Five shifts to begin a new story for energy
A global conversation surfaces five ways to begin the foundation for a resilient energy system inspired by life.
In May 2017, Forum for the Future and SmartestEnergy held a global online conversation asking: How might we design an energy system inspired by life? It’s the first time a community of people and organisations has come together to consider a different future for our energy system, looking at all its aspects: from infrastructure design to behaviours, skills and interactions.
Our collective is called The Living Grid. We came together to deliberately challenge the beliefs we hold about our energy future, in order to open up solutions to us that are not possible using the same thinking that created our fossil-fuel powered grid. We see a mismatch between our human energy network and the wider energy system that has evolved here over the last 3.8 billion years of life — and that’s the root cause of climate change. As our energy grid enters the digital era, we’re exploring how we can use these technologies to make our alien energy system part of nature again. For example: can we cycle renewable energy through a closed-loop and cooperative system?
Over the last month, we’ve invited corporate energy users, academics, community energy organisations, local authorities and experts in energy and technology to contribute their opinions and reflections, inspired by experts in regenerative development and biomimicry. We asked:
The dominant story of sustainability is a fearful tale of scarcity, negative impacts and disruptive change in the face of growing socio-economic needs. Its subtext is uncertainty and sacrifice. To move forward, an alternative story of sustainability is needed to motivate us: one of positive impacts leading to an abundant, flourishing work. What can nature teach us about a better way to thrive?
Our human energy system sticks out like a sore thumb from the energy system that’s evolved here over the last 3.8 billion years. Rather than cycle solar energy through a closed-loop, cooperative system — as other life forms do — our linear, centralised grid releases energy into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, wasting it rather than recapturing it. How can we make our human energy system part and parcel of nature again?
How many ecosystems can you think of where one participant sits at the end of a chain of relationships using services without responding or contributing? That’s what we do as consumers in our human energy grid: it keeps us warm, fed, entertained, mobile and productive, providing us with these services whenever and in whatever quantity we want, asking simply for payment. This narrow, passive role results in one-way flows of energy that lead to waste. What difference would it make to the system if we participated in a more active and synergistic way?
Five discoveries that made our antennae twitch
Over the next month, we’re going to delve into the rich and wide-ranging insights our conversation surfaced, spotting themes, patterns and new questions to pursue. Watch out for a full synopsis at the end of June.
In the meantime, here are five shifts that clearly stand out as a way to move towards a life-like, self-renewing energy system.
1. Shift from designing fixed solutions for the grid, to designing for relationships
Anna Birney describes four qualities of a living systems perspective that stem from a view of life as a single, interconnected, continuum. This perspective sees human society as an embedded, interdependent part of nature so our ability to flourish is intrinsically linked with the whole. This means interrelationships are key:
- Dynamic relationships — recognising that we are in constant flow, in dynamic interaction
- Self-organisation — a spontaneous process that is life’s inherent tendency towards novelty
- Life as a continuum — acknowledging that changes come together in a complex, continual process of emergence
- Nested wholes — seeing society as part of nature, not distinct from it — including humans
Dominique Hes calls this perspective a ‘whole system’ approach to development and draws out distinctions between this and our present, mechanistic view of the world.
Daniel Wahl introduces a framework for regenerative design for taking this approach into action. He emphasises that an understanding interconnectedness and the interdependence systems — including energy — is central to this.
Becky Gough says a lack of relationships in our energy grid is increasing the risk that electric-vehicle-to-grid charging will destabilise it, when it could be helping with balancing supply and demand. She says more engagement and communication amongst all actors is needed, to make the most of these emerging technologies.
Anna Simpson says that our understanding of cooperative relationships in living systems is reaching new levels. Underground threads of fungus — called mycelium — have been discovered that act as a sort of internet for plants by enabling chemical messages to be shared across complex networks. These fungal networks share nutrients, exchange carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus, boost immune systems and defend against toxic neighbours, through the release of chemicals.
Questions this raises:
Living systems aren’t ‘designed’ in a planned or predictive way and they are always changing — never fixed — yet we talk about our energy system in exactly these terms. There’s an implicit message that we must find the ‘correct’ choice of technology or arrive at a particular destination — often a scenario set in 2030 or 2050.
Living systems teach us that, to improve our human energy grid, we should focus less on individual, tightly scoped problems and more on relationships and flows between different elements of the system. What are the successful patterns and processes that are forming its structure and the dynamics that give rise to desirable and undesirable phenomena. As there are no fixed solutions, how can we design relationships that enable an emergent system? As cooperation is key, what structures should we design to support it?
2. Shift from centralised management to grassroots participation
Richard Hoggett reminds us that, changing one part of the energy system has consequences elsewhere so we must look across heat, power and transport to realise the best technical, economic and social options. He says many new solutions are entering generation, heat and the demand side of the grid in a random way. If we want a more dynamic, nuanced system that seizes the opportunities that new technologies, ICT, storage, controls, and microgeneration offer, we must optimise the system at each level, from the bottom up: starting with homes and businesses up to a macro level.
Sarah Best agrees that energy solutions, however they are delivered, need to be more ‘people-centred’. Accelerating change will require transforming the energy sector’s culture, education and leadership, strengthening civil society advocacy, and creating new spaces for cross-sector innovation.
Gordon Walker shows us how ‘peak demand’ as a very social thing; an expression of the patterns of our lives and other interactions in society. We don’t tend to work with these underlying patterns to manage the system as a whole, we’re focused on dealing with the results. Could thinking and acting in patterns produce better outcomes?
Pia Mancini talks about the mismatch between “21st century citizens interacting with 19th century institutions with 15th century technologies” and calls for us to reimagine democracy with help from technologies like blockchain. In a distributed grid, do we need new structures to enable us to get involved and act in enlightened self-interest?
