Beyond Technologies Alone: The need to conceptualize Energy Initiative approaches as socio-technical systems supporting reflective communities

Gerhard Fischer and Hal Eden

Challenge and Aims

A mindset change is needed to take advantage of new technologies and approaches represented by “innovative solutions to the challenge of renewable and sustainable energy” [EI, 2009]. This new mindset will impact citizens by changing the way energy end users (both as individuals and as communities) think and learn about how to fulfill their energy needs as well as requiring new generation of young minds who are educated and engaged in new areas of research to support this process. Traditional models of education fall short, requiring new innovative learning environments (e.g.: exploiting the Long Tail [Anderson, 2004] and the Wisdom of Crowds [Surowiecki, 2005], supporting reflective communities [Fischer & Eden, 2007]) to meet this challenge.
The aims of this project are to develop 3 facets aimed at laying socio-technical foundations to address this challenge. These facets are:
  • Facet 1: Exploiting Collective Intelligence with Cultures of Participation
  • Facet 2: Modeling and Visualizing the Energy Ecology in Collaborative Environments
  • Facet 3: Educating the Next Generation


The first two facets we explore in this research will be explored by developing socio-technical environments to support the respective activities. The third will occur through the involvement of students in processes related to the first two.

Facet 1: Exploiting Collective Intelligence with Cultures of Participation

Figure 1: Our experience with supporting community development, exemplified here by the CreativeIT wiki, will be brought to bear on the EI community.
Addressing the general overload inherent in the flood of information for learning innovative technologies as well as the difficulty of finding of specific information within that flood for the new tasks and problems these innovations make possible will require ways to connect with others facing the same problems and a shift in mindset from a consumer culture to cultures of participation.
Specifically, we propose to utilize next generation computational environments (for example, Wikis, Blogs, Forums) to create a viable, informed community around the EI initiative. We envision three levels of participation: a) EI initiative affiliates, b) Boulder population at large (smart grid requires participants and decision makers, not just passive consumers, and c) blogs/experience reports from participants (e.g.: Chancellor and his wife)

Facet 2: Modeling and Visualizing the Energy Ecology in Collaborative Computational Environments

Learning and understanding the dynamic systems represented by innovative energy technologies requires more than passive media. Dynamic media and simulations that support exploration and computational decision making (e.g., regarding strategies for managing appliance use, how demand affects pricing at different times of day) are needed to cultivate human decision-making based on understanding.

Figure 2: Eco-Visualizations
Specifically, we propose to develop tools for Eco-Visualizations and Human-Centered Computing in EI. These tools will support various modes, for example: creating dynamic feedback from data-driven artwork for a better understanding of resource consumption patterns or using visualization of a carbon footprint to increase conservation behavior in resident populations. This project will support ways to identify factors that affect an individual’s ability to curtail energy usage; create non-monetary incentives that affect an individual’s commitment to conserve resources; and develop effective visualization strategies to communicate energy consumption data

Figure 3: The Envisionment and Discovery Collaboratory [Arias et al., 1998]—supporting collaborative design and learning.
Some initial ideas to be explored include: 1) creating dynamic feedback from data-driven artwork for a better understanding of resource consumption patterns, 2) producing visualizations of a carbon footprint to increase conservation behavior in resident populations, 3) providing tools that help an individual identify factors that motivate and impact personal curtailment of energy usage, 4) developing non-monetary incentive schemes that encourage individual and community commitment to conserve resources, and 5) the development of face-to-face visualization and decision-making tools to allow neighbors to gather together to make decisions that impact smart-grid use at the community level.

Facet 3: Educating the Next Generation

As described earlier, we need a new generation of young minds who are educated and engaged in this research. Based on our background from numerous NSF research grants in L3D over the last 20 years (including: learning on demand, collaborative learning, social creativity) along with experience with our Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program and innovative courses, we propose to engage undergraduate students in the development of the above systems to create a unique and innovative education opportunity centered on EI at CU Boulder.

Research Collaborations

This research will involve several forms of collaboration. We will engage in interdisciplinary work with Tiffany Holmes from the Chicago Art Institute on eco-visualizations [Holmes, 2007]. Corporate “Green IT” efforts (e.g., from: NCSA, IBM, SAP) who want to become “green” themselves (as large organizations) as well as develop new technologies to support energy efficiency and environmental sustainability will serve as a backdrop for elements of our activity. In our relationship with Fraunhofer Institute (FIT), Bonn, Germany, we will draw on their shared interest in these research issues to plan a joint (international) symposium and collaborate on ethnographic studies.

Evaluation and Assessment

Assessment of a reflective community must involve an open process of design and evaluation that is woven into the fabric of a community’s evolving practices and activities [Carroll & Rosson, 2007; Miskelly & Fleuriot, 2006]. As a result, we will assess the use and impact of our environments in the context of the everyday practice and real-world settings of our collaborating communities over (and beyond) the research timeframe.
Our design approach is based on the assumption that technology development is not sufficient to make a community more reflective [Mumford, 2000]. We will devise “breaching experiments” [Crabtree, 2004]—a combination of technical and social infrastructures meant to trigger change into the relationship between communities and their patterns of interaction [Brown et al., 1994]. We will triangulate quantitative and qualitative data by combining usage data (e.g., log files on frequency of use, features used, data sets opened or saved), direct observation (i.e., focus groups per community every four months, supported by video recording), pre- and post-questionnaires, and unstructured interviews (as needed).


Reflective communities require new knowledge, new tools, and new processes for the integration and co-evolution of social and technical systems that have the potential to transform design, working, collaborating, learning, and discovery for all people. The developments will create new levels of support for effective computer-mediated human-human interaction and new computational mechanisms for social knowledge construction. The authentic and long-term use and detailed assessment of the proposed research will serve as a scientific model that shows how fostering and supporting reflective communities is desirable, how it can be enhanced, and how their strengths and weaknesses can be identified.
Reflective communities have an important role to play in public life. The proposed research will contribute to the objectives of the human-centered computing program by: (1) supporting the co-evolution of communities, systems, practices, and tasks; (2) promoting and enhancing interactions and interdependencies among information, technical infrastructures, and social systems; and (3) constructing mixed-reality environments facilitating collaboration across communities by addressing problems of mutual interest.

Expected Outcomes

This research has the potential to transform the EI community into a force that will have a broader impact on our country’s future energy use patterns and behaviors by better integrating new technologies.


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