A lamp that recoils when you leave it on for too long is just one innovation designed to make us switch off. Ed Caesar gets turned on by some powerful ideas
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The Independent Online

Stand-by Britons are guilty of pumping an extra million tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year because we're too lazy to switch off our televisions, DVDs and radios. We have been repeatedly urged to turn off our appliances properly, but those little red stand-by lights are still burning brightly in living rooms up and down the country.

Stand-by Britons are guilty of pumping an extra million tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year because we're too lazy to switch off our televisions, DVDs and radios. We have been repeatedly urged to turn off our appliances properly, but those little red stand-by lights are still burning brightly in living rooms up and down the country.

According to one think tank, the solution to this problem lies in designing household objects to act as visual reminders to switch off the power. Imagine, for example, if your wallpaper changed pattern if your heating was on too long - or your light fittings reminded you of an ever-escalating electricity bill by changing shape before your eyes. The designers behind Static!, a groundbreaking project developed by the Interactive Institute in Sweden, have produced a collection of 10 prototypes with the potential to unlock our attitudes towards energy use, and become design classics in their own right.

"Typically, designers handle energy by hiding it away in walls or in the backs of closets or in the bills that come once a month," says project leader Ramia Maze. "What Static! wants to do is to put a different face on energy, to make people aware of the value of energy, of the cost that is rising every day. What are people getting with this invisible commodity? How can we make it more material, more tangible, more visible in everyday life?"

The project sounds worthy, and it is. But one look at these sleek prototypes confirms that these are items to suit minimalist cosmopolitan living. And the Static! team's most creative inventions are captivating. The Energy Curtain, for example, is a window shade woven from textile, solar-power and light-emitting materials. It has been designed to allow people to "make direct choices over how much energy to save and spend", which it achieves by collecting sunlight during the day, and emitting it on the inside of the shade as a glowing pattern in the evening.

The Power Aware Cord, too, is a simple but inspired idea. It looks like a normal power cord, but as you use it a series of glowing lights pulse and flicker along its length, to display how much electricity is being transported through it. The piece bears all the trademark curves of classic Sixties and Seventies Swedish design. The designers hope it will "inspire people to explore and reflect upon the energy consumption of electrical devices in their home".

Guy Thompson, the director of the British environmental think-tank The Green Alliance, is impressed. "This project is a really good example of the way we need to go. Certainly, it has to be a step in the right direction to give people an everyday reminder of their energy consumption. The challenge is going to be bringing some of these eco-designs out of the niche market and into the mainstream. But it seems to me that the kind of examples they are publicising stand a good chance of doing that. I loved the flower lamp."

Thompson is in good company. With an aesthetic somewhere between a chrome vegetable steamer and UFO landing gear, the Flower Lamp - which blooms the less energy you use - has already had interest from the commercial sector, which sees it as a potential mainstream product. The Energy Curtain and the Power Aware Cord are also being looked at. But not all the Static! prototypes will finish their lives as money-spinners.

"One reason for developing a range of prototypes," says Maze, "is so that some can be seen in an art or design museum setting, while others can be tested in a large number of households in a more scientific way.

"We've certainly had a lot of commercial interest. But on the other hand, what we are trying to do is to organise a social debate around these issues. We want energy to be at the forefront, and for design to be a good way of communicating the value of looking at energy in a different way, for a more sustainable society."

Thompson, recognising that Britain is well behind Scandinavia in terms of sustainable design, says: "The Swedes are certainly trailblazers on these eco-design initiatives. In fact, Scandinavians are, across the board, trailblazers on the agenda of sustainable construction and living. The Green Alliance has looked extensively at energy consumption in the past, but always based on the approach that you can influence energy consumption through pricing.

"We haven't looked at solutions in terms of design. There have to be commercial homes for these kinds of innovative solutions, because they're nice ideas. Just looking at this kind of work has woken up my ideas about design, and will certainly prompt me to take another look at it."

So, while the UK wakes up to sustainable design, Sweden's place at the forefront of the field is making it a desirable place for international investment. It is also attracting global talent like Maze, a US architecture graduate who progressed through the Royal College of Art to the Interactive Institute.

"One of the reasons I am here," says Maze, "is that there is a deep-rooted tradition, both in technology, and in participatory forms of social decision-making, of making everyone part of a design process. It is a tradition of balancing democratic responsibility with social debate, technology with innovation."

But she is determined that Static! can make waves outside the boundaries of Sweden's design community. "We don't just speculate in an abstract way - we actually make everything. So people are able to test this stuff. And we don't want to hide this new technology behind Intellectual Property or anything like that. All we want is exposure, for people to start talking about energy like it means something."

For the rest of us, the Static! project is great news. Ethical living, it seems, doesn't have to be all about hemp rugs or organic jam. These prototypes look and feel like something you would want to own. And, with their transfer onto the commercial market inevitable, it could be only a matter of time before we say goodbye to the red stand-by button forever.

www.tii.se/static/

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