Energy, Disruptive Technologies

a factory is a permenant prototype.jpg

Image: letterpress (the printing press was a 15th Century disruptive technology)

During our travels along the rivers, and across the valleys there are some phrases that have stuck in the mind, that seem to capture people’s imaginations, particularly in relation to energy and change. One of these is ‘disruptive technologies’, which first came to the fore in conversations with Stories of Change Partners James Baldwin at the AMRC and with Charlie Spencer, of the Spencer Group. Rather than an iterative development, or an innovation that improves something existing, disruptive technologies are a completely new approach to a problem that makes what went before redundant, and brings social as well as technological change. When I asked Charlie what he thought would change in the energy picture in next five, ten, twenty years he offered:

“Hydrogen field cells I think in the future, not too long in the future, will be a disruptive technology in battery technology and […] in the not too distant future being able to jumpstart your car from your mobile phone. We’re talking about that sort of disruption and when we get that it will change the way we think about everything. Already you’ve got Elon Musk installing […] batteries for houses so you can store energy at home from your solar or your wind turbine […] that’s going to be transformational when we’ve got battery storage that can pack in as much as say petrol can because it’s going to totally transform our transport infrastructure and it will transform the way we use and store energy in the home.”

He saw these technologies as shifting our dependency on fossil fuels and went on to say:

“It will make things viable that currently are not viable, like offshore wind, again, one of the problems with wind is, as we all know, it produces energy potentially when you don’t want it. But storage devices that are cheap and can store that energy not only will make our lives easier and make our energy usage a lot more manageable, it will make offshore wind and wind energy much more economic because that energy will be worth something, where at the moment at times it’s not, at times they have to give that energy away.”

In working with factories and those involved in manufacturing education we have come across predictions for, and work towards many such technologies, either directly related to energy generation or storage, or that will impact upon our reliance on oil. From research into advanced composites at the AMRC that may be how we make cars and sports equipment, to small and powerful wind turbines able operate and both very low and very high wind speeds at Gripple, to C Spencer Ltd, who are considering how they can use the Internet of Things to optimise their offices and working practices.

To adopt such an approach it is about coming in from the side, and reimagining what the problem is, often requiring collaboration across boundaries of a company, or with new partners. This is interesting in light of our day hacking, and writing from an architecture background because to me this implies a different kind of brief, a new framing of the problem, or possibilities, and a different point of departure. Yet, in contrast to hacking, which is about producing and sharing and precise local knowledge in order to innovate, disruption implies a technology that completely changes what has gone before on a substantial scale.

The anticipation is that such technologies will enable a fast and radical shift in the way in which we work, live and play, and will enable us to massively reduce our carbon consumption. I would suggest that, far from the rather romantic notion that an idea is adopted due purely to being significantly better, it is also likely that has large-scale initial investment, distribution and marketing to enable it to have such a strong impact. It is important to note that disruptive technologies such as significantly more efficient batteries wont necessarily require investigation, experimentation or the development of new knowledges by the user, or challenge existing patterns of supply/consumption- the same handful of large corporations will likely still be selling them to us, and they will be still funded by the same people. How we understand the impact in relation to energy also needs to be carefully considered- we may require fewer CDs or DVDs to be manufactured as everything is now on the Cloud or streamed via the internet, but as I heard during Utopia Works, it apparently takes more carbon to watch a film on a digital streaming service than to drive two miles to the cinema to do so in a more social way.

Disruptive technologies could such as the Internet of Things could enable consumers to be more responsive be something that empowers people at Grassroots level to innovate- through for example battery technologies that allow for small-scale community energy projects, or to be part of a more dynamic grid that responds to high winds or periods of full sunshine to plan our energy use- yet such systems also need to be accompanied by a more engaged and full understanding of our systems to really make an impact. Investing our hopes in technology to change society, and perhaps relieve us of an obligation to change our behaviour or understanding, raises the question of what the relationship is between the social, cultural and the technological, and how things change and for whom.

James Baldwin of the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre works on reconfigurable manufacturing systems. This topic of research has emerged in the last 20 years from explorations into flexibility of machine tools, machine centres, and material handling systems. The aim is for materials and machine tools to be able to communicate with each other and optimise their own schedules. He explains how significant this change will be for the factory system and why it has come about:

“Mass produced products…usually have an assembly line which is dedicated- so you never change the setup which runs 8-hours a day and doesn’t stop…with more demand for mass customisation and mass personalisation, manufacturing systems need to become more flexible, more reconfigurable and autonomous- self-learning manufacturing systems… and  beyond reconfigurable manufacturing systems… [systems that are] biological and evolving- genetic algorithms and evolutionary algorithms…”

The possibilities of this could have bid energy implications, because they would allow for mass bespoke design, and could be low cost, using fewer materials, with lesser transport requirements. This could also have huge implications for automation and the future of work.




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