Podcast: Playing Games with Energy Innovation

It’s an old story, but a familiar one:

If first you don’t succeed, try and try again. But what if you try and try and try and it still doesn’t work?

And so here I am, bright and chipper on a Monday morning in the offices of a familiar spot, the National Energy Board. I’m joined by enthusiastic champions of energy innovation who want Albertans to ‘think different’ and embrace the future.

Innovation is a word you hear a lot these days. Innovative ways to do this and that and the other thing and even how to think about innovation.  And the Energy Futures Lab has just the thing to fuel innovation – the Newtonian Shift simulation game – the ‘celebrity edition’ with former politicians, corporate executives, environmental advocates and funders.

This same week, the ‘world’s greatest minds in energy and tech’ gathered to listen to the words of innovation luminaries—Sir Richard Branson, Founder of Virgin Group; Michael Liebreich, Founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance; Susan Cain, co-founder of Quiet Revolution. The topic? Energy disruption.

All this, in a single week. It is indeed spring in Alberta.

For the rest of the story, listen here:

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I’m a fairly upbeat kind of person. I really want to believe innovation is going to guide Albertans’ energy future to bright, sunny days when intractable problems will be resolved. I deplore the nattering nabobs of negativity who predict our province’s demise.

And yet, I’m wary.

Alberta’s future rests, not just on these innovative and imaginative ideas. But rather, on their adoption in practice.

We’re a province loaded to the brim with under-deployed engineers, economists, scientists, even lawyers. Can’t we just set these experts in motion? Get these creative solutions moving forward? Really, climate change isn’t a problem – the simulation game is proof-of-concept that we have the solutions!

Oh, I want to dream big too. But I’m also pragmatic. I want to see innovation that is not just talked about, enthusiastically, but that is implemented.

Let the Innovation Games Begin!   

It’s eight on a Monday morning. Everyone seems keen to participate in the Newtonian Shift. Huddled in the NEB boardroom, the players hear the rules of the game. The coach facilitators roll out a scenario like the ‘crawl’ that fronts a Star Wars movie:

You are a player in the fictional jurisdiction of Newtonia (read, Alberta). Your shared quest is to move Newtonia into a lower carbon future. 

And as individual players, you also have to keep the lights on in your own community and workplace. Be innovative – there’s that word again — but make sure you stay afloat financially. At the beginning of each calendar year, you will be given Newtonian money to spend on technology, energy resources, whatever. Sort of like getting $200 in Monopoly money every time you pass “Go”.

The game strives to build empathy. Players were encouraged to choose to role-play an unfamiliar role. Several of the game’s characters, I’d already played in real-life: the politician, the government, the for-profit energy company, the community. I chose something I could never be in the real world. A band member in a First Nations community, the fictional Bizon Tribe (sic).

What fun! It was delightful to hold a veto, to be on the ‘other’ side of the negotiating table.

The Bizon Tribe wasn’t connected to any energy grid, but their land was integral to energy distribution in the wider community. Everyone wanted to build a transmission line across this land. Sound familiar?

At the outset of the game, the Bizon Tribe’s energy source was a diesel generator. Another all-too-familiar story.  Together with my fellow band member, we negotiated a right-of-way across our lands in exchange for up-front cash and a sizeable discount on future energy needs for our people.  We displaced the diesel with green energy. And, we negotiated jobs and training. A sunny outcome for this First Nations community!

Yet achieving the wider goal of a lower energy future wasn’t all that easy.

There were constant disruptions. New government carbon policy that was poorly understood. Spikes in commodity prices. New technology.

With the clock ticking, it was daunting trying to think beyond the next transaction.

At the end of the game, in the real-life world, I was disappointed by the blind spots the game exposed. You would be left with impressions that green energy is virtuous and must be pursued at any cost; innovation to improve fossil fuel production and its use just wasn’t and ought not be a priority.

Does innovation have to be disruptive?

