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RCA 'Drawing Energy' Participatory Research Shines at the V&A

Work from a joint research project between Royal College of Art research hubs the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design and SustainRCA exploring consumer energy use is set to be published in print and online, after a series of successful workshops throughout the London Design Festival last month, including the V&A’s Digital Design Weekend.

SusLab researchers Dan Lockton and Flora Bowden are planning to bring together hundreds of drawings created by participants in SusLab’s Drawing Energy study, held at the Science Art Prize, Breaking Through by the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, and the Victoria and Albert Museum's Digital Design Weekend 2014. The participatory study invites people to create drawings in response to the question: what does energy look like?

Bowden said: ‘For the participants it is an opportunity to draw the invisible and to give form to the ideas or thoughts they have about this complex and often intangible, but ubiquitous, subject. We offered people pens, pencils, pastels and ink and brushes, and many people were really keen to work with materials they don't usually have the chance to use. In that way it was an opportunity for people to try something new and to have the freedom to experiment.’

She added: 'The drawings show that people's interpretations of energy are very diverse, and that the invisibility of energy in everyday life can hide the varied ways in which we all think about it.’ 

SusLab was invited to exhibit at the V&A's Digital Design Weekend, a popular event at the London museum during the London Design Festival, which attracted almost 13,000 people. Alongside Drawing Energy, the SusLab team showcased Powerchord, a prototype system that converts electricity use into sound. Almost 100 people created drawings of energy, while others spent time experimenting with the Powerchord prototype, or talking to the SusLabs team about their ideas and concerns around energy.

Bowden added: ‘Most enjoyable was having the chance to talk to so many people about the subject and to see people enjoying the drawing process. The challenge was also the numbers of people – although that's a good challenge.’

Lockton and Bowden’s research into household energy consumption, part of collaborative European research project SusLabNWE, began with interviews with householders across London to explore how energy is a part of everyday life. It has since evolved to focus on the invisibility and intangibility of complex systems.

‘Through our work we are aiming to reveal energy to people in new ways, and to conduct a detailed study of how people currently understand, feel and think about energy, to offer insights for designers to consider in communicating energy to the public,’ said Bowden.

SusLabNWE is a European research project supported by Interreg IVB and is a collaboration with institutions in the UK, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands.