Science as Culture 22, 2 (2013), 189–196.

6. Genus, A., Iskandarova, M., Goggins, G., Fahy, F., and Laakso, S. Alternative energy imaginaries: Implications for energy research, policy integration and the transformation of energy systems. Energy Research & Social Science 73 (2012), 101898.

7. Mankin. J.S. The people have a right to climate data. New York Times. Jan. 20, 2024;

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Jonathan Bean is an associate professor of architecture, sustainable built environments, and marketing at the University of Arizona and co-director of the Institute for Energy Solutions. He studies taste, technology, and market transformation. [email protected]

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2024 ACM, Inc.

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