Examining the Results of the Smart Grid 2025 Game

Here's what game players like you predict for our electricity future

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Download all the data from the Smart Grid 2025 game from http://blog.smartgrid2025.org/?p=209 to suss out trends or discover ideas you think are worth pursuing. Post links to your visualizations, word clouds, and other data-driven creations to Smart Grid 2025 game blog or send them to h.goldstein@ieee.org.

Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “This Week in Technology.”

One of the hottest topics in engineering is the smart grid—the idea of adding computer intelligence to a nation’s basic electrical grid. The goal is to transport and use energy more efficiently in the grid itself but also in your home. By adding intelligence to our electric meters, fuse boxes, even our home appliances, each of us can use electricity more wisely and consume less of it.

But it’s still early days for smart grid deployment. In fact, today, the smart grid still raises more questions than it answers—questions like, Who will profit from the smart grid? How do we keep the smart grid from knowing too much about our personal lives? Is the smart grid dangerously hackable? Will the smart grid force you to do your laundry at night? Will the smart grid make us healthier? What kind of appliances are needed to accommodate the smart grid?

Remarkably, my guest today comes equipped to answer all these questions! On March 17, game designers at the Institute for the Future, in collaboration with us at IEEE Spectrum, ran a 24-hour forecasting game that we called Smart Grid 2025. We enlisted the help of listeners like you and game players around the world to brainstorm solutions to the problems the smart grid will face, so that by 2025—when all our homes have smart meters and utilities are linking up wind farms and solar plants to national grids—it’ll all be running as smoothly as it possibly can.

On the phone with me is Jake Dunagan, the game’s project leader at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California. He was on this show in early March in advance of the Smart Grid 2025 game to tell us how it would work, and now he’s here to tell us how it went. Jake, welcome back to the podcast.

Jake Dunagan: Thanks for having me back, Steven.

Steven Cherry: Jake, don’t feel any pressure now. I have only about 84 more questions about the future of the smart grid, so let’s get right to it. [laughs] On the off chance one of our listeners was busy that day and didn’t play, why don’t you remind us how the game worked?

Jake Dunagan: Sure. So we developed a scenario about the smart grid in 2025, one possible future that it might take. And we had plenty of players come in, register, watch the video, and then engage in a process where they imagined both positive things that happened in that scenario and negative things that occurred in the scenario, and then had conversations around those ideas. So we ended up having over 166 active participants, over 600 registered participants, the video was watched almost 2500 times, and we ended up having over 4000 unique ideas, or cards, played by those users.

Steven Cherry: I understand the biggest thread was about power electronics converter prices. Why don’t you tell us how that thread worked out, and you know, maybe start with what the heck that is?

Jake Dunagan: Yeah, sure. So we had a player, Rommel Vicini, post about the idea of kind of a trade-off between rising fuel costs incentivizing other energy sources and conversion technologies, and that led into a 40-card conversation around—they sort of split into two different conversations: one about intermittent power for renewables and how to solve that problem with batteries and storage and other technologies, and then on the other end looking for benefits for consumers on the bottom of the cost pyramid, business opportunities for servicing low-income people and finding opportunities there. So one little idea like that sparked 10 players into a pretty long conversation with some interesting results.

Steven Cherry: There were some observations I thought were really interesting. One was about the digital divide showing itself in the smart grid, and I guess a related one was that affluence means not having to drive.

Jake Dunagan: So you might think of the smart grid divide as compared to a digital divide, so the idea of conspicuous conservation or that only the rich can actually afford these kind of technologies and the poor will be left to be inefficient or using energy poorly. So the idea that smart meters—there’ll be sort of a wealth disparity and technology disparity between the rich and poor and that will show itself in the smart grid as well.

Steven Cherry: The games that the Institute for the Future designed, they have what you call “dark imagination cards” and “positive imagination cards.” Did one or the other predominate here? And I guess that’s another way of asking, were the game players on the whole generally optimistic or pessimistic?

Jake Dunagan: Well, I have a couple of ways of answering that. So just on the numbers, the positive imagination cards were played at about a 2 to 1 pace to the dark imagination cards. But to me, I think the mood or the vibe, sort of the point of the question that you’re asking, I think, is that people were really pragmatic and they were solutions oriented. So I think even though the mood tended to the positive imaginations as far as the cards played, I think people were really interested in finding ways of solving problems. And you know, another thing that’s sort of happened between the first time we talked and now is the whole earthquake, tsunami, and near meltdown in Japan. And honestly I was surprised that that didn’t play more of a role in the game—that people weren’t so negatively affected by that bad news. There’s a saying in the futures business called “the crackpot realism of the present,” so people tend to view the future out of the lens of today, and even though with all that happening in Japan, I think people were still very positive about what the smart grid can do and actually, you know, could solve some of the problems we’re seeing today.

Steven Cherry: So in the end Smart Grid 2025 was a game. Who won?

Jake Dunagan: Well, this also gets complex. So a player named Raoul Villar won by the bulk points we had, which tend to reward longer conversations, so if you have a card that’s played and other people have that conversation, then that player is rewarded. But sometimes—I think this happened in our game—some of these threads got to be so long that the points were so high, that some players zoomed ahead of others. So I found on our blog one of the players actually came up with an alternative system of scoring and a proposal to declare different winners for the Smart Grid game. Now in this person’s model, the player EWPC-AF CREATOR won, with SECRET ENGINEER second, MATHPUNK third, and Raoul Villar came in fourth, and LEAKFOOT came in fifth. So we had players sort of reimagining our scoring system to find something more fair in their eyes.

Steven Cherry: That’s very cool. So you had all of these cards and all of these threads. What happens to the data now?

Jake Dunagan: So we have all of the bulk data, you know, over 4500 unique ideas that can be accessed on the blog right now—it’s blog.smartgrid2025.org—and in that post, the first post there, there you’ll see a CSV file that has all the information, and that’s available now, and people have already started to do things with it. There’s been a word tree made out of that data, and others are starting to analyze it as it exists, so that’s open to the public. IEEE may do some articles—there may be some more formal follow-ups, but I would encourage listeners and users to go out there and dive in and find out what patterns they’re seeing, and do some analysis of the data that’s out there already.

Steven Cherry: Very good. And we’ll have a link to the data on the Web page for the podcast and a way for listeners to contact you with anything they come up with.

Jake Dunagan: Great. Glad to see it.

Steven Cherry: Jake, I understand your colleague Jane Migonigal is going to be in New York City in May running a new game called Find the Future. And some fortunate participants are going to have some all-night adventure at the New York Public Library on Fifth Ave.—that’s the famous one with the lions in front that was in the movie Ghostbusters.

Jake, I know the Spectrum staff has really enjoyed these game scenarios as a new way of drawing from the wisdom of the crowd in researching and reporting a complicated story like the smart grid. Thanks for coming back to the show.

Jake Dunagan: Thanks for having me, Steven.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with Jake Dunagan of the Institute for the Future about the IEEE Spectrum multiplayer forecasting game Smart Grid 2025, getting some insight on the future of the smart grid. For IEEE Spectrum’s “This Week in Technology,” I’m Steven Cherry.

This interview was recorded 4 April 2011.
Segment producer: Ariel Bleicher; audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli
Follow us on Twitter @spectrumpodcast

Download all the data from the Smart Grid 2025 game from http://blog.smartgrid2025.org/?p=209 to suss out trends or discover ideas you think are worth pursuing. Post links to your visualizations, word clouds, and other data-driven creations to Smart Grid 2025 game blog or send them to h.goldstein@ieee.org.