Energy Transition in the wild: an Excursion to Seestadt

Anna Pillinger, Stefan Lasser, Harrie Mort, Tzu-Min Chang (photo), Anne Beaulieu and participants of the course “Energy and Big Data: Transition and the informational turn in Energy.”  University of Vienna, Summer Term, 2018.

On a crisp Friday morning the students of the seminar class “Big Data and Energy: Transition in the Informational Turn in Energy” at the University of Vienna and took the underground to the end of the line, emerging in a part of Vienna that even few Viennese have ever seen. Our destination was the Aspern Smart City Research (ASCR) demo centre at Seestadt, where we hoped to gain an insight into how energy and big data were being brought together and perhaps see some of the concepts and issues raised in the seminar in action. In the seminar, we discussed how data seems to be everywhere in contemporary society, including energy.  Precisely because of this ubiquity, it is important to consider how data is created and used, and how it circulates, so that we can understand the implications for the energy transition, whether in the business sector, private and public life. The intersection of energy and big data also has a physical dimension, and exploring this was part of the motivation for our excursion.

An exploration of the materials on the ASCR website and a brainstorming session in class led to a set of questions on three main areas of interest:

  1. The aims and technologies that are at the heart of the ASCR projects
  2. The experience of a smart neighbourhood and the material culture of its vision of the energy transition
  3. The role and function of the demo centre

These sensitising questions were to direct our gaze and our inquiries as we explored the demo centre.

Experiencing a smart neighbourhood

How did this visit enable us to experience a smart neighbourhood? Our tour of the demo center was divided into two parts. In the first part of the tour, we were shown into a rooDSC_4670m where a model of the district occupied most of the space. Our experience of the smart neighbourhood in this case was predominantly considering the various elements as our tour guide pointed them out. In the course of her explanations, the guide taught us to ‘see’ the model, noting the elements that distinguished the already built portions from those that were virtual and yet to be built. On only one occasion was there a link with the outside world, where she pointed out of the window at a crane which was engaged in constructing one of the more iconic buildings: a skyscraper to be made almost exclusively of wood. No windmills or solar panels were apparent in the model, leading us to question the tour guide about whether energy was visible in this landscape; however, our guide enforced a strict division between spatial/planning issues and energy, and this question was not to be answered until we entered the other room: the energy room.

This room was set up almost as a mirror image to the model display. In the previous room, we had surrounded the neighbourhood, whereas in the ‘energy room’ we were surrounded by the displays. Here, everything was surface: the walls were covered with texts and screens and lights, and even the floor was used to display elements of the projects. Neither space emphasised interactivity. In the energy room, the only interactive element was a vertical drawer that could be ‘pulled out’ from within a dividing wall on which different users were presented. This revealed the floor plan of a typical dwelling on which, the sensors and home energy management systems were drawn.

The focus of this part of our visit was the need for housing in Vienna, with further attention being given to the desirability of creating neighbourhoods in which people could both live and work, reducing mobility needs. The ASCR project aimed to further reduce individual commuting by limiting parking spaces, providing outstanding public transport connections and implementing shared bicycle plans.

Typical urban planning elements were part of the presentation, such as density and parking allocation, the combination of recreation and employment opportunities, and the multi-cultural infrastructures such as an multi-faith building.

The Aims and Technologies of the ASCR Project

Innovations and Business Models

The main goal of the ASCR is improving energy efficiency, which allows us to begin to relate this endeavor to the narratives of energy transition that are outlined in the book “After Oil” (Szeman & Group, 2016). The fact that it is a public-private partnership, with the emphasis on “private” raises questions about the dynamics of innovation driven by large corporations. Siemens is the main actor in the partnership and this seems to be reflected in the research, which is inscribed with a corporate logic: research is to lead to prototypes and new business models, which will in turn fuel the energy transition. Most of the envisioned improvements are assumed to be realizable through two main strategies: the introduction of smart infrastructures (e.g. for trading energy), which would require regulatory changes in order to be rolled out on a large scale, and the introduction of smart devices (e.g. smart washing machine which automatically chooses the best time, energy-wise, to run). The promise of smart grids to contribute to efficiency was once again put forth (Beaulieu, 2016). To test this, available components are integrated into real-life housing in the neighbourhood. After solving engineering challenges and implementing quality assurance algorithms, the use and interaction between these various innovations are tested, forming the prototypes for new products and services. With regards to pursuing this kind of innovative research that relies on new types of data, the importance of monitoring data quality was also emphasised as a ‘lesson learned’ in the early phase of the project.

