Category: Energy

Sustainable Futures at Inside/Out Festival

Not really having any idea what I was signing up for, on Tuesday I attended the Sustainable Futures breakfast salon at the Somerset House by Editorial Intelligence as part of the Inside/Out Festival. The morning included three brief introductions by a guest panel comprised of Jim Haywood, Sandy Black and Olivia Knight followed by casual questions and discussion.

Sustainable Futures lecture at Somerset House

As my recent thesis incorporated similar themes regarding sustainability, consumerism and the individual vs the collective’s relationship with energy – I’m quite critical on the topic. That being said, I found Haywood’s and Black’s perspectives rather trite. While obviously an extremely knowledgable sustainability consultant, Haywood presented a wealth of environmental statistics and projections that I believe alienate the individual from personal action due to the unintentional cross-over into environmental scare tactics. I’m personally against scare tactics for their growing overuse and potential desensitization to the topic, as well as their portrayal of this ‘larger than life’ problem in which it becomes too easy for an individual to view it as a global issue in which that can’t have an impact. Don’t get me wrong, climate change IS a very large global issue, I’m just being critical on how we inspire and instigate behaviour change and collective action. On the other hand, Haywood’s concluding analogy was strong and on point – wish he would’ve played it through his entire talk. He compared sustainability to climbing Mount Everest:

  1. Take the first step up the mountain, beginning with individual action
  2. Rope in the other climbers, to summit the mountain is a join initiative
  3. Scale the mountain, but be sure to enjoy the view and see that its worth it.

Professor Sandy Blank spoke from a fashion perspective, bringing a specific vantage point rooted in the dichotomy between fashion as an embedded cultural construct and its complex lifecycle problems. She highlighted the competing paradigms of aspirational (think Oscar gowns) verses FastCheapNow (think Primark), and how a growing shift toward the latter is resulting in shocking amounts of textiles waste. I could be wrong, but I don’t remember her mentioning all the other environmentally unfriendly practices embedded within the entire fashion supply chain (disclaimer: strict time restrictions on the talks), and felt she shifted a bit too strongly towards defending the positives of fashion – enabling self-confidence, social communication, etc. While these are valuable points, and myself as a fashion advocate believe in, I was left waiting for a disruptive solution. Maybe its me, missing the purpose of these talks, because they definitely lead to valuable discussions, but perhaps I keep naively awaiting an effortless answer…

…which was given by the third speaker, Olivia Knight. And it made my day. Knight is the founder of Patchwork Present, a website where friends and family can contribute to the one gift you really want, rather than buying you 25 you don’t want. She is the first to mention that collaborative gift giving isn’t a new idea, she just made it digital and easy. While I find Knight’s business innovative for disrupting an timeless tradition (gift-giving) by both modernizing and making universally accessible an existing solution (collaborative consumption), hearing her clearly articulated thoughts on consumption made me want to run up and give her a double high-five. She began with the tension between want and waste, highlighting our human nature to need or covet things. And we do need stuff, but “we don’t want to feel bad wanting.” Unfortunately though, we often consume what we don’t need and show our love for another by buying even more things we don’t need. Patchwork Present addresses the latter by facilitating collaborative consumption of the things, or thing, you really do want. Through this smarter consumerism, want is in turn celebrated, while I believe also taking an actionable step forward towards a more sustainable future.

Needless to say, I was impressed with Knight, and though perhaps critical on the morning as a whole, overall enjoyed the diverse perspectives and discussions.

MFA Thesis – UID Exhibition at Semcon

I was selected to exhibited and present my Interaction Design thesis project, The Family Circuit: A New Narrative of American Domesticity, with a group of other UID graduates for three days at Semcon in Göteborg, Sweden.

Umeå Interaction Design exhibition at Semcon by Karey Helms

MFA Thesis – The Family Circuit report

First draft of my MFA thesis report has been ordered from blurb. PDF version available to download here.

Design Fiction MFA thesis by Karey Helms

Thesis Gateway Presentation Feedback

Following my gateway presentation last Friday, I received a lot of helpful feedback regarding my next steps and exhibition priorities and setup. During my presentation I skipped all previous background and process material and essentially launched into a narrative of the fictional world and characters I’ve created – you can read the first draft iteration of The Family Circuit: A New Narrative in American Domesticity.

