SustainRCA Talk On
Big Data & Our Digital Universe

The digital universe is set to grow to eight zettabytes by 2015, according to IBM (and just so you know, a zettabyte is approximately a million terabytes). We’re told the insights from this vast Big Data resource will drive new business models, products and services, and steer our future food, transport and energy systems. The intangibility of figures, however, means finding and communicating relevance and value is one of its greatest challenges.


As part of a series of talks to inspire students to embrace sustainability in their projects, SustainRCA invited three experts to discuss their work: Angela Morelli, Vin Sumner and Richard Gilbert are using data visualisation and gamification (which is the use of game thinking and game mechanics in a non-game context) in order to solve problems and change the way we manufacture products, consume goods and supply energy.

Data consultant Graham Oakes chaired the talk. Graham is the founder of Five Mile Food, which joins up consumer and corporate data to form local food networks.


Graham had brought some blueberries with him – grown in Chile and equivalent he said to 1.5 – 2 kilos of carbon dioxide in greenhouse gases. He wanted to illustrate how we continue to buy what our supermarkets stock, without really considering the seasons and where things come from. But, to say blueberries have a certain amount of carbon doesn’t mean anything to us. It’s only when we can see things in context that we can make choices that have a positive impact – and it’s easier to make those choices when we have data in a form that we can get our heads around.


Information designer Angela Morelli works with scientists to communicate the complex subject of Virtual Water and the shocking hidden demands we place on this basic resource. She collaborates with a number of research organisations in Europe and was named a 2012 Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.


Angela believes that information design plays an important role in communicating complex topics to non-technical audiences and can raise awareness about sustainability issues – in this case, Virtual Water. Working with scientists ensures that facts are accurate and reliable, and being immersed in the scientific society allows her to dig deep into the content, which facilitates a better understanding of a piece of information.

Data should be delivered as ‘stories’, Angela says. Stories are powerful – they provide a way to connect the various ‘data points’ and help the user to navigate through the information.


So what’s the story about Virtual Water? Much of our water use is obvious – it’s visible in our homes – for instance, the water we use for drinking, cooking, washing. But the big problem lies in the fact that we use many times this amount in ways we don’t realise; ways that are invisible.

The products we buy in the shops all have a water cost. They require water in their growth and production – and this is their Virtual Water content. The water required to make the products we all use, such as paper, cotton and clothes, adds up to about 167 litres per person daily.


A snapshot from Angela Morelli’s Virtual water infographic. See full animated version at

But the really big invisible use is associated with the food we eat – the water required to grow, raise, produce, package and ship that food. This amounts to 3,496 litres every day. For example there’s 140 litres hidden in a tiny espresso, or 15,400 litres hidden in a steak.


A snapshot from Angela Morelli’s Virtual water infographic. See full animated version at

Work by scientists at the WFN (Water Footprint Network) reveals that globally 92% of the water we use is invisible and hidden in our food, so there’s nothing more important than our food consumption habits; such as the amount of meat in our diet and the food we throw in the bin. Sensible food consumption and natural resource-awareness should become two of the commandments for our 21st century society, if we want to build a sustainable future.

Take a look at the video below to hear Angela talking about her project:

In building her renowned Virtual Water infographic Angela was in search of simplicity; her aim was to provide an effective reading experience that could guide the user through the words without distracting from them. She wanted words and images to dance together and the reader to be part of the dance.

For the full animated, scroll-down version of the Virtual Water infographic, see here. 


Vin Sumner is the Founder of Clicks and Links, an IT company dedicated to connecting communities through ICT (Information and Communication Technologies). Clicks and Links thinks ICT has a big role to play in energy efficiency. It can help in managing buildings, transport and in changing behaviour.


SimCity game concept art

Vin talked about gamification and the use of game engines for serious purposes to help people engage on complicated projects. His company are currently working around the role of technology in reducing our carbon footprint in cities.

