Sustainable Interactions: Changing User Behaviours with Calm Technology

SILVIA VENDITTI just graduated from the Interaction Design Masters Programme at K3, Malmö University. Her thesis Shared Resources, Calm Applicances: Sustainable Interaction and Care in Housing Context (download) describes and analyzes the use of calm technology feedback to support a more collaborative consumption and sustainable use of resources like water, heat and energy in housing units.


You have designed for the sharing of the heat from an oven and the water from a dishwasher. Could you describe your project in more detail?

My thesis work is a combination of products and services (a so called PSS) that aims to make sustainability work in a different way. The idea is to make people use kitchen appliances in specific ways, not directly for sustainability reasons, but because it’s much easier for them to do so. Since the configuration of apartments are often mirrored, your neighbour’s kitchen appliances are often located opposite of your own.


I have designed for the sharing of an oven (see image above) and a dishwasher. The shared oven is basically about using the left-over heat that is generated in one oven and transfer it to another oven. If my neighbour just finished using his oven, there’s much heat in it that will not be used. The user then receives a feedback – in this case a glowing light – that tells her that it’s a good idea to turn on her oven right now because there is spill heat that I can use. Heating my own oven will both be quicker and require less energy. Even though you might not save much energy each time, this could be a stepping-stone towards a new practice of sharing resources. This could make people start thinking along these lines. The hardest thing is to change behaviour, not to design efficient technology.


How does the dishwasher work?

The dishwasher works similarly to the oven. Instead of heat, it’s hot water. When the dishwasher is doing the last cycle of washing, it’s actually just rinsing the dishes once again. That water, which is almost clean, can be used for the first washing cycle in your neighbour’s dishwasher. The water could also be used as greywater for, for instance, flushing the toilet. It’s absurd that we use drinking water for flushing our toilets. Greywater can’t be stored for a very long time because of the proliferation of germs, but in a large building there’s always a need for greywater.


How does the feedback system work? How do I know when to use my kitchen appliance?

In order for the system to work, you need a feedback system that notifies you that your neighbour is using the kitchen appliance, but I didn’t want to have another “beep” in the house. I wanted to have the feedback system integrated into the local context as much as possible. People should not have to focus on it when they’re not prone to do it. I have been looking into “calm technology” (for an introduction to “calm technology”, see Weiser & Brown, 1996 (pdf)) where it’s important to have the feedback in the periphery of attention. I thought the best way was to have a glowing light in the kitchen and in the living room where it wouldn’t be too obtrusive. It’s not a good idea to put it in the bathroom or the bedroom.

Most technology doesn’t work according to the ideas of “calm technology” but rather give you notifications “in your face”.

There is a project at the Interactive Institute that is called the power aware cord which is a power strip that lights up when electricity travels through it. If there’s a lot of electricity running through it, the light will be much brighter. That was really inspirational for me. I think it’s much smarter than having some kind of device that tells you how much energy you have used.


Your project also has an online element in it. How does it work?

That is part of the service in this project. It’s basically about giving more feedback to the user and also about making it easier for the company that takes care of the kitchen appliances to know how efficient they are and when they need maintenance. It’s about monitoring consumption, but not in the way of “giving you numbers and kilowatts” but rather information in a way that even kids understand, such as “saving two litres of water equals 10 cups of coffee”. It’s numbers that people know and care about. The maintenance part, then, is the bridge between the appliance company and the user.

How come you’re interested in collaborative consumption?

Even though technology can mean a lot for sustainability, the best way is to get people together and start operating towards sustainability. The best way is to change behaviour and not so much to “buy new things” or “get new technology”. I also think it’s a good practice for socialization. These days, we spend most of our time on virtual platforms. I think it’s nice to get to know the neighbours.

How important are the socialization aspects of your design?

I would say it’s social in a Swedish way. When I moved here, I saw that people aren’t really happy about sharing the laundry facilities. That’s why people get their own washing machines. I didn’t want to design anything that was too extreme, something that pointed in the direction of collectivization. I wanted to find a balance between sharing something and individuality.

So what you have designed is tailored to a Swedish, urban context?

Yes, but also for big cities in general where people are not really happy to share things. If I designed for another context, for example apartment houses in Rome, I would basically do the same thing. In Rome it’s almost worse than here: we don’t have shared laundries. It’s even more in the culture there to own your things, to own your car. Sweden is much more open to these kinds of practices. Denmark is also a fertile ground for this. That’s where collective housing was born.


What are your plans for the future?

I don’t know where my career will end up, but it would be nice to work on the social side of objects and technology. I think that even old technology can be adapted to be more social. In my thesis I talk about “skins” which is a way to make your old appliances more aesthetically pleasing, thus you don’t have to throw out technology that is still working.

You can find Silvia’s portfolio on

Download Silvia’s master’s thesis: Shared Resources, Calm Applicances: Sustainable Interaction and Care in Housing Context.

Image credit: Silvia Venditti