Umea interaction design thesis persona brainstorm by Karey Helms

Feedback from reviewers included:

  • Finding a balance between conveying main message quickly vs requiring in depth analysis. Is the goal to get the message quickly? Essentially, my exhibition needs to be able to cater to those with a short attention span, while also allowing the various layers of the project and story to reveal over more time and with additional material. I personally am more inclined to cater to the latter, as I feel making the message overly explicit will sacrifice the experience of peeling back the layers.
  • Emphasis on storytelling: be sure to connect and relate the characteristics of the characters into and through the cycles of daily events (something I have but need to work on making more explicit and central).
  • 5 minute presentation at design talks could be a a narrative describing the world and omitting the why/how I got here. Of course, followed by an ‘if you want to see more, check out my exhibition…’
  • Make the exhibition minimal, highlighting the artifacts. Hint at other aspects of family life, but don’t overload with unnecessary details.
  • START STAGING NOW. Make a mini mockup of the exhibition plan, which could also inform if I want to make it full scale (most likely) or something along the lines of a cornell box.
  • Various supplementary ideas: Pulp fiction book, digital photo frame, Whole Earth Catalog (love love!), mockumentary (Modern Family & The Office – REALLY which I had time for this, but unsure)
  • Make my infomercial idea a higher priority
  • Make objects in photos/GIFs/video pop in relation to Energy of Things catalog
  • Match the exhibition setting to the scenes used in supplementary material
  • Don’t forget to relate and check back to my original intention: energy consumption awareness

My own thoughts & reflections:

  • Lots to do!
  • Keep having fun!

The Family Circuit: A New Narrative of American Domesticity

Last Friday was IxD thesis gateway presentations – more so a private discussion with tutors and reviewers to assess our thesis progress, plans, and priorities for the upcoming five weeks. As my thesis is taking a strong design fiction direction, I did not give a presentation, yet read my draft narrative. To be completed this week, but please enjoy the preview below… it’s proudly quite ‘punny’ (wink wink).

The Family Circuit: A New Narrative in American Domesticity

The Family Circuit: A New Narrative of American Domesticity

It was a cloudy morning in early May, as were most days in Newtown. Otto Power approached the front door to check the weather, only to encounter resistance. Annoyed at the door’s conduct (tivity), he countered the friction with force, and it hesitantly opened – subtly challenging his potential motive while also directly insinuating the impending consequence. Going outside before breakfast was a break in Otto’s usual morning routine, especially for a weekday, and the mental energy used by the intelligent door to evaluate the uncommon situation would cost him the required electricity for a warm cup of coffee. Otto already speculated as much, for it was rare to have a morning electrical surplus. But he had woken with a vague yet irrepressible weight growing in his body, for Otto Power was tired. And so the forthcoming electricity sacrifice failed to impede the growing hope of a different day, and as he stepped outside he thoughtfully wondered aloud, “Will it be windy today?”

Family Circuit – Project Name & Inspiration

FINALLY got around to naming my thesis project due to some much needed pressure as all graduating students were asked to submit a selection of project information for the UID’14 Design Talks upcoming webpage. After a serious brainstorm yesterday morning, I came up with ‘Family Circuit,’ a subtle play and similarity to ‘Family Circus’ as recent developments in my project have brought forward the the family dynamics, individual characters, daily energy rituals, and cohesive storyline as a central focus of both my ideation and final deliverables. Which, on that note, also brings to light that though prioritized highly in my original goals, I’ve come to the realization that working energy harvesting prototypes are not essential to communicate my concept, and thus will take a back seat if explored at all. On the fun side, I’ve very much enjoyed this week researching and watching films featuring dysfunctional families – Wes Anderson perhaps being most influential. Great Wes Anderson Montage below by Alejandro Prullansky:

Though, its quite hard to top my favorite film family of all time – the Hoover family from Little Miss Sunshine.

