The energy trilemma provides a major motivation for research on smart homes – energy demand reduction Smart, it is hoped, will provide opportunities to change how people use energy and overcome obstacles to change at the level of consumer behaviour Two strategies – providing people with lots of real time information on the costs of their energy use, so they act to use less, or automating demand management within the home. Today, with reference to qualitative social science research on smart homes and in particular to our work on the Energy Biographies project at Cardiff university, I’ll explore two potential problems with developing smart homes that derive from complexities in how people use energy – first, relating to the constraining effect of social practices on how energy is used, and second, drawing on Energy Biographies data, how people become attached to using energy in particular ways because of their own life histories
A wealth of social science information on smart metering – suggests some energy use reduction can be driven by providing information alone, but there are caveats. One significant recent example – report for DECC drawing on survey (4000), interview (169) and focus group (12) research Supports extant research, i.e. some potential for change, so long as people (particularly vulnerable groups) are provided with close support to help them use meters and understand outputs. Also, some styles of use have greater effects than others – using meters to monitor one’s energy use over time and look at trends and anomalies is more effective than just using them for information on how much energy individual appliances use
But even if such techs make some reduction possible, there are wider social complexities that create obstacles to further significant change. Practice theory in social science explains why – people engage in shared social practices that link together, and are supported by particular infrastructure and devices, and bring with them shared meanings that shape people’s sense of why these practices are important. For example, freezing food was made possible by the introduction of affordable freezers post war; this made frozen food possible; the convenience of frozen food was enhanced by microwaves and the cooking practices they made possible These in turn made ready meals possible. Overall, people began to value convenience embodied in these linked practices, which themselves are made possible by devices and retail infrastructures. But then the knock on effects of energy consumption are significant. Will smart homes require social practices that – like the connected practices of freezing, microwaving and ready meals – link up to become more energy intensive? Take-home: individual behaviour always happens within a broader socio-technical context that constrains what people can do by making it easier or necessary to do things a certain way.
But the fact that social practices constrain how people act is not the end of this additional complexity. Qualitative research helps us to make sense of how people themselves understand the ways they use energy in their homes, and the ways in which they might tinker with the devices and systems they rely on. These are often complex, and can produce unexpected results. people do not necessarily use sustainable technologies and infrastructure as designers intended, producing unexpected outcomes. For example, Ozaki and Shaw show how culturally diverse cooking practices, can result in ventilation systems designed for energy efficient homes not working as intended. This and similar research shows there is no universal home and no universal user; one size fits all designs will encounter many whom they do not fit, with potentially negative consequences for the goals of efficiency/decarbonisation. Here’s a related example from our Energy Biographies study at Cardiff, which I’ll turn to in more details with the next few slides – two interviewees, a couple, describing how they prefer to ‘be comfortable’ in short sleeves and spend more on heating rather than put on jumpers. Wanting to not feel ‘bunged up’ here refers to preferences for thermal comfort but also for feeling ‘free’ in their home that have biographical sources and are related to the couple’s relationship too. The ways in which they (over)use heating are not shaped by wider social practices, but by their own preferences for particular values.
In addition to looking at past lifecourse transitions and particular perspectives on convenience, we looked at emerging aspects of the smart agenda, using films to stimulate reflections on automation and the internet of things.
People talked appreciatively about certain aspects of the convenience afforded by some technologies – like central heating, for example – which had been a lifechanging experience for older interviewees. Many, however, drew unfavourable contrasts in our third round interviews between the ways of life depicted in the films we showed and ways of life that featured what people saw as more ‘focal’ practices, practices that engaged body, imagination, emotion and other capacities – whereas ‘smart’ ways of living threatened to thin out or erase these kinds of ways of life, with negative consequences. A smart life, says one interviewees, is a heedless life.
Where convenience becomes an end in itself, and automation becomes a design value, information is a thin means of engaging people with their energy use. There is something unsatisfactory about this, a number of people thought. Some people reflected at length on the value people get from more engaging and exacting ways of using energy, like wood fires, as opposed to electric heating or gas central heating. Control is not necessarily experienced as granted by pushing buttons – this thin form of engagement removes people from their energy infrastructure, renders it less visible and tangible. Some saw control and convenience as coming from being more directly related to how their energy was produced. Further, the smart lifestyle was associated by some with fragility – the possibility of security breaches or hacking, or just system failures in the fabric of the house brought on by power cuts.
Emerging energy futures may be surrounded by controversies – district heating provides recent examples – important to understand why people may distrust or trust new technological arrangements – relates to the social contexts in wchih
Inside smart homes and workplaces: How are/will people react to the changing environment?
Inside Smart Homes and Workplaces
How are/will people react to the changing environment?
‘Smartification’ and energy
• Background issue: the need to decarbonise energy
production, render energy more affordable, and
more secure (energy trilemma)
• Key question: where are opportunities & obstacles
relating to how people use energy?
