Participating in Energy Systems through Everyday Designs – Exploring roles for households in a more sustainable energy future
Doktorsavhandling, 2019

As households we participate in energy systems when, in the course of our everyday energy-reliant activities, we create a demand for energy and when we engage in energy-managing activities such as choosing an energy provider and deciding to support a specific source of energy. In this way, everyday life has an impact on the energy sector, and vice versa. To mitigate climate change, the energy sector will have to reduce its negative environmental impact, and everyday life will have to change with it. This thesis aims at contributing to development of artefacts that, as they are embedded into energy-reliant and energy-managing activities in everyday life, support such changes. Four empirical studies were carried out in a research through design process with a ‘mixed methods’ approach. Two studies described which energy-reliant and energy-managing activities to design for by identifying what roles households could play in energy systems (RQ 1a). Two studies explored how artefacts shape those roles (RQ 1a) and prescribed ways to design to support reduced negative environmental impact (RQ 2). 

The findings showed that the roles households considered playing in energy systems were framed by (i) roles performed by peers, (ii) available and accessible energy-reliant and energy-managing artefacts, (iii) existing business models, (iv) available infrastructure, and (v) policy and regulation. The roles were framed into three so-called meta-roles named Reception, Interplay, and Balance.

Within Reception, households receive standardised amounts and variants of services from the energy system, such as a pre-set indoor temperature.
Within Interplay, the households’ meta-role is to use some kind of interplay with the energy system to optimise energy services for their individual preferences, for example low cost. Finally, within Balance, the households’ meta-role is to balance their individual preferences with what is preferable from an energy system perspective, for instance without benefits to be part of time-shifting energy use to cut peaks in demand.

In Reception and Interplay, the reduction in environmental impact is restricted to either what can be achieved without households’ active contribution or when reductions in environmental impact align with personal preferences, respectively. Balance, although uncommon and therefore unvalidated, was therefore considered most promising to mitigate climate change.

Evaluations of two prototypes intended to support reduced negative energy-related environmental impact showed such possibilities, and additionally that Reception and Interplay could be challenged by designing artefacts that: 

- encourage households to make compromises and ask for efforts;

- make the connection between energy supply and demand explicit (reconnecting supply and demand);

- provide a possibility to feel like active participants (instead of discouraging active participation through automation);

- provide a possibility for influencing energy-related decisions made by energy companies or (local) authorities; and

- focus on energy-reliant activities and not (only) on energy-managing activities. 

Artefacts are however just one of the five aspects found to frame meta-roles. In order to not only challenge but also change a prevailing meta-role, the other aspects would need to align.

smart energy

sustainable energy systems

sustainable design

user-centred design

demand-side management

smart home

energy use

Virtual Development Laboratory (VDL), Chalmers Tvärgata 4 - 6
Opponent: Annelise de Jong, IVL Environmental Science Research Institute, in Stockholm, Sweden


Sara Renström

Chalmers, Industri- och materialvetenskap, Design and Human Factors

Supporting diverse roles for people in smart energy systems

Energy Research and Social Science,; Vol. 53(2019)p. 98-109

Artikel i vetenskaplig tidskrift

Design for alternative ways of doing – explorations in the context of thermal comfort

Journal of Design Research,; Vol. 15(2017)p. 153-173

Artikel i vetenskaplig tidskrift

What a designer can change: a proposal for a categorisation of artefact-related aspects

Proceedings of DRS 2016, Design Research Society 50th Anniversary Conference. Brighton, UK, 27–30 June 2016,; (2016)

Paper i proceeding

Pleasurable Ways of Staying Warm – A Pathway towards Reduced Energy Consumption

Proceedings from the IASDR Conference 2013, Consilience and Innovation in Design, 24-30 August 2013, Tokyo, s. 1783-1794,; (2013)p. 1783-1794

Paper i proceeding

Renström, S., Andersson, S., Jonasson, A., Rahe, U., Merl, K., & Sundgren, M. (2019, accepted by abstract). Limit My Energy Use! An In-Situ Exploration of a Smart Home System Featuring an Adaptive Energy Threshold. Paper accepted for presentation at the 19th Conference of the European Roundtable on Sustainable Consumption and Production (ERSCP): Circular Europe for Sustainability – Design, Production and Consumption. Barcelona, Spain.

To mitigate climate change, we have to change the way we produce and use energy: from fossil energy sources to renewable, from centralised energy production to local, from doing laundry during peaks in energy demand in the evening to when the sun is shining on your home’s solar panels, for example. As a result of these changes people could play new roles in the energy system, for instance moving from being energy consumers to becoming energy prosumers (producers andconsumers). The aim of this thesis is to explore what roles people can play in energy systems and how to design products and services for these roles.
Research study participants considered a variety of roles in energy systems based on three different mindsets – held both by individuals and energy companies – about what roles people should and could play in energy systems.

- In Reception, people are not expected to be interested in anything other than receiving services from the energy system, such as heating. For instance, people are not expected to be interested in the source of energy.

- In Interplay, people are expected to optimise energy services for individual preferences, for example using energy feedback to lower costs.

- In Balance, individual preferences are expected to be matched by what is preferable from an energy system perspective. Balance was not mainstream but nevertheless seemed like the most promising mindset to mitigate climate change.

Evaluations of prototypes designed in line with Balance showed that it is possible to challenge Reception and Interplay through product and services that:
- encourage people to make compromises and ask for their contribution to the energy system,
- make people feel like active participants in the energy system (instead of discouraging active participation through automation), and
- make it possible to influence energy-related decisions made by energy companies or local authorities.

However, to not only challengebut also changea mindset, new products and services need to be followed by infrastructure, business models, and regulation in line with the upcoming mindset.


Hållbar utveckling


Tvärvetenskapliga studier

Annan naturresursteknik





HSB living lab



Doktorsavhandlingar vid Chalmers tekniska högskola. Ny serie: 4596


Chalmers tekniska högskola

Virtual Development Laboratory (VDL), Chalmers Tvärgata 4 - 6

Opponent: Annelise de Jong, IVL Environmental Science Research Institute, in Stockholm, Sweden

Mer information

Senast uppdaterat