how can we make the past and present of sustainability engaging?

We were selected as finalists to design an interactive public art installation at Harvard University focused on encouraging broader awareness and reductions of energy use on campus. 

Our proposal called Grove was an interactive sculptures made up of numerous ‘ghost trees’ that collectively visualized the real-time energy use of Harvard students while uncovering highlights of Harvard University’s rich ecological history from the work of Harvard faculty and alumni including Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, to the current research and action taking place around campus, as well as the current campus wide sustainability initiative. Our proposal was located in Harvard Yard, the historic center of the university and a space that is ostensibly permanent despite its gradual evolution over time. The design called for the creation of a gathering of ‘ghost trees’ that formally alludes to the old Elm trees that were torn out due to spread of Dutch Elm Disease as well as humanities complex emotional response to the ephemeral qualities of the natural world and our impacts on it. 

The interactive ghost trees arrayed throughout the yard were made up of bundled threads of LED lights that created a dynamic beacon with which to visualize the real-time use of resources by Harvard students in an artistic way that encouraged the students to be more aware and mindful of their own energy use. The ghost trees also offered educational moments and historical information for those interested by using sensors, touch-screens and speakers to share stories and narratives about Harvard’s ecological history, current research, and techniques visitors could use to reduce their own energy use. The physical installation itself was part of a larger community based design strategy that offered members of the Harvard community a way to take action into their own hands through competitive energy use challenges, collective hacking events, and micro-grants for actions that students or groups proposed to make a difference and motivate others to help move the needle toward achieving the campus wide sustainability goals.