• Smart homes: energy as central focus, with two
▫ Creating smart consumers through real-time
▫ Automating energy management
• Possible problems
▫ Insensitivity to constraining effect of social practices
▫ Insensitivity to biographical attachments to identities
Smart metering and behaviour change
• 2015 Research for DECC by
Environmental Change Institute,
Oxford, the University of Ulster,
and the Tavistock Institute
• Key findings:
▫ Well-designed smart meters can
assist with noticeable behaviour
▫ But needs close support
▫ Also need to be used in particular
ways (‘monitoring’ not
• Practice theory
▫ Individual behaviour is
constrained by shared
▫ Practices require particular
▫ They are associated with
Shove and Southerton (2000) – energy
implications of freezers, microwaves, ready
Practices constrain behaviour by
making it easier or necessary to act
in certain ways
Energy Biographies: the
meaning of comfort
Pat: But no, we are not very green-
thinking people cos we use too much
heat [Neil chuckles]
Neil: We like to keep warm.
Pat: We do like to keep warm.
Pat: We do do short sleeves but we do
like to be comfortable.
Fiona: …Why do you prefer to have
the heating on rather than jumpers?
Neil: I think to sit indoors and not
have jumpers on, you know.
Pat: Just to be, to feel comfortable.
Neil: Just like to feel comfortable.
Pat: I hate to feel bunged up
Unintended outcomes of standardised design
• Ozaki & Shaw (2014): cultural
diversity in cooking practices
undermines smart ventilation
• Against the illusion of the
‘universal home and user’-
Energy Biographies –case sites & methodology
• Funded by RCUK from 2011-2016
• EBs approach uses qualitative
longitudinal interviews (3 over 18
months) and visual methods
• Can biographical stories of
lifecourse change make tangible
hidden aspects of how and why
people use energy in particular
▫ Past experiences
▫ Anticipated futures Lammas, West Wales
Royal Free Hospital
Reflecting on smart homes
3rd round interviews – films about everyday energy futures
Ambivalence about convenience (Groves et
‘We don’t think about it twice I mean
putting the microwave on or the kettle
on or the cooker on […] do I really need
to do this? You just kind of do it and
then even if you don’t drink the cup of
tea or you change your mind later the
kettle has boiled’
‘Even if all the electricity was coming from
renewable, Green sources I think it would
still bug me a little bit because it’s the
heedlessness of it and the lack of
mindfulness and the […] just that, that kind
of carelessness of it all.
‘Like the fridge that re-orders […] I still
think it sort of dumbs us down as a kind
of society and replaces our you know
ingenuity and our thinking, free thinking
with controlled you know thinking and
you know computerisation of everything.’
‘And the heat pump we are getting is a smart heat
pump which it can activate, it can close the
windows for you; it can turn the microwave on. It’s
got that whole thing. We can’t imagine using any of
those facilities at all … In that sense the dream is
not really sold to me any more […] it’s well
documented that convenience has not really
brought more wellbeing. So modern life, for all its
convenience, we now see more people working
longer hours and all that stuff. .’
Smart living, fragility and control
‘[talking about Ch4 film]
all the gadgets I mean that
was you know similar to
the bloody [Monsanto]
house you know you’re
hungry and the electricity
is down and you can’t, you
know you can’t have a
shower because you can’t
turn on the tap you know!’
‘a log fire’s is quite homely but obviously they
didn’t picture that in the future because its
hard work making a log fire whereas they just
press a button and they’ve got warmth or
coolness or you know whatever they needed.’
‘Yeah but I don’t like [gas central heating]. I look back
and I think actually I see for me how I had no
connection with it […] whereas when the wood’s there
and you see the fire going you think maybe I’ll just turn
the fire down cos the pile of wood is shrinking. [With
central heating] there’s no connection with the fuel that
is actually being burned to produce this heat.
Energy biographies and smart futures –
• Technologies and social practices interact – sometimes in
very unexpected ways
• People’s personal and interpersonal attachments shape
how they interact – sometimes subversively – with
• Qualitative narrative interviews can help explore these
• By linking biographical pasts and anticipated futures they
create opportunities for people to reflect on how energy
matters to them
• This offers opportunities for them to reflect on desirability
and viability of potential futures (like a ‘smart society’)
From Energy Biographies to FLEXIS
• Engineering-social science research consortium in
• Revisiting “stories of change” to understand
potential social impacts of energy system transitions
• Socio-technical focus – expert imaginaries and
effects of interventions in everyday homes, plus
• Planned work around district heating in
Caerau and TATA steel
• Shove, E., and Dale Southerton. 2000. “Defrosting the Freezer: From
Novelty to Convenience: A Narrative of Normalization.” Journal of
Material Culture 5 (3): 301–19.
• Groves, C., K. Henwood, F. Shirani, C. Butler, K. Parkhill, and N. Pidgeon.
2016. “The Grit in the Oyster: Using Energy Biographies to Question Socio-
Technical Imaginaries of ‘smartness.’” Journal of Responsible Innovation
• Groves, C., K. Henwood, C. Butler, K. A. Parkhill, F. Shirani, and N. Pidgeon
(2015). “Energy Biographies: Narrative Genres, Lifecourse Transitions and
Practice Change.” Science, Technology & Human Values 41 (3): 483–508.
• Groves, C., K. Henwood, C. Butler, K. A. Parkhill, F. Shirani, and N. Pidgeon
(2016). “Invested in Unsustainability? On the Psychosocial Patterning of
Engagement in Practices.” Environmental Values 25 (3): 309–328.
• Energy Biographies Research Report – online at