Little Miss Sunshine family inspiration

Thesis Mid Review Feedback

I am very pleased with last week’s thesis mid review presentation and feedback. While I typically don’t look forward to ‘the making of’ – presentation process days – I’ve found these frequent thesis presentations useful both personally to more strongly formulate the best way of delivering my work, as well as extremely fruitful for the class to reconnect regarding each others projects. Not to mention, its exciting and rewarding to formally see your own progress. You can also view/read my full mid review presentation.

Umeå IxD thesis mid review presentation

Feedback from reviewers included:

  • One unified story in the end, perhaps focusing on a specific daily cycle within a single day of the year
  • Videos as a potential result or strong support material
  • Return to earlier ideas and re-brainstorm around them
  • Potential organization of scenarios around maintenance (ex: father must take something to work to continue generating)
  • Provoking question: What will be my everyday life?
  • Either integrate or be able to answer why I’m not – the smart home and financial connections
  • Look into Albert Borgmann’s Device Paradigm
  • Potential inspiration in Fabrica’s Holidays in Iceland campaign

My own thoughts & reflections:

  • While a lot of my current ideas are quite bold in their shocking nature and associated humor, I do not necessarily envision them as my end result and want to be carefully mindful choosing and crafting my final situations based on the strength of the content, not the statement. Though I love a big bang, I am fully open to a more subtle provocation if it entails a cohesive storyline and logical system.
  • Furthermore, though a principle component of my earlier goals was the development of working prototypes, I’m beginning to see that this is really not necessary to accurately convey my concept and therefore not a worthwhile use of my time. Ah, killing a darling, I do love prototyping. Though, as one of my tutors expressed, I have plenty of working prototypes in my portfolio.
  • Call me crazy, but I really love doing a thesis. As my undergrad did not involve one, I was naively unaware how much selfish satisfaction can result from intense investigations into your own passions. And its spring in Umeå.

Thesis Mid Review Presentation

This past Thursday and Friday were IxD2 thesis mid review presentations. Below are my presentation slides and annotations. Text written some odd place in between formal snippets taken from my report and my quite colloquial style of presenting. All background photos are my own unless stated otherwise.

UID interaction design energy consumption thesis mid review

Because every presentation should begin with a different quote!

Human Generated Energy Harvesting

This weekend I was browsing energy harvesting materials for some near future prototyping while also looking at concepts and products already on the market. Below are a few, one I was previously aware of (Powertraveller), and others new to myself.

Powertraveller makes portable chargers for using electronic devices while exploring the outdoors. Their products are designed to withstand harsh environmental conditions, promoting flexibility and exploration while off-grid. My thesis in contrast will focus on creating speculative projects while on-grid.

Juice Box by Artifact is an energy system to bring electricity to people in poverty living off the grid – another interesting contrast to my thesis in which I hope to inspire people to be more mindful while living ‘off of’ the grid (or on-grid).

The Pocket Socket 2 by K-TOR is a hand crank generator that can charge an impressive range of electronic devices. I really appreciate the instructional video below that demonstrates how to use the device (closer to the end of the video), as I feel this provides a physical ‘experience’ of energy.

Research Presentation

Last Friday we had our thesis research presentations, which was both a great opportunity for us individually to analyze and consolidate our findings, as well as get back up to speed on the status of others in the class. Below is an example slide from my presentation, displaying my established design principles resulting from research.

thesis research design principles

I found my post presentation feedback helpful in regards to exposing gaps in my research, holes in my presentation (information that is clear in my working report document but otherwise not explained verbally), and helping me plan next steps. Below are some feedback highlights:

  • Give critical design background in presentation
  • Be explicit about focus on indirect or direct electricity use
  • Define scope of project also on what I don’t want to do
  • Decide on a specific context
  • Recommended read: Objects of Desire

As I have tentatively decided on a domestic context to stage my energy production/consumption scenarios, my primary next step will be to host an ideation workshop next week. In addition, I will be spending a lot of time in the upcoming days updating my written in progress report and be researching prototyping materials as I need to place an order sooner rather than later.

Download my research presentation slides.

For further curiosity, you can also read my initial brief.