Billionaire Richard Branson has branded the concept of what it means to be a disruptor. Virgin Airlines became a disruptor in the airlines business, and Branson hints that he wants to do the same for space travelling. He also champions disruption in other industries, and this week, that included Alberta’s energy business.

The vision of a disruptor is someone who up-ends old ways of doing something. My mother would call that person a ‘shit-disturber’. One imagines an idea so profound that it is the catalyst for waves of change moving across the entire province, swallowing up anything ‘old’ in its path.

Admittedly, many of the externalities faced by Alberta’s energy business have proven disruptive. Climate change fears, America’s new-found energy independence, leap-frogging technologies. And maybe the only way to respond to external disruption is to advance your own brand of disruption, under the guise of innovation.

Yet figuring out new solutions to old problems, even intractable problems like energy poverty (there is such a thing), doesn’t always require profound interventions. Sometimes, the fix to a system-wide challenge is pretty mundane. It need not be trendy or imported (as is the case with made-in-California-like solutions).

Maybe it’s even something we’ve done before but applied in a different way or context. That doesn’t sound quite as sexy or dashing. But still, it can be innovative.

Perhaps it’s just the language we choose to use. I spend a lot of time with younger Albertans, people who dream of creating something new, better, stronger. Listen to the TED talks. Often they talk of throwing away the old, bringing in the new. I was reminded by a fellow Baby Boomer that our generation thought we could change the world in one go.

Certainly, there are parts of our energy future that qualify as disruptive. For example, disrupting the growth trajectory for vehicles with internal combustion engines through exponential growth in electric vehicles.

While I applaud the enthusiasm, it sometimes saddens me that revitalizing—building upon– what we already know is not equally attractive. Disrupting is far more appealing.

Really, don’t we need both? 

To build on the past experiences and values, and create something more adaptive to the present situation. For example, to take what we know of the fossil fuel energy systems and create a carbon-reduced energy future that integrates renewables. In an affordable way, for all consumers and taxpayers.

Sometimes, innovation proposes a new theology.

My ‘boomer’ friend and I agree innovations, such as machine intelligence and genomics, will compel a necessary shift in our belief system. However, it’s not just about a new technology. It’s about seeing the world differently. 

That’s not just changing the rules. That’s changing the game.

Especially at these times, the dreamer’s tone can change. There can be more forceful confrontation of the perceptions, beliefs and expectations of Albertans – especially older Albertans.

Again, I point to the experiences of the past. What can we glean?

Some of my dreamer friends point only to the future. Turning their backs on what was: forgetting, or ignoring, the game-changing innovation required to develop the oil-sands; to add value to natural gas resources in the province; to make Alberta a destination for world class energy expertise and investment.

Progressing genuine energy innovation.

It’s rousing to generate new ideas for green energy, especially sharing the rarefied air with master disruptors like Sir Richard Branson.

But dreaming is not enough. We also have to deliver. Making sure we do what we say we will do.

That’s about integrity. Accountability. And, yes, pragmatism. Well-worn concepts that prove useful, generation after generation.

And if in our pursuit of green energy targets, however virtuous, we inadvertently hold back the progress of wider energy innovation, Alberta risks being left behind. We risk losing an entire generation of Albertans who were known, globally, for their capacity to progress energy innovation.

The new green orthodoxy comes with terrible risks to innovation, and I’m not exaggerating.

During the Cold War, the Soviets decided to focus research on military and political priorities. That meant some research topics were banned, including genetics. Scientists who disagreed were imprisoned or executed. Genetics was not even mentioned in textbooks until the 1980s, and only sparsely at that. And it wasn’t until 2010, genome sequencers were used in Russian labs – the machines were made in America.

Constraining the progress of genuinely innovative ideas put Russian students, scientists and industries decades behind their competitors.

That wasn’t a simulation. And it’s a game Albertans should wise up to.

Donna Kennedy-Glans, May 2018 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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