Planning the Smart Grid of 2025--Today

On March 17, play the game that will forecast the future of electricity

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Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum's "This Week in Technology." Picture this. It's the year 2025, and almost every country on the planet is building a smart grid. Two-way sensors on wires and transformers allow parts of the grid to communicate with one another—distributing power more evenly and bringing into the grid irregular energy sources, like wind farms and solar plants. Smart meters tell homeowners how much power they're using, how much they'll save by running the dishwasher at night, and maybe even what time to recharge the family car. But there are problems. Electricity is costlier than ever, and many consumers are blaming their smart meters for their rising energy bills instead of crediting them with keeping prices from rising even faster. How could it all go so wrong? Don't you wish you could go back 14 years and ask engineers and savvy consumers how best to construct—and market—the smart grid?

But we can! In real life, it's still only 2011! So we at IEEE Spectrum are turning to you for answers—and we're going to make it fun. For the second time, IEEE Spectrum has teamed up with the game designers at the Institute for the Future to create what's called a "massive multiplayer forecasting experiment." Last year, Spectrum readers and engineers from all over the world tackled the trade-offs between water and energy. This time, we're asking you to figure out the future of the smart grid, and it starts next week. On the phone with me today is Jake Dunagan who is the game's project leader at the Institute for the Future, in Palo Alto, Calif. He is also the research director there for Technology Horizons, a technology forecasting program.

Steven Cherry: Jake, welcome to the podcast.

Jake Dunagan: Thanks for having me, Steven.

Steven Cherry: Jake, for listeners who didn't get to play the water-energy game and even for those who did because this one's a little different, tell us how the smart grid game is going to work. How is it played?

Jake Dunagan: Well, the game itself, it's kind of a systematic engagement or conversation engine to get people to generate new ideas about a scenario that we're presenting and to test those ideas with hundreds of thousands of players all around the world. So, what will happen is that a player will come onto the site and they will be presented with a scenario of the smart grid in 2025 that we've developed. And they will watch that scenario, think about it, and then dive in and start playing with their peers around the world. And they'll do this by playing, basically, Twitter-size, or 140-character-size, ideas, and they can play what we call a positive imagination or a dark imagination. So, a positive reaction to elements in the scenario, or things that they don't like and they want to call out and build on, and then that starts a conversation of which people can play, and they can respond to those ideas by either asking a question about it, or building on it, or resisting it, or bringing up a counterpoint, or adapting it. And so this tool that we have, the foresight engine we call it, basically allows people to generate quite a few ideas in, kind of an easy way, a low-barrier way, and then to develop a broad amount of ideas and also to develop those ideas quickly and iterate on them in a rather rapid manner.

Steven Cherry: So, I guess there's, in other words there's kind of a brainstorming part of it, and there's also a kind of Sim City construction part of it.

Jake Dunagan: Yeah, I mean, you can think about it as a global foresight workshop, where you're working with people all around the world to generate ideas at one level, and then to start criticizing, building on them, adapting them. And so you go through a whole process of new ideas and then testing and honing those ideas as well in a rapidly iterative fashion.

Steven Cherry: That sounds pretty cool. So how exactly is it going to solve all the problems of the smart grid?

Jake Dunagan: [laughs] Well, I wouldn't be so bold as to say it will do that. But it will allow players to think about elements of the smart grid that maybe they don't do in their regular life, or that somebody can bring up an idea that they hadn't thought about and they could build on it. So it's first of all an opportunity to put yourself in the future and to actually give yourself the license to think about the future, which we tend not to do—you know, with our heads down and working on the things in front of us. So one of the things that I was inspired by in reading the literature is the idea of systems-within-system approach to the smart grid. Trying to coordinate a system of, you know, the classic grid which tends to be slow moving and very stable, with a very fast moving and innovative computer and communications technology, and trying to get those systems to work together. Well, we're adding a couple of other systems, thinking about the political and social systems in which this grid will live in, and then the system of time, so pushing it forward in time, seeing how things might play out over time.

Steven Cherry: And so I guess people can stay up until 4 in the morning with a six-pack of Jolt cola and really immerse themselves in the future, or is it possible to just play for a few minutes?

Jake Dunagan: Yeah, that's one of the great things about this format is that it rewards whatever level of engagement you want to give. So if you want to come in for 5 minutes and watch the scenario and just think about that on your own, or if you want to read what other people are saying and not participate, or if you want to spend 24 hours, you know, drinking coffee all night and adding ideas, and responding to other people's ideas and getting this conversation going, you can be rewarded for however you want to engage with the smart grid game.

Steven Cherry: And, so you keep saying "rewarded" and it is a game, so, like, there are winners?

Jake Dunagan: Well, there's a game mechanism and sort of a point system involved, so players who come up with really good ideas and generate lots of conversations get rewarded with levels and badges and things that we add to the game. And you can immediately test your success by how much other people respond to it, so it has that little bit of competitive element to it as well.

Steven Cherry: Can't really bad ideas generate a lot conversation too?

Jake Dunagan: They can, yes. But in our experience with the game, silly ideas tend to just, sort of, go away. You know, people don't really respond to them and we try and weed those out as best as possible. So if it's kind of a provocative idea that builds a conversation that's okay. Repetitive ideas or silly ideas will kind of go extinct on their own or we'll help them out.

Steven Cherry: So, lots of nonengineers played the water and energy game. Do you have to be an engineer to play with smart grids?

Jake Dunagan: No, and in fact this is one of the benefits of the format is that experts and nonexperts and people with different expertise can come in and have a conversation and contribute. So, if I'm an expert on culture, you know, I'm an anthropologist, I can come and say, "Well, you know smart meters in this culture's home may not elicit so many privacy concerns as would somewhere else." So I think everyone can give to the game their own expertise or knowledge in a productive way.

Steven Cherry: Very good. And it starts on Thursday, March 17th?

Jake Dunagan: That's right, 12 noon eastern time.

Steven Cherry: St. Patrick's day—you a little worried about that?

Jake Dunagan: [laughs] Well, you know by the end of the day we may have some—more interesting answers in conversations.

Steven Cherry: Very good. And I guess people can go to the Spectrum Web site, spectrum.ieee.org/smart-grid-2025 and click on a link that says, "Register now"?

Jake Dunagan: The game site itself will be smartgrid2025.org.

Steven Cherry: Oh, very good. Well, thanks a lot Jake and as they say in Latin ludi incipiant, or let the games begin.

Jake Dunagan: Perfect. Sounds good to me.

Steven Cherry: We've been speaking with Jake Dunagan of the Institute for the Future about the online game Smart Grid 2025, which starts on Thursday, March 17 at the Spectrum Web site. We also have links to last year's game on the trade-offs between water and energy. That game's designer was Jake's colleague Jane McGonigal, and she has a new book called Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. For IEEE Spectrum's "This Week in Technology," I'm Steven Cherry.

This interview was recorded 3 March 2011.
Segment producer: Ariel Bleicher; audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli
Follow us on Twitter @spectrumpodcast

NOTE: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners and may not perfectly match their associated interviews and narratives. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum's audio programming is the audio version.

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