Energy professionals, city planners and policymakers have been too caught up in the technology underpinning smart grids and smart cities. Pep Salas Prat, Lecturer at the University of Barcelona and a course director at The Institute of Sustainable Energy by InnoEnergy (iSE), argues that smart infrastructure is only worthwhile if it is built with the needs of people at its heart.
Cities around the world dream of becoming smart cities. But all too often their efforts lack a coherent strategy. A sackful of sensors does not make a city smart. And unless carefully analysed, all the data in the world will not help city planners and power professionals to make better decisions. Rather, they need only collect the right data at the right time to gain the insight with which to innovate.
Unfortunately, that is not what they are doing. The problem is that city planners and energy professionals have fallen in love with smart grid technology. They know that it has huge potential and think that they just need to apply it to achieve their aims.
This approach is back to front. Instead of swooning over the solution, those tasked with designing our smart cities should be focused on winning the hearts of the end users: those who live in the cities and whose problems they hope to solve.
True innovation is about people
Building a smart grid is not true innovation. But building one around people’s lives, to help them to live more comfortably, affordably and sustainably is innovation of the highest order.
That is the real promise of smart grids within smart cities. In an ideal world, citizens’ data would be collected from smart devices and appliances and aggregated across the network in real-time. The grid would then respond to provide power wherever and whenever needed in the most efficient way possible – saving people money and reducing the emissions associated with surplus energy production.
But we are a long way off. From privacy and security concerns to the perception that utilities firms are faceless, impersonal corporations, there are any number of reasons that the public is reluctant to share this data with power providers.
Those responsible for building our smart cities need to take notice and take action to reassure consumers that they understand the data belongs to the user, not the utility. That they will collect, store and share citizens’ data responsibly. And that they will use it to innovate. That means to improve people’s lives.
Microgrids as neighbourhoods
This means taking into account how people want to organise their lives. One such example is the rise of energy communities, such as in Bristol, UK, of which microgrids are the next logical extension.
As micro-scale renewable solutions become more affordable, we are set to see a great increase in their uptake, with small communities pooling their resources together on microgrids. These will be the neighbourhoods that make up our smart cities.
City planners and power professionals need to think differently to remain relevant to such communities. No longer can they act as all-powerful providers of energy, pumping it in one direction across the grid. They will need to become collaborators, working with communities to enable them to live the lives they wish to lead.
Education enabling empathy
This is asking a lot. And, as is so often the case, education is the answer. As local authorities look to help citizens develop a more flexible infrastructure and utilities pivot to the provision of services, rather than kilowatt-hours, they will need to understand two things: the electricity value chain, going beyond their own role within it, and the needs, desires and behaviours of energy consumers, who they must support in their ambitions.
Working together with iSE by InnoEnergy, I have designed a course, Smart Grids for Smart Cities: Towards Zero Emissions, to provide just such an education. The online programme has been created to empower city planners and power professionals to develop innovative new solutions to the issues that arise as they build our smart cities. Solutions that take into account all elements of the power production, distribution and consumption process – and most critically the role of people within all stages of it.
Because ultimately, it’s only by showing citizens the same love that they do to technology, that those responsible for designing smart cities will be able to keep their most important relationship alive.