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Yesterday the government released its plans to mandate the replacement of all domestic electricity meters in the UK with smart meters. Smart meters send data that show how much energy homes are using to their electricity supplier, which allows the supplier to match electricity generation with consumption, bill customers more accurately, and helps customers sell any excess electricity they micro-generate back to the grid.

Yesterday the government released its plans to mandate the replacement of all domestic electricity meters in the UK with smart meters. Smart meters send data that show how much energy homes are using to their electricity supplier, which allows the supplier to match electricity generation with consumption, bill customers more accurately, and helps customers sell any excess electricity they micro-generate back to the grid.

Much more importantly for designers though, the smart meter plans also represent the government's use of design (or technology at least) to change behaviour - as their current position is that smart meters will also come with a standalone real-time display. Real-time displays show a home's occupants how their actions relate to the energy consumption in their home. In the spirit of my favourite '09 Apprentice ("I feel like a monkey learning how to use tools"), here's the government learning how to use design as a policy instrument:

Consumer engagement and action to save energy is central to the benefits case for smart metering. Access to the consumption data in real time provided by smart meters will provide consumers with the information they need to take informed action to save energy and carbon. [link]

Encouraging stuff.

The question of how to engage people is absolutely a design question. There still seems very little appreciation in government that the information and interaction design used in these displays is absolutely critical to engaging people, and therefore saving energy by encouraging people to change their behaviour.

A problem with the "evidence-based" approach to the current trials of real-time displays (which show savings of between 5 and 15%) is that the evidence (numbers that strip all context away) doesn't show the effect of displaying the energy data in different ways. And frankly, most of the trials have taken place with pretty un-engaging displays.

Although there are signs of understanding the importance of interaction design in the recent CERT consultation (which suggested that devices that display individual appliances and other people's consumption might be more effective than others), there's a real opportunity here for designers to make an effective contribution to the problem of climate change. The government wants to "use this consultation as a means to open up this debate" about the sort of information that will engage people.

It would be great to get some good interaction designers (especially those clued up on nudges like social norms) involved in this consultation. Do you know any? They can read the documents and respond here.

Bit more background on real-time displays here, by the way.

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