Probing responses to future smart grid technologies

A perennial problem faced by social scientists investigating new technologies is that what they are interested in – interactions between individuals, groups, and technologies – hasn’t happened yet. Waiting for them to happen brings a whole new set of problems, most notably that at such a point it may be too late to prevent negative consequences – as they have already happened! Indeed a primary reason for such work is so that the technology can be shaped to better account for the world into which it is to be released, a task easier to accomplish before it leaves the lab.

Simply quizzing people on technologies that they have no experience of is unlikely to generate meaningful responses. In such situations people have little option but to rely on generalised attitudes to better-known  similar technologies or to repeat opinions received from elsewhere.

Addressing this challenge has led social scientists to develop a suite of measures that attempt to bridge the gap between present and future; techniques to embed the imaginary into the concrete reality of people’s lives. These often include some form of fictional account of such technology integrated in the everyday world, followed by some process of reflection.

The Desimax project’s does just this. We created six short stories exploring near-future technologies in three different homes. To ensure that they were as engaging as possible we turned them into narrated films. The films are based on a ‘Contravisions’ approach (Mancini et al 2010), in which there are two version of each story, one ‘light’ (where the technology and its users are in perfect harmony) and one ‘dark’ (where the technology and its users are in constant conflict). Both are intended to be extreme, with the purpose of opening up a wide space in which viewers can imagine their own interactions with the technology.

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A little word about the technologies in these films. They are all elements of the ‘smart grid’: a next generation energy grid that will transmit information as well as electricity. This information might be up-to-the-minute electricity prices, or the amount of electricity the solar panels on your roof are generating, or a signal that switches your washing machine on when electricity is cheap. The smart grid has the potential to reduce energy use, and so carbon and cost, through numerous efficiencies, but inevitably there are potential problems too.

What are your reactions to the events in the films? If you have any thoughts on how these technologies might impact on your life we’d love to hear them. What are your hopes or fears of such technologies? How might it change your daily activities? You can leave your thoughts by clicking on the comments link below, or emailing them to

Mancini, C. et al., 2010. Contravision: exploring users’ reactions to futuristic technology. In Proceedings of the 28th international conference on Human factors in computing systems. Atlanta, Georgia, USA: ACM, pp. 153-162.


  1. would not trust an energy advisor not to be taking a backhander, If everyone change to using the advised cheaper tmes wouldn't they become more expensive Sometimes you have to use energy when you have to use it. I wonder how many people would know when you wern;t in if this feeds back. Monitor my energy uses/cost already and would like to monitor it better myself but I don't like the idea of someone else watching what I do however remote.

  2. I don't think your dark side is dark enough. What if the customer is older?
    We just installed the latest heating programmer in sheltered housing. Old dears cannot drive it, just want on off buttons, end result is full on permanently.

    Technolog will change and people adapt to take advantage of it. All those that can. But there arevan awful lot of idiots and stick in the mud types that will not adapt. The challenge must therefore be to enable change but leave route for the less able. They get less but are not actively penalised.

  3. There's an interesting link here between these two comments - there are a significant number of elderly Economy 7 users out there who resist changing even when told it is costing them money - especially if they are told by the energy supplier. So who would they trust?

    Anyway amusing videos!