Signals of change are new ideas or innovations that could change the game for sustainability in the future. Use the Futures Centre as your space to keep track of what's new to find opportunities for a sustainable future.
1) Gemma, please tell us a bit about who you are.
I’ve been designing and choreographing sustainability strategies and initiatives for twelve years: first as Head of Innovation at Forum for the Future and, more recently, as a Freelance Affiliate. My expertise is in using systems thinking to understand and respond to social and environmental problems so that we act on their underlying causes not only their symptoms. In practice, I use diverse methodologies that blend ‘left brain’ and ‘right brain’ activities to help organisations act on challenges in a holistic way.
2) How did you first start spotting signals?
Futures techniques are a vital aspect of systems thinking and of projects that aim to create systemic impact.
This is because change is happening all around us constantly so we must explore these patterns if we want to ‘succeed’ into the future and if we want to positively influence how the future unfolds. As soon as I came alive to this idea, I started seeing signals everywhere!
I also found that I tuned-in to the assumptions and inferences we make about the future - and questioned them much more.
3) Do you scan for a specific area?
Over the last couple of years I’ve been starting up a project called the Living Grid that wants to make the UK energy network more flexible and adaptive so that it can optimise renewable energy on a large scale. With this focus in mind, I’ve been scanning for technological, regulatory and social changes emerging in energy and in systems that are analogous and related to it - like food and transport.
The most interesting insight I gained was what we didn’t find! Most energy signals relate to the ‘hard’ aspects of the engineered infrastructure and the businesses that are taking new technologies to market. We found surprisingly little social innovation going on in energy. Why is this significant? Because, while we talk about digital technologies as being inherently transformative, they aren’t in isolation. Their potential to transform the energy network lies in their application and how different technologies interact together to make entirely different things possible.
Without social and cultural change in energy, we’ll end up using new technologies to do the same old things a bit better, rather than using them to do radically different things.
4) Why did you feel that “Prototype blockchain electric vehicle charging and billing system” was a signal of change?
BlockCharge is a working prototype for a seamless electricity vehicle charging system that uses blockchain technology. It aims to be a worldwide authentication, charging, and billing system that operates without the need for with no intermediary.
BlockCharge represents the convergence of a number of future possibilities. First, it illustrates a seamless experience for drivers to recharge their electric cars that would improve on the reality today.
Second, it throws up ideas about the role drivers can feasibly play in a participative and interactive energy system.
What if intelligent software could decide (or partly decide) the timing, location and extent to which a driver recharges their car so that it happens in the interests of the system as a whole?
For example, where there is an excess of wind energy on the local energy network you pass through on your commute to work, your car battery could absorb and store some of that, to avoid it going to waste.
That’s a big departure from how ordinary people relate to the energy system today.
Third, it points to the workability and benefits of greater integration between energy and transport.
Fourth, it raises questions about the new service packages that could come to market to enable citizens to earn revenues by helping to keep the supply and demand for energy in balance.
Finally, it raises questions about energy access and equality: if car owners will be in a position to offset some of their energy costs by participating in grid balancing, will people that don’t own assets be excluded from this and end up paying more? Will there be a growing divergence in energy costs between cities that can afford to install sophisticated, responsive energy networks that make more efficient use of energy, and those that can’t?
5) What are your hopes for the future?
I think technology-led innovation in energy has taken us as far as it can. The next wave is social. My hope is that businesses and civil society will pave these cultural changes to enable us to shift beyond fossil-fuels.
Climate leadership by businesses tends to focus on reducing their own carbon emissions: increasing their energy efficiency and by increasing the proportion of renewable energy they use.
This is vital, but it misses an important contribution to system change without which system change in energy is slow and difficult.
Energy from the wind and sun fluctuates up and down in a way that supplies of electricity from oil, coal and gas simply don’t. This means the more renewable energy we have on energy networks the more difficult and expensive - it is to keep the supply and demand for energy in balance and to keep the network stable. Not great for decarbonisation! But this doesn’t have to be.
If today’s passive energy consumers actively help to keep the demand and supply of energy in balance, the network will be able to optimise renewable energy on a large scale and will work more efficiently overall. Businesses and homes have increasing opportunities to do this: we can now help to store excess energy for use later on and we can subtly vary our energy consumption in tune with small fluctuations in the supply.
Today, only a handful of pioneering businesses - like Aggregate Industries, M&S, Tarmac, Sainsbury’s and United Utilities - are deliberately changing the role they are playing in the energy network in this way. If more organisations join them in adopting this ‘active’ mindset, the impact could be huge. Yet almost no-one is talking about it right now.
Hearing from Gemma always blows our mind. Thank you Gemma for sharing your visionary ideas on the way forward! Find out more about Gemma's thoughts on how corporate leaders can come alive as part of the energy system in her blog here.
// Become a signal spotter like Gemma. Submit your first here.