Unfinished business and ‘Demanding ideas’

‘Unfinished business’ is a feature of many people’s lives, taking a variety of forms and with a range of accompanying meanings and emotions. Yet it’s not often that we are encouraged to sit back and think about how ‘unfinished business’ is made, and the trajectories that it is a part of. There are, after all, many things that could have been labelled ‘unfinished business’, but which were deemed not important enough to be pursued, or seemed somehow ‘finished’. The opportunities and openings of ‘unfinished business’ therefore are markers of priorities, interpretation and sometimes active creation.

Last June, I co-organized an event that made time for crafting such openings. We found ourselves with space in the lovely Lake District, and thought it would be fun to use it in order to think about some of the unfinished business within social theories of practice. In order to stimulate discussion, we had each participant write a 2-3 page ‘mini-manifesto’ about the unfinished business that they would like to see pursued in the next decade. Having no idea how people would take up this request, it came as a pleasant surprise that the finished compilation coalesced around similar themes and concerns. Some of the papers focused upon substantive issues linked to energy and the DEMAND Centre research program, while others thought about how theories of practice can engage with questions of the large-scale, power, linkages, temporalities, the future, and policy. Their provocatively short format provided an excellent starting point for more detailed conversations about not only how our interests intersected, but also key divergences. With a few walks and shared meals to further stoke conversation, we all emerged energized by the feeling that there is still much exciting work to be done.

Working in an academic context, and indeed many others, it is easy to become frustrated by unfinished things because of external pressures to finish them. This event, however, was a reminder of the importance of lingering with, meditating upon and playfully provoking what yet remains unfinished.

The ‘mini-manifestos’ from the event, including one in which I ask a lot of questions inspired by the symbol [≠], are now available as working papers from the DEMAND Centre website, and we are working on plans to follow up with further writing in the future.

Demanding ideas WP cover

Learning from Public Exhibitions

Every time I’m involved in producing a public event or exhibition, I end up learning an immense amount. Sometimes I learn seemingly small things from the people who attend – details about their lives and experiences that build upon and refocus my research interests. Sometimes I learn important things during the process – for instance how translating between academic writing, press releases, news articles, and posters aimed at a public audience can be immensely challenging and immensely rewarding due to their distinct communities, positioning, and perspectives. Sometimes I come to reflect upon the idea of ‘impact’ and ‘engagement’ more generally, and how this rhetoric can both distract from and support the fragments of conversation and new thoughts that might somewhere, someday, contribute to transformations in society.

The interactive public exhibition I produced last week, alongside Elizabeth Shove and the DEMAND Centre, was no exception. It was entitled ‘Heating, cooling, lighting: what is energy for?’ and was presented as part of Lancaster University’s ‘Campus in the City’ in St. Nicholas’ Arcades, Lancaster. While it is always hard to capture traces of these kinds of events, I have collated some of the digital ones on the DEMAND website and on Storify. If you’d like to know more, feel free to get in touch.

All this talk about lights hides bigger energy challenges – via The Conversation UK


All this talk about lights hides bigger energy challenges

By Allison Hui, Lancaster University and Elizabeth Shove, Lancaster University

To anyone following recent discussions about the UK’s energy sector, it might seem the nation is entirely lighting-obsessed.

When announcing the deal that paved the way for a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point, the energy secretary, Ed Davey, explained that it was “essential to keep the lights on”, echoing earlier claims that energy reforms will “keep the lights on and emissions down”.

Meanwhile, Ed Miliband’s announcement last month that a Labour government would freeze gas and electricity bills led energy companies to warn that “they might not be able to keep the lights on”. Why is the rhetoric of “keeping the lights on” so important and why is lighting such a compelling and such a persistent point of reference?

Part of the answer has to do with what happens should the lights actually go out. As those cut off in the wake of the St Jude’s Day storm will be only too aware, blackouts are immensely disruptive. Even small-scale interruptions demonstrate how dependent our society has become on a reliable electricity supply. In this context, regular or prolonged outages would indicate that the government had failed to maintain basic standards of living.

Files released this summer show that during the miners’ strikes in the early 1980s Margaret Thatcher contemplated using the military to help keep the lights on: a plan that clearly signalled the symbolic and actual significance of power. Then, as now, talk about the importance of keeping the lights on provides a chilling reminder to governments of how vulnerable they are when faced with a total breakdown of energy generation and supply.

But in the present context, the rhetoric of “keeping the lights on” is as misleading as it is compelling. Though there are billions of lights in the UK’s homes and in places of work and recreation, these are never on all at the same time. Many are off for a large part of the day and in any case lighting does not account for a very high percentage of energy use. Lighting is undoubtedly useful, but for some people it’s not the lights but the internet and communication systems that really need to be on.

In corporate talk, the phrase has been adopted to highlight the percentage of a company’s expenditure spent on keeping its information technology infrastructure running – the blinking lights of networking equipment, rather than overhead lights. This dependence runs deep: in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy in 2012, people walked miles to charge their phones – an indication of how thoroughly such communication devices had been embedded in their daily lives.