Daily Energy Interactions

A main component of my thesis research is the understanding of the existing mechanisms within the individual’s current relationship with energy. With an initial focus on basic interactions with electricity, over the course of a week I self documented three 24 hour periods with cellphone photographs. As my project deals with the direct individual experience of energy, I tried to both document and analyze based on a phenomenological perspective with Don Ihde’s four human-technology relations in mind. In addition to self studies, I also asked friends and family members outside of school to document their interactions with energy, photographing the physical interaction, environment, and furthest trace of electricity. An overwhelming fourteen people participated!

documentation of energy (electricity) interactions

For further curiosity, you can also read my initial brief.

No Impact Man Documentary

As part of my thesis research, I am both reading about and interviewing people who live ‘off grid.’ Off Grid is implies not being connected to a grid, usually the national electrical grid, but often also refers to living in a fully self-sufficient manner without reliance on any public utilities. While some off grid homesteaders have graciously been in touch with me, I also recently watched the great documentary ‘No Impact Man’ about a New York City family who goes off grid in the city for a year.

As the trailer indicates, the documentary has a bit of a classic American reality show feel to it, but still provided me with some interesting research insights around the concept of sacrificing. Later in the documentary, Colin, the protagonist, says, “It’s not about using as little as possible, but getting what I need in a sustainable way.” I found this particularly interesting because most people associate living sustainably with sacrificing certain needs or desires. In contrast, after talking with off grid homesteaders, its apparent that with enough time and energy (pun intended!), it is in fact possible to maintain a high standard of living. Though, closer to the end of the documentary, a friend of the lead characters, calls them out for other ‘unethical’ activities (highly subjective). This raises the question of making present or future sustainable choices now to compensate for negative environmental impacts in the past. Naively, most people don’t realize that even if all human CO2 emissions were to seize today, the impacts of climate change would still be felt for centuries. Needlesstosay, I was very pleased to see a bit of the hidden hypocrisy called out. Don’t get me wrong though, I thoroughly enjoyed and gratefully appreciate the message of the documentary!

For further curiosity, you can also read my initial brief.

Energy Comics

Thesis humor. Hehehehe….



Initial Research Reflections

Last week commenced the research phase of degree work. Below are my thoughts regarding a small selection of articles, podcasts, and other miscellaneous inspiration.

Carl DiSalvo & Adversarial Design

Natural Fuse by Usman Haque

Though he visited Umeå last year, I was embarrassingly relatively unfamiliar with Carl DiSalvo’s work and research until last week’s UID Wednesday lecture. Following a talk by Jamer Hunt, who again gave his inspiring scalar framework lecture that I repeatedly enjoy, DiSalvo discussed his concept of Adversarial Design, an alternative approach to Design for Democracy within Critical Design. Based on the democratic model of agonistic pluralism, which emphasizes the positive affects of political contestation, Adversarial Design uses design to reveal conditions of power while creating a space for productive conflict. DiSalvo asserts that many Design for Democracy projects are governed by the democratic principle of consensus, avoiding to acknowledge the necessity of discord. I particularly found beneficial his explanation of the difference between ‘designing for politics’ and ‘political design’ – rooted in the distinction between politics and political – the means by which a social order is held together versus a condition of contest within society. From his paper Design, Democracy and Agonistic Pluralism, DiSalvo states, “design for politics strives to provide solutions to given problems within given contexts, political design strives to articulate the elements that are constitutive of social conditions.”

A few key strategy points from his paper:

  • Identify new themes
  • Reveal conditions of power
  • Create a space of conflict
  • Identify new trajectories for action

As the primary aim of my degree project is to critique society’s relationship with energy, not make the consequences of Global Warming more accessible, I found DiSalvo’s lecture especially relevant. I additionally appreciated his presentation of Usman Haque’s Natural Fuse in which he highlighted the

  • importance of a designed system to allow participation,
  • playful and experiential engagement of resistance,
  • overload of meaning in common objects that become a challenge,
  • avoidance on a single ethical stance,
  • and leaving open the resolution of contest.

