A block of flats called Hamnhuset

Fuelled by the feel good factor

When it comes to saving energy in the home it is not only saving money that motivates better practices. As E&T discovers when talking to a Swedish research institute, it is the feel good factor that motivates behavioural change.

What is happiness? One thing is for sure, it certainly is not complete plenitude. Imagine a world where there was no shortage of energy: where you could drive as far and as fast as you wanted at no cost, and could use as many appliances as you asked for and for as long as you wished. The total empowerment that would arise from that would be sickening.

Perhaps more obviously, nor is happiness about the sense of anxiety that the world is spiralling out of control - peak oil, and all that - and there is nothing we can do about it.

Interactive institution

The Swedish think tank, Interactive Institute, which has been funded by the Swedish energy agency to look at new ways to combine art, design and technology while cutting energy use, is arguably on to something. One of the key ingredients of happiness - or, at least, the absence of its opposite - is the sense of being in control of one's life. And that is what the Institute is setting out to do.

They have designed two dozen or so objects that demystify energy use in the home. The idea is that, by using them, people get to "look under the bonnet" and see how much energy they are using and how they can do something about it. The objects focus on aesthetics with a view to creating a sense of pleasure about saving energy.

Perhaps they will have to work a bit on the names. There is the 'power aware cord', an extension cable with three sockets. When electricity flows through it, a striped cord - looking a little like a squiggle of toothpaste laid out on the table - lights up: the faster the stripes move and the brighter the light, the more electricity is being used.

Users are advised to experiment with different household items to see which uses the most. Then there is the 'energy awareness clock', a clock with a number of bars extending in directions from a clock face that show, hour by hour, energy usage in the home. There is also the 'flower lamp', which slowly closes up as more energy is used in the home.

Swedish design

Christina Ohman, based in the town of Kista outside Stockholm and a project leader with the Interactive Institute, says the idea is to eventually commercialise the inventions. She considers it is a positive that Ikea is now selling solar panels, but she has no idea about the costs.

It is worth noting that Scandinavians are well known for their design sense and they have pioneered the use of such sensible things as the safety seatbelt.

Launched in 1958 by Volvo, the seatbelt was greeted with a certain amused scepticism at the beginning. But, they became compulsory in Sweden in 1975, and, as everyone knows, the seatbelt has since become a legal requirement for much of the world. It is an unalloyed good, considered by traffic experts to be the greatest single contribution to the stable or falling number of road deaths.

In the 1930s, UK ministers were looking two decades ahead and predicting annual road death tolls of half a million. Today's actual figure is around 4,000 and falling. Seatbelts save lives; perhaps these Swedish inventions will become much more widespread, save energy, and reduce net anxiety in the world, anxiety about our misuse of the world's resources.

The Interactive Institute has not been idle in other areas, either.

I am writing this article from Prague - I lived here once, in the early 1990s, and one of the good things about the city, apart from its natural beauty, was that it was not exaggeratedly lit. The Communists, who ruled from 1948 to 1989, didn't have enough money to shell out for excessive street lighting. They didn't believe in commercialism. How things have changed with the fall of Communism.

Arriving at 6am at the central railway station, I couldn't recognise a main square en route to my hotel. I had been here many times before, but this time it was lit differently, and much more aggressively. It was like being in Vienna or Berlin: bright neon signs for insurance companies and banks, a whole multitude of lit-up shop displays. It made me think: how unattractive and pointless all this was.

The brightness of the windows diminished the passers-by, the early morning commuters who looked small and evasive as they shuffled past the window displays. This orgy of light was not classy: Communism was, admittedly, a time of few shops, banks or bars - very inconvenient, of course, but the effect of the darkness could be incredibly romantic.

For doesn't darkness suggest mystery and potential?

Combating light in urban areas

So the Interactive Institute is not just about fancy energy-awareness gadgets. For both aesthetic and practical reasons, Ohman and her colleagues are coming up with ideas that will make us rethink the way we use light in urban areas: both less of it, and less wastage of that lesser amount.

The late 20th century in capitalist, industrialised parts of the world may be remembered as a brief period of harsh, wasteful lighting.

Ohman doesn't want to be too specific about it yet, but ideas on the table include using fibre optic cables to channel street lighting into homes; using one-way panels to light up the hallways of flats with the light from tower block corridors; and using sensors that will switch on street lighting only when a car is approaching.

These moves could be even more likely to catch the spirit of the times: and Sweden is the kind of country that is small and innovative enough to be open to testing these sorts of projects.

Dark skies awareness project

I was at the International Year of Astronomy opening congress in Paris a few weeks ago, and one of the main campaigns of this year of awareness-raising by the International Astronomical Union is the Dark Skies Awareness project.

When Galileo trained his telescope - which was even more primitive than today's beginner telescopes - on the heavens 400 years ago he could see the mountains of the Moon and the satellites of Jupiter. Even though it was in post-Renaissance Padua, a busy commercial centre, the skies were dark enough to be rated one in the Bortle Scale, which measures night-time darkness on a scale of one to nine.

Today, cities such as London or New York, even at their darkest, measure seven or eight. Stand on top of the BT tower in London, UK on a moonless night, and you'll at best see Jupiter, Venus and a few of the brighter stars.

The Milky Way would not be seen at all. It is worth remembering that 400 years ago the Milky Way was so bright that people thought it was a continuous substance.

The darkest places in the rich world are brighter than 17th century Padua: stand at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in the US and the brightest presence in the sky comes from the glow of Las Vegas, Nevada. Las Vegas is 300km away.

The International Dark Sky Association has a host of arguments in favour of making our cities darker places, and not just in order to make Galileo's modern day descendants' jobs easier. Nor even that the brightness in cities is ugly: that is just a personal opinion.

Toronto switches off the lights

There is also this idea that this blocking out of the stars cuts mankind off from its past. For how many centuries has man told stories and myths about the stars? The first scientists were, after all, astrologers: while their interpretations were pseudoscientific, those interpretations were built on scientifically accurate observations. Astrologers still had to measure the movement of the planets in reasonably accurate ways.

Scientists have also found that city lighting is bad for wildlife. The city of Toronto in the US has started switching off city lights at bird migration time to stop confusing them.

Sea turtles around the world are dying on the roads every year because, after hatching, it was in their genetic make-up to head towards the brightest lights around, which used to be the starlight of the open sea. No longer.

Finally, experts are presenting the powerful argument that too much city lighting is bad for human health. Recent studies have connected the disruption to the hormone system caused by 24-hour brightness to the rising incidence of breast cancer in the developed world, even as the figures stay low in poorer parts.

Ohman says she is very enthusiastic about making the world a darker - and therefore brighter - place. Combined with gadgets designed to raise awareness about energy use and help reduce it, it's like a gauntlet thrown down to architects, civil engineers, building firms, and residents alike.

Let us see what we make of it.

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