An emergent alternative to our current system is the microgrid, uniquely exemplified at the Illinois Institute of Technology, that combines renewable energy sources with intelligent and reliable energy distribution. Institute of Design faculty and students built a collection of design interventions that leverage the possibilities of thinking of and using the microgrid as a civic infrastructure.
Our system of solutions illustrates a shift in the energy paradigm: we not only demonstrate the use of renewable energy sources, we show how the use of renewable energy through microgrids can grow local economies and advance an equitable energy democracy.
The complex problem of our current grid infrastructure has been explored at length, including by our 2021 Lucas J. Daniel speaker Gretchen Bakke, author of The Grid—a favorite book of Bill Gates "about mundane stuff that is actually fascinating."
But envisioning the microgrid as a civic infrastructure requires moving beyond its conception as a technical infrastructure to consider its social, economic, and environmental dimensions intertwined with the countless artifacts through which we source, distribute, and regulate electricity. Unfolding the microgrid elements, a shared pool of tangible and intangible resources helped us envision new configurations of these resources that can activate new choices to support sustainability goals in the long term. By integrating the lenses of equity, circular economy, behavioral design, and anti-racism into our hands-on exploration, we discovered new opportunity spaces that can activate the microgrid as civic infrastructure.
Our exploration centered on the choices that could shape a new energy paradigm: one that would move toward sustainable energy sourcing and lead to equitable outcomes for communities. >Our discoveries consolidated into three complementary themes that propose ways to recombine our shared resources through infrastructural design interventions, reimagining microgrids as civic infrastructures:
1. Diversifying Energy Sources: We propose a tactical activation of existing resources such as spaces, technologies, and cultures through new features that can advance collective stewardship of energy infrastructures. Buildings manage (produce, control, exchange, store, etc.) their energy and communities prioritize sustainable generation by recycling the grey energy that is otherwise lost, contributing to surplus energy generation that can be sold.
2. Advancing Energy Democracy: The emerging affordances and capabilities of microgrids can strengthen civic engagement beyond the energy sector. An essential lever for this is energy education: the proposed Energy Hub Co-op is an institution where community members can gain the skills and knowledge necessary to govern the local energy infrastructure. The Digital Community Square and its embedded algorithms afford visualizing and conceptualizing community data for the community members to reimagine new ways of addressing emerging energy needs.
3. Growing Local Economy: Our sustainable solutions create opportunities for residents to self-select options that suit them best and self-organize through the P2P networks and platforms. Collective capacity of community members and the economic potential of their assets are strengthened through the actions enabled by the Energy Hub Co-op. This people centered enterprise safeguards the networked system and marketplace platform transactions like matching, trading, buying or providing services (or energy). The hub enables new opportunities for community members to offer and advance their technical expertise in exchange for credits, which can in turn be redeemed to acquire microgrid technologies or other services.
Our system of solutions frames a new energy paradigm that leverages the microgrid. We propose to move:
•From data collection/reporting to data-enabled intelligence accessible to the public; • From central governance to distributed governance; • From inequitable energy distribution to equitable incentive mechanisms
We need to think about energy beyond just as a commodity.
Relying on our current energy infrastructure fundamentally threatens our pursuit of transition to sustainable and resilient energy futures. In the face of this challenge, consumer-driven sustainability narratives keep placing the onus on the end users to adopt sustainable practices and switch to energy-efficient products. However, it becomes increasingly clear that such large-scale transitions require the design of infrastructural interventions that can purposefully align policies and stakeholders towards sustainable energy systems.
This project proposes an integrated way of relating to energy, where communities are the protagonists rather than passive users. We build this through an iterative approach that combines tangible prototyping, computation, and diverse lenses to consider non-technical dimensions of energy:
1. Generative Prototyping
We used generative prototyping through cycles of rapid iteration by building physical objects to communicate ideas, generate questions, and provoke critique. These prototypes are used as tangible props to navigate the problem space, explore opportunity areas, envision new affordances, and surface ethical concerns.
2. Different Lenses
By integrating the lenses of equity, circular economy, behavioral design, and anti-racism into our hands-on exploration, we discovered new opportunity spaces that can activate the microgrid as civic infrastructure.
3. Computation as a Core Element
We used computation as a core ingredient of prototyping to explore the features needed to build collective intelligence as a means to increase the adaptive capacity of the infrastructure and to foster more equitable outcomes for the various users that carry the burden of our current energy paradigm.
We are addressing two large-scale, complex problems: our failing energy infrastructures and climate change. We have an opportunity to address both. We can mitigate climate change by transitioning to a renewable energy system, but to do so we have to start rethinking the systems of delivery. We have to reimagine the electricity grid itself. "The microgrid concept," according to Charles L. Owen Professor of Design Carlos Teixeira, "allows us to move from a traditional mass-production/mass-consumption model to a distributed system of production and consumption. It will require behavior change at the individual level but also at the community level, and human-centered design can help facilitate these changes as they unfold in the energy sector."
As we build new energy infrastructures, the mindsets and principles through which we design new interventions matter just as much as the objects of these interventions. And our approaches are available for anyone to evangelize, customize, or adopt.
In fact, as we presented this project to the public, including experts from our local utility company and sustainability advocates, the proposed landscape of solutions enabled them to envision new pathways towards sustainable energy infrastructures.
Thus the proposed solution system is a malleable one, founded on principles of energy governance that can be extended across various contexts. Our offerings can be scaled in unlimited ways.
Important to note are four key insights how we can act to promote sustainable energy models for tomorrow:
1. Invest in data-enabled intelligence that can increase adaptive capacity 2. Provide new choices and entry points for active participation in energy transition 3. Build new capabilities for collective energy stewardship 4. Establish incentive mechanisms to advocate the adoption of desired mental models
Any locales can follow such recommendations, and taking such actions on a larger scale could have huge impact, allowing us to diversify our energy sources in service of climate change mitigation, grow local economies, and advance energy democracy.