Learning to love: why the architects of smart cities must learn to lavish their affections on end users

Energy professionals, city planners and policymakers have been too caught up in the technology underpinning smart grids and cities. Pep Salas Prat, Lecturer at the University of Barcelona and a course director at The Institute of Sustainable Energy by InnoEnergy (iSE), argues that smart infrastructure is only worthwhile if it is built with the needs of people at its heart.

 Cities around the world dream of becoming smart cities but without a thoughtful strategy behind data collection, it is tough to turn this into a reality. The problem is that while the huge potential of smart grid technology has captured the hearts and minds of city planners and energy professionals, it has been at the expense of the very people whose problems the technology should be solving – the end-user.

True innovation is about people

The real innovation of a smart grid is not found in the technology itself. It’s in how that technology caters to the needs of the people, delivering a flexible power source, cost-savings and lower emissions in the process.

But we are a long way off from that ideal. From privacy and security concerns to the perception that utilities firms are faceless corporations, the public is reluctant to share its data with power providers. Those building our smart cities need to swiftly reassure consumers of their intentions – that they mean to use this data responsibly to improve people’s lives.

Microgrids as neighbourhoods

This requires utilities to understand how people organise their lives. One such example is the rise of energy communities, such as in Bristol, UK, of which microgrids are the next logical extension.

As micro-scale renewable solutions become more affordable, we are set to see a great increase in their uptake, with small communities pooling their resources together on microgrids. These will be the neighbourhoods that make up our smart cities.

City planners and power professionals need to think differently to remain relevant to such communities. No longer can they act as all-powerful providers of energy, pumping it in one direction across the grid. They will need to become collaborators, working with communities to enable them to live the lives they wish to lead.

Education enabling empathy

This is asking a lot. And, as is so often the case, education is vital. As local authorities and utilities both become more consumer-centric , they need to understand two things: their new, more involved roles in the electricity value chain and the needs of the energy consumers they support.

At iSE by InnoEnergy, we have designed a course, Smart Grids for Smart Cities: Towards Zero Emissions, to provide this. The online programme has been created to empower city planners and power professionals to develop innovative  solutions to the issues that arise as they build our smart cities. Solutions that take into account all elements of the power production, distribution and consumption process – and most critically the role of people at all stages.

Because ultimately, it is only by showing citizens the same love that they do to technology, that those responsible for designing smart cities will be able to keep their most important relationship alive.