It is very easy to sit back and criticise the big energy suppliers, easy to accuse them of ripping the British public off. But surely the answer isn’t ‘big brother’ style regulation or years of tit for tat media haranguing, with the energy companies simply claiming that they are “doing everything they can”.
Can’t a better answer come from placing power in the hands of a fully informed consumer? As a designer, I feel that this kind of solution could come from the principles of design.
Design is finally enjoying its day in the sun: it is rightly recognised as a must have, rather than a nice to have. The recent launch of a website that aims to bring the creative industries together and make it easy for the world to access our world leading sector was launched on the same day that the government announced that the creative industries were worth £71bn to the UK economy.
The creative economy has the fasted growth in employment (adding 144,000 extra people in the previous year alone) and is the fasted growing sector of the UK economy in terms of exports.
This growth isn’t just coming from a fashion, TV production and the film industry but also from design and designers improving quality of life for ordinary citizen. As a trustee of the Design Council I see first hand how public issues can be tackled by thinking about design. The Design Council’s current work in reducing violence and aggression in hospital A&E departments is certainly worth reading about. From my own work in affordable housing, it’s clear that design can really improve things that matter in life.
So how might design help us to tackle the energy crisis? I would always start with the consumer, and in this case look carefully at why the public does not trust the energy companies that supply them.
Some of this mistrust and anger comes from the wider difficulties in people’s lives: there is a proven squeezing on incomes at a time when energy prices are rising. When criticised, energy companies have retreated into their shells. It’s as if – once excitement about wind turbines was drowned by the nimbys – the energy companies have gone silent on innovation.
We need to put the consumer back in charge of their energy usage and to make it easy for them to take control. Energy meters were supposed to do this, but where’s the fun in that? It’s a boring tool that switches people off.
As consumers we have devolved our meter reading to the energy companies. We allow the supplier to tell us what we have used. That’s counter intuitive. Surely we as consumers should understand our consumption and understand how we can effect it?
We simply need exciting and well designed tools to nudge us into action. A leaf could be taken from the very successful car industry which has been transparent in explaining how to reduce our fuel consumption.
Many consumers clearly need reminding that filling a kettle to the top to make a single cup of tea makes that cuppa incredibly expensive. Put a creative design mind with a kettle manufacturer and my money is on a solution that would engage and create fun for the public. You can extend this thinking to a myriad of appliances in the house, in the same way that the provenance of our food and our cosmetics plays an important role in our choices.
The public is interested in design. It is interested in technology, and very interested in having more money to spend on anything but energy. If, through better design, we can achieve a level of public intrigue in where their energy comes from then the investment in harnessing what Britain has in abundance – latent tidal power and further evolution of its first forays into wind power – can garner the funding they need.
Add creative marketing nouse and a good designer’s ability to create engaging responses to all these engineering innovations out there and we can start to stimulate the public to act.
Can designers help energy companies change a war of attrition into a partnership with citizens? It’s worth giving us a try.