When you buy a home water filter, like a Brita pitcher or PUR faucet attachment, it comes with a little indicator to let you know when the filter needs to be replaced. A light goes on or a color bar shortens, and it becomes easy to imagine how the contaminants you are trying to block from your water supply are now making their way into your body. Because the indicator is visible and the effects of ignoring it are personal, there’s a compelling reason to act on locating a new filter.
But if that indicator were telling you instead not how clean your water was, but simply how much you were using, the motivation to undertake a new task or change your behavior would be weak. And because almost nobody has a device at home that displays real-time water usage in the way a Brita displays (or, really, suggests) real-time contamination levels, we have no good way to visualize what we use.
“Householders’ resource consumption turns on their understanding of the utility systems that provide them with resources,” claims a Georgia Tech research paper on sustainability in the home, “However, the resource systems have faded so much into the background and become part of the everyday infrastructure in householders’ lives that tracking, monitoring and understanding in-the-moment resource consumption is not easy because it is mostly invisible.”
The researchers conclude, therefore, that “designing for domestic sustainability turns on improving the visibility of resource production and consumption costs.” Their suggested solutions revolve primarily around computing technology—sensors and such—that could turn measurements into comprehensible images and read-outs. Daily water use could be shown, for example, in bucket-shaped units that make envisioning volume easy.
Moving beyond the domestic scale, however, the problem of grasping consumption gets harder. It’s easy to imagine five buckets used inside the confines of a house in a day, but much more difficult to envision thousands or millions of buckets used across a city. It’s also harder to make municipal systems more visible to average citizens, for a whole host of reasons related to security, liability, and bureaucracy.
“The problem with the water supply is that it has to be protected, so that means for the most part that it remains hidden,” says Katherine Rinne, an architecture professor specializing in the history of water infrastructure and urban development in Rome. There, she says, the public’s familiarity with the aquaduct system as an integral piece of the city’s history increases their awareness of their water supply in general. “Unlike most other cities in the world, Rome really flaunts the fact that it has water. There’s a fountain on every third corner, there are little drinking fountains, and much of it is always flowing because it’s a gravity system so it doesn’t turn off. The point is they make it visible and they do so in a way that’s related to visual culture, to art, but also to human health…The idea, which comes from ancient Rome, is that the public has first dibs on the water.” And the result, she says, is that people know where their water comes from, how it gets to them, and where it goes.
The ubiquity of safe water in Rome, and the aesthetic sensibility with which it’s presented, doesn’t necessarily make residents more conservation conscious, argues Rinne, “although they use less water, for example, in Rome per person than say in Stockholm—a city with far more water.” That’s not to say there’s never any waste—the piping of water and the use of sewer systems to remove grey and black water from the urban core has the secondary effect of eliminating natural absorption of water into the city’s permeable surfaces (of which there used to be far more before asphalt freeways and big box parking lots). It’s inefficient when water you just used to wash your hands gets ferried immediately into oblivion—it’s more than inefficient when that process is multiplied across the population of a city.
In his book H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness, social critic Ivan Illich notes, “As far as I can determine, all non-Roman cities into which water was brought from afar had, without exception and until recently, one thing in common: the water that the aqueduct brought across the city lines was absorbed by urban soil…The idea that we now take for granted, that water piped into the city must leave the city by its sewers is very modern; it did not become a guideline for urban design until a time when most cities had railroad stations and their streets began to be lighted by gas.”
To undo the urban design strategies that enable us to take water for granted and waste it in vast quantities seems like quite a feat if the solution involves revealing infrastructure that’s long been concealed. But if we can’t make the pipes and reservoirs more physically visible, we can certainly make their workings virtually clear.
“I see our modern aqueduct more like a flowing data stream, revealing leaks and inefficiencies in every building, or every block of every city,” says Jeremy Fisher, managing director at Hyphae Design Lab, an ecological engineering firm in Oakland, California. Fisher advocates “increasing the data resolution by installing far more sub-meters throughout our cities and municipalities.”
In other words, like the Georgia Tech researchers suggested, solving our modern water problem at scale is enabled in part by modern technology—the ability to surface consumption data at a granular level and make it visible to the consumer (not unlike the purity indicator on a water filter) then develop simple, accessible fixes. “People can’t change until there is a greater understanding of where the water is being used,” Fisher continues, “and we can’t know that until figuring it out becomes a priority.”