The Design of Things

human endeavor + the natural world

Month: January, 2015

Nesting with Google


Last year, Google decided to expand from being Encyclopedia Britannica and Rand McNally (with advertising) to becoming a little more Jeeves in acquiring Nest, a company that makes “smart” thermostats and smoke alarms. Whether Jeeves is a spy – will he tell Google when you’re not home? – remains to be seen. What caught people’s attention was the fact that Nest has made all its money on two lowly products because of the clever things they’ve done with them.

Nest made these utilitarian members of the household more beautiful and far more useful. As we in the North have been hitting one of our two most energy-intensive times of the year, I’ve become interested in the thermostat, designed to reduce energy use by addressing human flaws and appealing to human sensibilities.

Modern thermostats are already programmable but, according to Nest, only a small percentage of households program them or remember to adjust them, wasting 20% of home energy. We don’t have any immediate incentives to save energy and little awareness of our actual energy use. The person who pays the bills gets this information retroactively and in the aggregate – no tracking of our usage according to our household habits. (When the bills are high he or she might be the one following kids and spouse around the house turning off lights, turning down the thermostat during heating season, or asking said children to put on some socks, for crying out loud.)

So I like the idea of Nest – the thermostat will even program itself after a week or so of adjustments from the family. Its attractive simplicity engages us, including the fact that the whole thing is a dial you spin to change the temperature. (I like dials.) It can connect to the wireless network to adjust according to weather and barometric reports, or to be directed remotely from our smart phones, but doesn’t have to be on wireless to work. It has an “away” mode that reduces energy use when we’re gone.

But it’s expensive – still $250. I entered my zip code for rebate information and found I can get $25 back from my electric company, not enough to make a real dent in the price. So how could a family make it worth it?

Using a competitive aspect of the design could help. Nest tells you when you’re saving energy with a leaf icon, but you don’t get the leaf at a predetermined temperature. You get it according to your household’s particular energy use. And Nest adjusts the terms of getting the leaf over time, encouraging you to do better. This feature lends the opportunity for real engagement and participation from the family, from kids especially. If Nest is purchased as a family project, and its use by everyone is encouraged, it can engage kids’ curiosity and capacity for absorbing information and learning how to analyze it – particularly if there are family rewards for saved energy.

This blog on Nest’s website describes the details of earning a Leaf. It reminds me of the quarterly report I now get from our electric company that turns a utility bill into a competition. When I’m only doing “good” and not “great” compared to my neighbors, it actually kind of annoys and motivates me, even though I know that’s what they’re trying to do. (I even got psyched when I opened it to “great” – but that only happened once.) But I don’t have any other real time feedback. Kids and adults can put an app for Nest on their phones, track the usage according to family activity, and track the leaf – especially if there’s a pizza or a night out in the results.


photo credits: and

Nature in the New Year

suarez_ballet27_G_007 (1)

A year or two ago, we went to the Boston Ballet to see a program of three contemporary pieces. The second, choreographed by Jorma Elo, was set to solo piano music, selections from The Well-Tempered Clavier by J.S. Bach. Like the music, the dancing was complex, classical and precise, and yet organic – rather than big numbers interspersed with solos and duets, it was presented as an endlessly changing tableau, varied in rhythms and tenor, in a long, continuous thread. Sometimes there were many dancers, sometimes there were only two or three or even just one, the many combinations moving seamlessly in and out from one to the next and next. The audience seemed rapt, silent beneath the music, hardly a cough or rattling of a wrapper among us.

About twenty mesmerizing minutes into it, I realized, “This is nature.” Here comes one thing, and then another. There are interactions and couplings, there are outcomes, and then there is disintegration. Things come together and apart, it is all part of a whole, and it never stops. It was what you might see if you sat still for any length of time beside a pond, in a forest, in a meadow, or in your own backyard. It was so beautiful.

I wrote recently in an article for Rensselaer alumni magazine that while the twentieth century may have been about conquering nature, the 21st century may be about trying to take our place within it. So much of what we did in the 20th century was critical to the human experience, from fighting disease to growing and preserving and transporting food to radically improving communication to finding other ways to lengthen and enhance our lives. But our environmental problems all stem from not noticing nature and eradicating its connections, even to ourselves. Never mind on a grand scale – even in our private lives we stamp out biota, let poison casually run from our pretty grass, raze or bulldoze or pave resting spots for birds and butterflies, and in many other ways reduce the number of species that reside around us, from microbes in our soils to flora and fauna that we can see.

I don’t believe we’re going to continue on this path, necessarily. There are hopeful signs around the world, from preserving rainforests in Brazil and Indonesia to growing awareness here at home of the effect of pesticides on honeybees and habitat loss for Monarch butterflies, for example. I believe enjoying modern life no longer means arming ourselves against the natural world – I think addressing these problems can bring new meaning that we crave, give us deeper satisfaction and peace, and train our children to excel in the sciences. This year I’m going to blog about small but meaningful changes we can make in the design of our lives, our homes, our yards and our communities that can invite nature back in and draw our deeper selves back out. I’ll also let you know about changes in products and commerce that may make a big difference. I’m looking forward to it, and I hope you are, too. Thank you so much for reading The Design of Things, and happy 2015!

photo credit: Boston Globe.

%d bloggers like this: