Show the Invisible

How can you make people recognize and care about something that’s invisible?

This is the core struggle of communicating the value of energy efficiency. As efficiency pioneer (and IMT’s board chair) David Goldstein has explained, energy is different from most goods we purchase: We can’t eat, drink, or wear it; we can’t even touch it or see it.

Energy provides indirect, rather than direct, benefits, like being able to watch television or having a comfortable temperature in your home.

Then consider that efficiency means getting those same benefits but with less energy use. So efficiency suggests a reduction or an absence (of something excessive).

How do you communicate the positive value of something that’s missing? Especially when the thing itself (energy) is invisible?

It’s difficult, but it IS possible. Here are two examples of storytelling that make efficiency not just visible, but so compelling that it’s hard to look away.

The first is the Tidy Street project. For this voluntary project in 2011, residents of one street in Brighton, England, agreed to monitor and report their daily energy usage. A local street artist then painted it in a huge graphic on the street, comparing the households against the city average. Energy use dropped by 15 percent in three weeks.

The second example is the short film “Light” by David Parker. In it, the electricity we use becomes an insidious slime that oozes under doors, out of windows, and across city blocks. The eerie soundtrack makes it seem even more sinister.

The Tidy Street project works because it visualizes data — in the most public, unmissable way possible, directly on a city street. It harnesses the power of street art and graffiti to raise awareness of household energy use, and it doesn’t lecture or scold people.

“Light” succeeds by using a convention we recognize from science fiction — toxic alien slime — as a metaphor for wasteful energy use. That’s appropriate, because of course, our energy waste IS producing greenhouse gases that are toxic to us and our planet. But like the previous example, the film seeks to engage rather than scold.

Do you have other examples of communications that make energy efficiency compelling — that break the barrier of invisibility? If so, we at GBPN would love to hear them.

Amanda Kolson Hurley, Communications Director at IMT