Economizer: A Cooper service concept

People are looking for ways to economize in these uncertain times. We can all see the evidence of environmental crisis brewing alongside the economic downturn, and it’s easy to feel powerless in the face of such global forces. With politicians and businesses seeking avenues to a sustainable future, Cooper wondered how design might help individuals cut costs while also encouraging behavior that was environmentally responsible.

This all started when Environmental Defense approached Cooper, asking us to imagine new ways to make it easier for people to save resources. We performed research throughout the Bay Area, then collaborated with Environmental Defense to model our findings and identify design opportunities. From this point of inspiration, we continued on our own, crafting a quick eco-friendly concept: Economizer, a service that helps consumers save money while making sustainable choices. The service consists of a core set of internet-aware services with optional components such as hardware data collectors, social networking applications, and dedicated smart phone interfaces.


Economizer: Scenario 1 on Vimeo
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Economizer: Scenario 2 on Vimeo
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Economizer: Scenario 3 on Vimeo
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Motivating new behaviors

While it’s true that if we are to have a sustainable future, many solutions will come from technological innovation and policy changes, but the user experience component of these changes is also clearly critical. Crafting a powerful and direct interface that brings together information and motivates action has the potential to provide visibility into how we use resources, the true costs of the things we use, and the consequences of our choices. By connecting behavior to impact, and by suggesting achievable action, design can empower people to make changes to their lifestyle that are both cost-effective and sustainable.

We imagine that people will engage with Economizer in a number of stages:

Start with the basics
An Economizer account provides subscribers the ability network with others, track their behaviors as they relate to resource consumption, develop profiles, and download apps and tools.

Save money
With the investment of a little more effort, subscribers can use Economizer to maximize the amount of money they are saving by linking up to supermarket loyalty programs to reveal consumption patterns and find savings opportunities while getting more visibility into the environmental impact of what they’re buying (including materials, fabrication and transportation factors). They can also link to their online utility company profiles to see real-time, data-based recommendations on how to improve electric, gas and water efficiency, and save more money. These service characteristics designed to satisfy people, interestingly, may also provide fantastic business opportunities.

Discover healthy alternatives
Subscribers can next turn their attention to discovering healthy lifestyle alternatives. Economizer provides calculators and real-time information to make better choices about everything from food and transportation to identification of which eco-friendly companies to patronize.

Go bright green
Economizer also supports subscribers who wish to integrate all areas of their lives with interfaces to improve decisions around household waste and recycling, purchasing offsets, making healthier choices for their children and socializing the service with friends, family or the office.

The design ideas shown in the videos above are based upon a number of strategies intended to motivate people to change the way they act, in ways that will be beneficial to themselves, their communities and the whole planet. These include:

Illuminating the big picture
Most existing “green” services focus on a single core problem, failing to link the various attitudes and behaviors that comprise a person’s life. A list of supermarkets that sell local foods is interesting, but how do you get there? And what do you do with local food once you’ve got it? Integrating transportation alternatives to get there and recipes for making the best use of local ingredients can help form a more cohesive understanding of the value of the local food. Similarly, we now understand our resource use as a set of isolated services — water, waste, and energy generally appear as independent bills. When it comes to changing habits, a truly useful service would expose the connections between these things.

Providing meaningful comparisons
When it comes down to a comparison, national averages are unsatisfying. What would be most meaningful are comparisons to “people like me.” Who are these people? Well, they could be neighbors, or people with a similar income, or people who shop at the same stores or share similar behaviors. Providing effective benchmarks is a critical element of the service.

Encouraging
The last thing a service should do is nag its users, but this perception can be reduced by providing quick and easy ways to opt-out of notifications. People who must travel for work could limit the eco-guilt by choosing to tone down the feedback about their carbon footprint.

Integrating into social settings
By allowing people to express their accomplishments through Facebook and other social networks, we can build social cachet around working to live more sustainably. It’s easier to feel like you’re making a difference when you can see your contribution to the larger movement toward economic and ecological sustainability. Making it easy to evangelize gives power the power to share their successes and grow the network.

In the course of the explorations we conducted on this short project, we’ve become quite excited about the possibilities here. What do you think? How can better design save the planet?

13 Comments

Mark Dyck
Great job with the videos and also with thinking about the progression a person could take with these new services. IMO,the important part of the design is showing how a person could get a little engaged, and progress to being extremely engaged with the service. The first video really intrigued me as I think more about "smart" networks in a telecom context. The parallels (and differences) with the electrical system, and the examples of the wide range of other information which can be layered onto the raw electrical data, is very interesting. And inspiring.
rani
Great concept design - when can I buy it? :) I heard that a company in Mtn View has created a prototype that they are testing with a small select group that monitors energy usage. Your design is more comprehensive and looks at all of our consumption habits. very cool.
Warren Stringer
It was as though this concept was made specifically for us. We are participating in a $1.5M NSF grant to enable middle school students to monitor energy usage in home. Moreover, we are developing a means to reduce the cost of home metering by an order of magnitude. There is even an iPhone and social component. Rani, I would love to know more about the company in Mtn View.
rani
There is only one company in Mtn View :) Honestly, that's about all I know.
Hana
The design might be cool; I need to see it on an actual system, not just specific pieces to judge. But that’s not the main point. The idea behind the concept is great. I am sure many people around the world would like to contribute a little bit and help the world we live in be a little more “green”. The options for most of them are currently limited. This system is very much needed. It needs to be adaptable to different environment in different countries. It can be applied into so many areas in our life. As a system analyst and architect I would love to be part of a team that builds this much needed application and make it available also in Israel, where I live.
Alexis Brion
I love the way the idea was presented. Nice.
Martha Roden
I was really impressed by the way you presented your ideas--the combination of photos, "cartoon," and UI sketches. I also think your story line was very compelling. Not only did you show people WHAT they could do and HOW it would affect both spending and the environment, but you showed how people could SHARE their green accomplishments with others. Many people do things when they realize others are doing them, so that social interaction aspect of the Economizer is a good idea. I hope this concept application becomes a reality!
d4
Since posting this, we've come across a number of folks working on parts of this problem, including Climate Cooler. They're an Oakland company which, among other things, helps companies find ways to calculate how green they are, then promote consumer adoption of their green products and services. Check 'em out: http://climatecooler.org/
Amanda
There is also an online DIY Home energy Audit Tool available at: http://hes.lbl.gov/ It requires some time as it is incredibly thorough, but is well worth the pay-off.
d4
More than one utility is discovering the fundamental truth behind the Economizer. The NYTimes just did a piece featuring Sacramento MUD (among others) that have found some luck in pushing people in a greener direction by comparing their usage with others. http://tinyurl.com/cwywk3 Turns out that there are literally BILLIONS OF DOLLARS of untapped benefits sitting there in utility company programs that promote energy conservation. But for some reason people (and businesses) generally don't avail themselves of the opportunities.
rani
Google is taking a step into Power Metering -- as reported in the NY times http://tinyurl.com/dfl8n4
philko
I'm participating in the design of a home energy monitor (to be released in 2Q09) that will display energy usage to varying degrees of detail. I'm on the lookout for any emerging standards for devices such as these that will allow these data islands from different manufacturers to integrate and enable "community" apps that are hardware agnostic. I know there's *some* move toward "standardization" on the smart meter end (with the term "standard" having the same meaning here that it does in phrases like "the Unix standard" ;-), but I haven't seen anything serious that would allow devices on the other side of the meter to report energy usage. Does anyone here know of any?
David Fore
One step closer to the economizer: http://bit.ly/9BrZpr

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