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  • Nigel Hargreaves

What's the meaning of 'smart'? A study of smart grids

EPSRC, 2015

N. Hargreaves, T. Hargreaves, J. Chilvers


The research published in this report has been undertaken over the course of a one-year exploration into the meaning of 'smart' in the context of, but not necessarily limited to, the GB electricity system. A key aim was to expose and articulate for the first time, criteria, concerns and considerations from a diverse array of electricity system stakeholders to reveal where comparable and contrasting understandings of smart grids lay. It was our intention to address stakeholders that were not normally included in such a technologically dominated debate, such as electricity end-users, who form a 'critical node' in electricity systems. This enquiry was particularly timely with the imminent mass rollout of electricity smart meters in the UK.

The findings of our analysis demonstrate that smart grids are not only a technical matter but depend upon integration with social smartness as well. Important implications arise from this in terms of vision for possible smart grid development and success. They also revealed how a lack of attention paid to considerations of social smartness risk missing the potential for future grids to be fully integrative across social and technical interfaces. This work found eight critical issues as focal points from the perspectives of our study participants contributing to the meanings of smart - these included criteria around equity, inclusion and governance as well as the more familiar issues of data security, supply security, technical feasibility, finance and environment.

These critical issues are representative of an underlying weave of numerous nuanced concerns and considerations that form a complex spread of social and technical factors for smartness in electricity systems and their associated markets. What this told us was there is no singular meaning of smart as it is seen differently through the perspectives of different people from different sectors. The implication for smart grid making from this discovery is that processes of policy-making, decision-making, design and innovation that will lead to future smart grids will need to be distributed and multiple. Then strategies accounting for the social dimensions of these processes will themselves have to be diverse rather than prescriptive. Following this, problem framing will need to be opened-up to a wider set of considerations than are currently focused upon through the energy trilemma.

If future work on smart grid development should therefore place more emphasis on understanding what it is to be socially smart and how it intersects with established technical understandings, what are the means and processes by which this could take place? We need to bring tools, devices, procedures and ways of being that seek the meaning of socially smart - including concerns over equity, inclusion, directionality, privacy and trust - into smart grid design and innovation processes. In our conclusions we suggest in more detail how these can be created and how this work can be applied and furthered to maintain clearer direction in the forming and reforming of future smart grids.

A significant finding from this research reflected upon the inadequacy of the so called energy trilemma to express the problem which smart grid development sought to address. By limiting the scope of the intended solution primarily to techno-economic concerns, important understandings of smart grid influence upon social inclusion, equity and governance was overlooked that has ramifications exposed by today's energy crisis. It raised the question how smart grids could also therefore be designed as socially smart.


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