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What’s the meaning of smart? Sociotechnical report

3S Logo“What’s the meaning of ‘smart’? A study of smart grids” is the title of a report from a recent multidisciplinary study conducted by the Science, Society and Sustainability (3S) Group of the University of East Anglia. The study was conducted to explore what smartness in electricity grids looks like when seen from perspectives other than as a technical solution to the energy trilemma. It included participants from different sectors, ranging across Government, utilities, NGOs, academia, commercial organisations, community energy groups and end-users of electricity. A working hypothesis was, to be smart, electricity grids have to encourage engagement and adoption by end users as well as function with the other commonly accepted technical characteristics.

Key messages to emerge from the study show how possible future smart grids should not be constrained to only a technical vision but should be receptive to the multiple perspectives, visions, hopes and concerns from different sectors and energy actors. There is in fact no singular future vision for smart grids. The findings demonstrate that smart grids are not only a technical matter and their success depends upon integration with social smartness as well. Important implications arise from this in terms of visions for possible smart grid development and success. The overall message is that because the processes of policy-making, decision-making, design and innovation that will lead to future smart grids will be distributed and multiple, then strategies for accounting for the social dimensions of these processes will themselves have to be diverse rather than prescriptive.

The study found eight critical issues as focal points from the perspectives of participants contributing criteria to the meanings of smart - these included equity, inclusion and governance as well as the more familiar issues of data security, supply security, technical feasibility, finance and environment. Attempts to govern and steer developments around future smart grids therefore need to be more open and responsive to these diverse points of view and actions, not least because they could otherwise represent barriers to successful development of smarter grids.

The scope of problem framing formed by the energy trilemma, used by industry and Government as the dominant smart grid paradigm, then also becomes questionable. What the study revealed, was the problems smart grids must address extend beyond a trilemma to include the socially important dimensions of equity, inclusion, governance and non-traditional financial arrangements, for example.  This important realisation presents a challenge to how developments of future smart grids are steered, to open up and not only be centralised; it is proposed that how they shape up should be formed my multiple distributed practices and actions across public, private, research and civil society sectors, in addition to the establish technical mechanisms.

Future work on smart grid development (and other similar domains) should therefore place more emphasis on understanding what it is to be socially smart and how it intersects with technical understandings. But what are the means and processes by which this could take place? We need tools, devices, procedures and ways of being that seek the meaning of socially smart - including concerns over equity, inclusion, directionality, privacy and trust – to bring into smart grid design and innovation processes. The report describes how some of these challenges were addressed by 3S researchers but further support is now required to continue this exploration into practice.

“What’s the meaning of ‘smart’? A study of smart grids”, Sociotechnical Report can be found here...

For correspondence, please contact: Dr. Nigel Hargreaves (