Questions this raises:
More profligate digital technologies and a more interactive grid won’t automatically lead to a better system that serves citizens and benefits society. We need a shift at the level of culture and governance to usher in a more self-organising system that serves the needs of participants at different levels. How can we enable productive and efficient participation by ordinary citizens, businesses and other organisations?
3. Shift our mindset from being consumers or providers to active participants
Jon Alexander points out the importance of our mindset in shaping how we participate in the energy grid: as long as we see ourselves as consumers our passive relationship with energy as utility for us to buy and use, will prevail. For a new relationship with energy, we need a new identity: that of the active citizen.
Robert Groves says that a world of possibility is emerging for businesses to do more with electricity as flexibility in how we manage supply and demand becomes more important and as opportunities to receive and offer value from this flexibility expand. In this way, Saint Gobain saved £165,000 on its energy bills.
Jeff Hardy echoes the idea that today’s energy users are ‘coming to life’ through new opportunities to produce and help manage the flow and availability of energy — as well as using it. This is just the start: check out Bankymoon and Brooklyn Microgrid.
We know Blockchain could play a role in facilitating these more interactive flows of energy and resources around the system — with new financial models to match. New research sets out how it is already being applied to energy.
Andy Pennick shares how United Utilities is becoming an active participant in the grid by timing the use of its water pumps to help match UK energy demand with rises and falls of renewable energy across the grid.
Questions this raises:
We’re on the brink of a digital revolution in energy that could unleash more diverse ways for us to participate in the grid. It’s worth remembering that technologies are simply tools and we must choose how to apply them. The mindset, beliefs and values we bring to that will shape how they’re used. How can we deliberately embrace an identity for ourselves that is beyond ‘the consumer’?
4. Shift from designing for ‘energy security’ to designing for resilience and flux
Melissa Sterry invites us to revisit our understanding of security and our approach to change in the context of our energy system. Living systems maintain stability over time by embracing change rather than by resisting it. At present, we talk about a low carbon energy system as a fixed state. What if we saw it as a dynamic state instead? Stability would lie in maintaining the ability to absorb shocks, adapt to change and transform when necessary, while keeping the overall system within life-enhancing parameters.
Michael Pawlyn shares lessons from social insects and other living systems to help us develop a system of decentralised checks and balances for our human energy grid, that are well-suited for managing the use of renewable energy. Whereas our man-made energy system has hierarchical controls, nature’s system is self-regulating. Using biomimicry to emulate nature’s approach would promote energy security through resilience rather than robustness.
Blockchain could play a role in facilitating these more interactive flows of energy and resources — with new financial models to match. New research sets out how it is already being applied to energy and how this might develop.
Here’s an example of how our human energy system is adopting this approach: just as more metabolising takes place in nature when energy is available and less when it isn’t — with plants storing energy as sugar and animals as fat — it’s now possible for us to use smart controls to power equipment down during short-term peaks in demand and by varying the cost of energy to reflect periods when availability is constrained. The first time-of-use energy tariff has been launched in the UK.
Questions this raises:
At present, we’re tweaking our energy grid in the belief we can accomplish a controlled transition from a carbon-intensive state to a low carbon one. How would our approach to managing the energy transition differ if we saw the evolution of our grid as a journey rather than as a destination? If we were to approach energy as a living system, we’d be fostering rebirth, renewal and the emergence of evolved solutions. Can this be compatible with maintaining energy ‘security’, or stability of supply?
5. Shift from imagining a mechanistic grid to imagining a thriving, holistic system
Bill Reed of the Regenesis Group talks about the importance of being in a caring relationship with all life as the foundation of a positive and thriving coexistence for humanity: a thriving future requires a co-evolutionary approach. He says a thriving future for humanity requires a co-evolutionary approach. To do this, we must develop life-supporting relationships that are grounded in the places we live or act, as unique ecological systems. In five principles of living systems design, he points out that every place is unique, alive and whole.
Ash Buchanan quotes Elisabet Sahtouris when he says cooperation consumes less energy than expansion. He compares this to species evolution, which moves from ‘empire-building’ in which it establishes its identity and territories, to an integrative phase of building constructive, reciprocal relationships. Can human systems progress in this way, by moving to a cooperative development phase?
Dominique Hes and Chrisna Du Plessis invite us to consider our worldview. They argue that we’re not acting decisively on issues like climate change because the choices we must make fly in the face of everything we have been told we must do to be happy and successful. If we’re serious about sustainability, we must revisit our fundamental understanding of humanity and our place in the world to reframe everything. An ‘ecological’ worldview offers a better guide for development than our present, mechanistic one and share values and guidelines for embodying this in practice.
Questions this raises:
When we use buzzwords like ‘decentralised’, ‘digital’ and ‘decarbonised’ to describe the future of our energy system they imply a pretty profound shift in the nature of relationships within the grid and in the way the grid interacts with other systems — like mobility and food — yet we talk about them in very mechanical, technology-orientated terms that make little reference to people and wider life. In contrast, articles about regenerative design emphasise physical and social interactions, human values and decision-making principles — with little mention of technologies.
For our human energy system to run on renewable energy and behave in sync with the wider, living energy system it’s part of, we must be able to consider how all aspects of the system interact. Are we missing the relational vocabulary and ways of thinking and talking to be able to do that?
Forum for the Future is using this Explorer to inform the next stage of the Living Grid. As part of this, we’re continuing to develop the concept of an energy system inspired by life. You can keep track and chip-in using the #livinggrid hashtag on Twitter. To find out more or to understand how you can get involved in the Living Grid project get in touch with Gemma Adams or Heidi Hauf or email email@example.com.
— By Gemma Adams
This article was first published on the Futures Centre on 25 May 2017.