Energy tales from the future

Energy tales from the future via Instagram

Energy policy is a wicked problem. As governments seek to balance public and private interests while they transition to a low-carbon economy, public debate tends to either centre on one of two themes, either, that:

  • technological innovation will mean we can continue to produce large amounts of energy but in a clear way, or;
  • that we need to use less energy and fundamentally change the way we live.

Journalistic reporting, no matter how objective it may attempt to be, is often quickly politicised.

Through a design project at the University of Queensland a group of interaction design, journalism and creative writing researchers sought to in work out whether and how we could use tangible interaction and storytelling to encourage people to think about longer-term consequences of decisions we make about energy production, transmission and use.

We wanted to design something that not only told a story about energy policy, but also made visible the underlying patterns in public debate.

We designed a physical news story called Vim.

Vim is a prototype tangible story about energy futures. It is designed to illustrate how a story about a public issue, in this case energy policy, could be designed for tangible interaction and whether that interaction can encourage participation and engagement in that issue.

Vim: a prototype tangible energy story

Essentially, Vim is a wooden box featuring a solar panel. It prints out stories about energy based on the reader’s preferences, along with a question for them to answer.

Some of the key components are a thermal printer, a 3G-connected microcontroller, a battery that can be charged by the sun via the solar panel, or by physical effort using a crank, and buttons and a dial.

Readers create a news feed by first choosing a philosophical position about the future of energy: either that technology will fix it, or that we need to change the way we live.

Then they choose a topic: technology, policy, economy or society. These categories reflect the dominant frames of news stories on energy policy.

Vim then prints a news feed that includes stories from the past, present and future, along with one of two questions:

  • What is the worst that can happen?
  • Or, what is the best that can happen?

Users can answer the question by writing on the paper and putting it back into Vim.

Vim prints out a personalised news feed including news briefs from the past, present and future. The feed also includes a question.

Our design is journalistic in that it addresses a public interest story and that is produces printed news briefs. But it also designed to challenge some journalistic conventions, particularly around truth and time.

A sample story feed for a reader who chooses ‘generate more’ and ‘policy’ spans 101 years.

Playing with time in this way enables the design to take a complex topic and project it backward for context and forward to prompt readers to consider consequences.

Other future stories describe nuclear-powered cars and towns; laws that require all new buildings to generate power; and a multiplayer game that encourages people to vote against politicians who do not use their position to limit climate change.

These scenarios aim to illustrate how today’s actions might impact tomorrow.

Our decision to play with time and factual reporting were not random. Our design process involved interviews with several journalists and news designers about their practice.

We also devised a speculative exercise where they imagined how to tell a news story using physical computing technology or by moving it out of a two dimensions space and into the physical world.

In some cases we incorporated insights from our interviews into the design, at other times, we pushed back against them. These are the types of methods you we use in design research to reframe situations and develop new ideas.

We also drew on our understanding of energy communication as well as some recent thinking among journalism researchers that suggests journalists need to become more interested and active participants in stories rather than always adopting the position of objective observer.

I’ve created a series of Instagram posts featuring our future energy stories. You can follow them here.

And if you’d like to hear more about this project, watch this video.

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