How do we interact with energy in a climate-changed world?
Shifting energy infrastructures, an increased emphasis on energy efficiency, and a more volatile climate open an opportunity to explore this question and take control of our everyday energy actions.
Circulate is a series of micro-sensors that translate thermodynamic energy flows into actionable, energy efficient tips that help occupants optimize their indoor comfort. Wireless, low-power sensors are placed throughout a space to collect point-specific temperature and humidity data about their location, for instance a window. A mobile application allows occupants to quickly glance at humidity and temperature levels throughout a space, track historical data, and view the tips they've received from the system.
For individuals, Circulate increases confidence in energy micro-actions and saves money on utility bills. If used at scale, across an entire building or city, Circulate can help achieve significant reductions in energy use.
Circulate App Main Screens
Circulate Initial System Sketch
Circulate Hardware in Development
Circulate Research Synthesis
Circulate Experience Prototyping
Circulate Prototyping & Co-Creation
Circulate Research Probe-Kit
Circulate Stakeholder Workshop
Circulate User Research
Indoor Heating in Copenhagen
The initial design explorations for Circulate began around heating systems in Copenhagen. As part of its carbon neutral plan, Copenhagen has set a target of reducing energy consumption for heating 20% by 2025. The indoor heating system in the city, however, provides occupants with little-to-no feedback about energy consumption. Most residents receive one annual bill, leaving them largely in the dark about how their everyday actions relate to their energy consumption.
The obscure heating system is difficult for residents to understand and, unfortunately, some of the most basic energy-saving behaviors are counter-intuitive. For instance, opening the window for five minutes—even in the cold of winter—can dry out the air and reduce the required energy to heat the air to a desired level. Often residents simply turn up the nearest thermostat without thinking about alternative actions.
Circulate was developed as my final project for the 2014 Interaction Design Programme at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design. The central focus was people-centered research. Over this nine week project, I worked closely with residents in seven apartments and a technical advisory group representing the Copenhagen municipality, a technology provider, and a housing block. I began by conducting drawing workshops, co-creation workshops, and in-depth interviews with Copenhagen residents and stakeholders.
My research highlighted the lack of feedback in the current system; residents aren't sure how their everyday actions affect energy consumption and utility bills. Most importantly, however, my initial research highlighted the fact that heating is not about energy consumption. When it comes to people, heating is about comfort and health.
For the second phase of my research, I left probe kits with residents for a week to track their notions of comfort in their apartment and tested low-fidelity prototypes to explore ways of communicating energy information in a way that helped the residents optimize their comfort. I culminated my research by conducting two, four day experience prototypes with working sensors and different data visualizations.
From the prototyping phase, I learned that point-specific text messages with actionable tips greatly increased occupants' confidence in their energy actions. By providing an authoritative, but friendly, layer of technical energy information, residents became more aware of their behaviors and even changed some actions during the course of the experience prototype. This technical information was particularly relevant for humidity. While the human body is good at sensing general comfort, it can be difficult to understand how humidity affects energy consumption or our notion of feeling hot or cold.
How Circulate Works
Circulate is a system of micro-sensors that are networked and monitored through a central application. Each sensor collects point-specific temperature and humidity data about their location, for instance a window. This information is then sent via low-power radios to a central hub and, from there, all the data is uploaded via wifi to the cloud.
The sensor data is combined to analyze the thermodynamic flow of energy through the space and identify if the space is within the general "comfort range" of humans, i.e. not too hot, too cold, too humid, or too dry. The system bases its analysis on the psychrometric chart used to engineer indoor climates. If outside the boundaries, the system reacts by gently illuminating the appropriate sensor(s) and sending text messages to occupants with the most energy efficient tip, for instance "humidity is rising in the kitchen, open the kitchen window for five minutes". The messaging system is also a platform to inform occupants about weather forecasts and help them plan ahead.
Circulate makes occupants more aware of thermodynamic energy levels while giving them confidence in small, everyday actions. It brings energy flows out from the background of our lives in an informative and empowering way.