Overview

Energy is an abstraction. It provides a common measurement for vastly different kinds of capabilities, and so requires plans, images, narratives, and other kinds of accounts to make it useful for policy and design. Energy accounts take many forms, from data-driven resource projections to heat or air flow simulations in buildings to images of future cars, cities, and regions. Architectural, urban, and infrastructural plans are based on scenarios developed by economists, demographers, and policy analysts, but also shape those scenarios, and together they rest on deeper narratives about risk, growth, and the common good.
Data visualization has developed increasingly complex relationships to strategies for transforming patterns of energy use, as narratives and depictions of the future have become enmeshed in cultural and political debates. Designers have embraced this new role as interpreters of complex data—OMA/AMO’s recent project on Eneropa, for example, seeks to envision a Europe re-organized according to the regional availability of tidal, solar, and geothermal energy.

Digital simulations of building energy performance are used to predict typical or probable futures and have become ubiquitous in design journals and architecture school juries. Performance projections, flow diagrams, pseudo-color renderings, and other representations of energy only make sense in the context of underlying assumptions or arguments about resource consumption. Narratives produced by journalists and policy advisors help catalyze discussions, but central to all these accounts are the terms by which the future is read through apocalyptic, utopian, or business-as-usual futures. By making the concerns of economists, energy forecasters, physicists, and others more legible, the design fields have entered into a broad set of questions about culture, communication, and the policy barriers to an effective debate about energy.