Co2nvert: Interaction Design for a Greener Planet

Interaction Design for a Greener Planet

Ever wonder how many pollutants you generate by typing an email? Is the
electricity used to power this computer more than the power to build it?
Maybe if products were designed with energy consumption in mind, our fears
of shrinking natural resources would dissolve. As digital technology heads
for a sustainable relationship with the environment, artists are taking the
lead on creating innovative approaches to these questions.

From early environmentally conscious art like Robert Smithson's "Spiral
Jetty" (1970) to recent work like "The Bank of Time"
( which turns idle computer time into fertile
ground for desktop plants, there is a history of interlinking creative and
ecological practices. Contemporary artists such as Natalie Jeremijenko also
focus critical art practices towards environmental issues. Her project,
"Stump", which prints out a tree ring when a tree's worth of paper is
consumed, illustrates our continued dependence on shrinking resources in the
digital world. Working in urban space, "One Tree"
( clones a young
tree one thousand times and plants them around San Francisco to see the
ecological effects of different areas of the city on biologically identical

Working more in the realm of solving the global Greenhouse scare through
simple rules of interaction design is Co2nvert (,
a new project by Irish designer Philip Phelan. The project features working
prototypes of innovative eco-conscious ideas with everything from the
"Snobby Toaster" that won't run on fossil fuel power to the "Buy-Sell Socket"
that lets you manually crank power back into the energy grid.

Phelan, a graduate of London's Royal College of Art - Interaction Design
program, begins with the simple idea that modifying the design of everyday
objects can not only enlighten us about personal energy use but also help
change our habits. "We need to take individual responsibility for Greenhouse
gas (GHG) emissions to make a real difference," explains Phelan. "We need to
introduce 'cues' and 'clues' into a domestic environment to modify
consumer's GHG-causing energy behavior patterns." This might sound like a
heady statement of early 90s Earth Day hype, but what types of alternatives
are possible? What has really changed since then?

Conceived for the home, CO2nvert's products like the "Greenhouse Fuse" rely
on our wall sockets being smart enough to know the type of appliance plugged
into them. If the quality of energy used by the appliance is unclean, the
fuse will blow. The "Carbon Sink Filter" is a packaged carbon-sink that
comes with tree seedlings that once planted, soak up the carbon dioxide
emissions generated. Similarly, the CO2nvert "Emissions Bill" is a monthly
reminder breaking down each household's global pollutant contribution. This
might entice you to ease up on your hair dryers and electric blender use. Or
if you worry about clean energy sources, the "Windwasher" flashes a message
on its LCD screen alerting us when off shore breezes are available to spin

CO2nvert's opus is "Appliance Weathermap", a real-time weather map featuring
flying dishwashers over your home country that signal the opportune time to
use natural energy. "In times of high winds or sunshine, appliance weather
maps should show the amount of power they hold so that, given enough
renewable energy resources, we can put our foot down at opportune times,"
says Phelan.

Whether it's through personal choice or subtle differences in the appliances
or bills we receive everyday, projects like CO2nvert serve as a wake up call
to our energy consumption, a topic often elided in discourse about the
"virtual" and the implicit assumption that contemporary technoculture is
less materially damaging than other forms of industry. Artists continue to
challenge our habits of interaction with the planet, and attempt to shape
our relationship to precious natural resources. Despite the range of
environmentally conscious projects in both art and design, change is only
possible when our individual actions are manifested on a global scale. "If
we use interaction design to introduce such [ecological] 'feedback' into the
home or work," agree Phelan, " Then this can turn a small individual
difference into a massive collective one."

-Jonah Brucker-Cohen ([email protected])

Jonah Brucker-Cohen | Media Lab Europe
Research Fellow | Sugar House Lane
Human Connectedness | Bellevue Dublin 8, Ireland
(h) +353 1 4760375 (w) +353 1 4742853 (m) +353 1 (0)87 7990004