Reference to dramatic instances in which all power is lost obscures the fact that the real discussion is not about power cuts, nor is it about the lights alone. Instead, the critical questions –- questions that this “lights on” rhetoric systematically avoids -– are to do with energy demand: what is energy for, how do energy demands arise and how do they change?

These ought to be central concerns for energy policy, especially given the challenge of meeting CO2 emissions targets, yet the “keeping the lights on” mantra perpetuates an unquestioned reliance upon electric power, reinforcing the view that energy consumption is non-negotiable and that it lies outside and not within the frame of legitimate policy debate. In effect, the phrase has come to symbolise a right to unlimited power; it suggests that as a nation there is no end to what we can consume.

There is no such thing as an unlimited energy supply. At every level, from the individual home to the grid itself, cables and infrastructures are sized and managed with certain patterns of demand in mind. Behind the scenes, the need for power is, and always has been, a topic of ongoing negotiation.

Instead of blindly insisting on the importance of keeping the lights on (and all that the phrase stands for) the real political challenge is to bring questions of demand into view. This is not just a matter of technological efficiency. What is needed is a fundamental debate about how much energy is enough, what does it mean to establish ways of living that call for much less power than we use today, and just how many lights could or should be kept on?

Allison Hui and the DEMAND Centre receives funding from the RCUK Energy Programme and EDF as part of the R&D ECLEER Programme.

Elizabeth Shove and the DEMAND Centre receive funding from the RCUK Energy Programme and EDF as part of the R&D ECLEER Programme

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

School holidays and energy consequences – via The Conversation UK


School holiday shakeup brings unintended consequences

By Allison Hui, Lancaster University; Elizabeth Shove, Lancaster University, and Gordon Walker, Lancaster University

Michael Gove’s proposal to allow all schools in England to set their own holidays is part of a bill aimed at removing “unnecessary burdens” and regulations. But removing some burdens could create others. Some potential complications such changes might present for schools and for families have already been discussed, but there are other unintended consequences.

Our particular interest is in energy. The link is not initially obvious, but it is clear that what people do, and when they do it, is important for determining peaks and troughs of energy demand. No one buys gas, electricity or petrol just for the fun of it; they are used for providing power and heat at home, getting to school or to work, and so on. How and when people use these resources, whether they do so at the same time as others, and how they are distributed throughout the year is of direct significance for total energy demand. Changing the length, timing, or coordination of school holidays would have a big impact on the ways in which daily lives are scheduled, and hence on the timing of when energy is used.

Changing travel patterns

For one, travel patterns and the school run could be affected. If families with children at several different schools find that their holidays fall during different periods, the journey to school, with its consequences for fuel use and carbon emissions, might have to be extended to cover more days of the year. Potentially such changes could break up familiar patterns of traffic congestion around the school run, sometimes reducing traffic, or potentially making it worse. Either way, peaks and levels of transport-related energy demand are likely to shift as families adapt to new holiday periods.

Changing where energy is used

Also consider the energy used in heating and running buildings occupied at different times of the day and year. Currently the longest school holiday period is during the summer, when energy demands are lower. During the Christmas break it’s colder, but the energy burden of keeping warm during the day is shifted from the school (or workplace) to the home. In theory, schools could change the timing and duration of holidays so as to reduce the need for energy intensive heating or lighting – for example by making winter and Easter breaks considerably longer and extending the summer term.

Children out of school are generally at home, so this strategy would shift costs from schools to parents. It’s obvious what this would mean for those who pay the bills, but it’s not clear what such a change would mean for total energy consumption. Collective heating systems – as in a school – would more efficiently keep lots of children warm, using less total energy than required to heat and light many private homes through the day. Then again, those homes are already heated for part of the day; extending this by a few more hours (and not heating the country’s schools at all) might entail less energy consumption in total.

Disconnected policies

It would be interesting to see some careful working out of the implications of education policy for energy demand. Somewhat similar calculations have been made in an effort to quantify the energy consequences of putting the clocks back and of thereby shifting patterns of activity into hours of darkness (or light). This is something of an exception. More commonly, little or no attention is paid to the impact that non-energy policies have on the temporal and spatial patterning of daily life, and hence on the energy demands – and carbon emissions – that follow.

One way or another, the proposal to de-synchronise school holidays is sure to have tangible, but unintended and unanticipated consequences for energy demand. And yet despite this there is no systematic attempt to think about how this, or indeed any other, non-energy policy affects the extent and timing of energy demand.

Allison Hui and the DEMAND Centre receives funding from the RCUK Energy Programme and EDF as part of the R&D ECLEER Programme.

Elizabeth Shove and the DEMAND Centre receive funding from the RCUK Energy Programme and EDF as part of the R&D ECLEER Programme

Gordon Walker and the DEMAND Centre receive funding from the RCUK Energy Programme and EDF as part of the R&D ECLEER Programme

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.