Smart Users

The projects in the demo are divided into several research areas: Smart Building, Smart Grid, SDSC_4678(1)mart User and Smart ICT. One of the most intriguing to us was that of the Smart Users, who were to be engaging with the smart technologies as they were rolled out. Residents were enthusiastic about participating in the project; in fact, more wanted to participate than could be accommodated The majority saw participation as a way to contribute to a more sustainable future, so given the level of enthusiasm, how did the ARSC aim to ensure that the inhabitants behaved in a “smart” way? One technique to be explored wills be Gamification, meaning applying game mechanisms in non-game contexts and, in doing so, encourage the users to contribute to energy efficiency. Currently, the modulation of user behaviour is restricted to offering different energy prices at different time points; however, in the future a more sophisticated version could be developed. This triggered some of us to think about a possible scenario, where households get scored on their consumptions and neighbours try to outdo each other. One could not deny that this might have a positive effect on the energy consumption; however, the cohabitation and solidarity of the inhabitants of this Smart City might suffer. It has already been observed that tensions can arise within households, upon the introduction of home energy management systems (Hargreaves, Wilson, & Hauxwell-Baldwin, 2018)(Hargreaves, Wilson & Hauxwell-Baldwin, 2018) so it is more than likely that similar dynamics could arise between households, dynamics that are reminiscent of the episode ‘Nosedive’ of the dystopian series Black Mirror.

A Space of Innovation

The greater context of energy systems and regulations, including the market reforms of the 90s and first decade of this century, provided useful background to understand how a special space for innovation and experimentation has been created in this district. Experimenting with batteries, one of the aims of the ASCR Project, is only possible in a context of exception to European regulation, where energy producers (Wien Energie) and network operators (Wiener Netze) are actually allowed to work together. Interestingly, other boundaries, such as the rules forbidding cooling technologies in subsidised housing in Vienna had not yet been circumvented, preventing experimentation with the floor heating system, for example. It was interesting to see that the EU was easier to convince than the municipality of Vienna!

Function of the Demo Centre

Our final area of interest was the function of the Demo Centre and how it acted as an interface between research, novel technologies and different publics. They play a particular role in proving new technologies, in engaging and configuring users, familiar subjects of research within Science and Technology Studies(Rosental, 2013)(Bherer, Gauthier, & Simard, 2017). Such spaces created visions for technologies, inviting us to embrace them. We were mainly invited to see and learn from the materials presented, and from the brochures we could take home with us. We learned from our guide that the majority of visitors are international business people, many of whom worked for Siemens and had a distinct interest in the prototypes. Other visitors hailed from the World Bank or from the EU, with the occasional group of students, though, as our guide insisted after facing over 30 questions, none of them came across as being as driven and engaged as we were.

Reflections on the Visit

Any self-respecting STS activity involves a moment of reflexivity and our excursion was no exception. Reflecting on the visit, we wondered about the degree of localization of the ASCR demo centre. Could it basically be located anywhere, given that we were only presented with representations of the developing site? Or would integration of the demo centre with the actual site might reinforce and enrich the demo function? City planners and STS scholars would stress the importance of context! (Felt, 2013) Perhaps the placelessness is meant to help emerging innovation seem ‘mobile’, potentially applicable anywhere, in the global field of interest of Siemens, energy companies and policy-makers.

References

Beaulieu, A. (2016). What are smart grids? Epistemology, interdisciplinarity and getting things done. In A. Beaulieu, J. de Wilde, & J. Scherpen (Eds.), Smart Grids from a Global Perspective: Bridging old and New Energy Systems. Springer.

Bherer, L., Gauthier, M., & Simard, L. (Eds.). (2017). The Professionalization of Public Participation (1 edition). New York, NY: Routledge.

Felt, U. (2013). Keeping Technologies Out: Sociotechnical imaginaries and the formation of Austrian national technopolitical identity. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/3079571/Keeping_Technologies_Out_Sociotechnical_imaginaries_and_the_formation_of_Austrian_national_technopolitical_identity

Hargreaves, T., Wilson, C., & Hauxwell-Baldwin, R. (2018). Learning to live in a smart home. Building Research & Information, 46(1), 127–139. https://doi.org/10.1080/09613218.2017.1286882

Rosental, C. (2013). Toward a Sociology of Public Demonstrations. Sociological Theory, 31(4), 343–365. https://doi.org/10.1177/0735275113513454

Szeman, I., & Group, P. R. (2016). After Oil. Edmonton, Alberta: Petrocultures Research Group.

 

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