Furthermore, in the followup discussion with both Hunt and DiSalvo, they discussed a specific tactic within Adversarial Design I aspire to assume – identifying collectives of various scales, and binding them strategically through a series of exclusions. While I haven’t yet formally defined how this will be accomplished in my future speculative scenarios, I believe it will be a useful and important method for both linking daily activities with personal technology and creating a larger relational network. Lastly, I also intend to adapt Hunt’s advice of beginning with an exploded diagram, mapping out my problem and design opportunities, formally placing where I believe I can intervene.

Discovery: Geo-engineering by BBC World Service

Geoengineering by Science in Seconds.

As I last week delved further into a more comprehensive understanding of Global Warming, the resulting climate change, and the three primary strategies against – climate engineering, adaptation, and mitigation – I listened to a podcast on geo-engineering. Discovery: Geo-engineering specifically focused on the release of sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere to reflect incoming sunlight. While I have always viewed this particular technique as rather radical, I appreciated the discussion regarding the unintended consequences, and therefore potential slippery slope, as well as the unavoidable termination effect. The former I could have assumed, but find something compelling with the general concept of the slippery slope argument that I feel could be integrated into my potential scenarios. In regards to the latter, after moving past my disturbance over the realization that if employed, once geo-eningeering is discontinued, the earth’s climate soon resumes its prior state; I see an interesting temporal conflict between a solution for now versus the future, overlaid with an enormous commitment to a finite procedure. Additionally, geo-engineering ironically seems to be most successful in its unintentionally role of inspiring people to use less fossil fuels – a radical proposal with serious intentions turned into critical design project. In conclusion, research into geo-engineering only furthers my commitment to focus on mitigation as an idealized outcome of my thesis – for “mitigation deals with the root causes of climate change.”

Freakonomics: Fear Thy Nature

Sleep No More photo by Yaniv Schulman and Robin Roemer

Though more for entertainment than in relation to thesis, I really enjoyed Fear They Nature by Freakonomics. The episode is about the effects of external circumstances on human behavior, particularly focusing on the theater show Sleep No More and the famous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment. While intensely focusing on a long term project, such as a thesis, its easy to draw parallels within almost anything, I definitely identified both personally and as a designer to the quote, “On putting people into total new situations, thats how we discover something new about ourselves.” I think the podcast’s discussion on control and context in connection to new situations can be applicable to critical design. Plus its an interesting listen.

View degree brief


After turning in our briefs this past Friday, thesis officially began on Monday, followed by five minute presentations from all UID degree students to the school yesterday (Tuesday). Below is the introduction of my degree project and brief.

For further curiosity, you can also read my full brief.

Panama sunrise

“To most Americans, the risks and consequences of energy consumption are vague and distant”
– BURN: An Energy Journal, Exploring for Oil and Gas in the Arctic

Scientists in the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2013 annual report on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions attribute the changing composition of the earth’s climate to human activities. The burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and other sources are high contributors to these concentrations of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere (EPA, 2013). Research on American public attitudes and opinions towards climate change showed a majority view climate change as real, human action as the problem, and personal energy conservation as part of the solution (Gardner & Stern, 2008). Yet a 2010 study indicates that people have relatively little knowledge and understanding concerning the energy consumption and comparative use of familiar activities (Attari, Dekay, Davidson, & Bruine, 2010). Therefore, as many predict our current rate of global consumption will lead to the exhaustion of fossil fuels by the end of the 21st century, who will contribute and how, to a reduction of fossil fuel use accompanied by participation in sustainable future energy solutions?

My degree project aims to critique and challenge society’s relationship with energy by provoking individuals to examine their current habits of energy consumption, consider the future implications of these actions, and question their willingness to make sacrifices for a cleaner environment. This will be accomplished through the development of a fictional context in which individuals are required to produce all electrical energy that they need or desire to consume. Within this constructed situation, I will explore a series of potential scenarios that pair daily activities and their corresponding energy expenditures with the electrical consumption of personal devices or domestic technology. For example, an electric coffee maker must be powered by the energy generated from the arm motion used in brushing teeth. These explorations will include the physical prototyping of speculative energy harvesting solutions and an investigation of the personal, social, and temporal consequences.

What if you were required to produce all energy you desire to consume?

5 slides in 5 minutes