Their project, UVEX (Urban Virtual Energy Exchange), a 3D tool for modelling, looks at a whole different world of how energy could be in a future urban environment. For instance, how energy flows might be managed between energy producers – such as wind farms and oil refineries – and energy consumers. They are developing models to help city policy makers consider things in various ways and make decisions in this area. The ability to model energy is becoming increasingly important as energy production becomes more diverse.


So what does an energy model of a city look like? They wanted to get away from the complexity of the engineering side of things and built more of a tube map representation, which is a simplistic way of looking at cities’ energy flows.

It uses a games engine to allow people to add and subtract things for different scenarios. There are some similarities in this approach to the game SimCity. To people who play games this is very familiar, but for people who plan cities, who’re used to spread sheets and reports, it’s a completely different way of seeing things.

Vin is currently working closely with Manchester City Council on a number of projects which are helping to measure and control energy, and manage supply and demand.


In 2009, Richard Gilbert, along with Adam Paterson and Matthew Laws, launched a company, The Agency of Design, having worked together at the Royal College of Art. As a team they had a common vision – that sustainability is not a design fad, rather, a design revolution. With backgrounds of product design, communication and engineering, they set out to fuel big change.


Richard talked to us about their project Energy Trump Cards. Data has been a theme across a lot of their work – they use it to get to the heart of a project and see what’s really going on. It was while reading the book Sustainable Energy Without Hot Air by David MacKay that he found a table of data which summarised the embedded energy and carbon for a whole host of different materials. This means the total for everything involved in a material’s production, from extraction – for example digging it out of the ground – to importing it and processing it into something usable. Embodied energy is a huge percentage of our energy consumption.

The energy table changed Richard’s perception of so many different materials – some are 2 Megajoules per Kliogram (a universal measure of energy) and some are 600.


The project began by trying to find a more intuitive way of dealing with this data, so you can see instantly the impact of the material. Take a look at the video below for a quick run-through on what Energy Trump Cards are.

Richard believes understanding the embodied energy of materials is something that should be happening at the beginning stages of designing a product. If we use energy as the driving factor in the design process, we can produce products with radically lower energy impacts. To test this process they designed a set of lamps to replace an anglepoise within 3 different energy quotas – 1, 10 and 20 Megajoules per Kilogram.


1 MEGAJOULE LAMP: When designing to 1 Megajoule you don’t get a lot of material. Surprisingly, the material that worked within this constraint was concrete, as it doesn’t take a lot of energy to make it in larger quantities.


10 MEGAJOULE LAMP: A cork and oak friction mechanism was used to avoid metal fixings (metal is high in Megajoules) and make the structure as large as possible.


10 MEGAJOULE LAMP: Detail of the sliding cork and oak friction mechanism.


20 MEGAJOULE LAMP: Uses a simple cast iron balancing mechanism (the lowest carbon energy metal).


20 MEGAJOULE LAMP: Detail of the cast iron balancing mechanism.

Richard considered this an enlightening design process because he’s gone from only loosly knowing what embodied energy is to having a data set that really helped to change his perception of material choices. This creative constraint leads you on all sorts of design tangents that you’d never go on otherwise…a fantastic way to design that they want to share.

The deck of cards is available to buy from The Agency of Design.

Other projects that Richard featured were Climate Machine and Counting Carbon.


Climate Machine is a mirror with surrounding bulbs which light up according to the information you input. The more bulbs that illuminate, the higher your carbon footprint. See the video for how it works:

Counting Carbon is a giant balloon installation that inflates to the volume of carbon dioxide released by a range of everyday activities.


The exhibit makes the numbers surrounding climate change more tangible. It was produced for the Sense and the City exhibition at the London Transport Museum. See here:


Also at the talk were RCA students David Hedberg (Information Experience Design) and Gabriele Dini (Printmaking) who gave a sneak preview of their data-constructed honey sculptures, which will show at the V&A in May.