Smart tech has the power to shape our global energy system: Harry Armstrong, Nesta

Reading time: 4 minutes
16 March 2016

Harry Armstrong, Senior Researcher at Nesta, talks about how smart technology will play a vital role in the low carbon home and help encourage more sustainable behaviors. Nesta works to increase innovation capacity in the UK through practical projects, investment, policy and research. This is part of The Climate Group's Home2025 project.

While climate change and carbon emissions targets will only be decided on the global stage, people all over the world play a pivotal role in achieving a low carbon future.

After industry and transport, the domestic sector consumes the largest amount of energy and accounts for 27% of all energy consumption in the UK. While domestic energy use has begun to decrease in the UK and other countries, in order to reach sustainable levels of demand and reduce pressure on the energy system much more must be done.

Smart technology will be a vital part of the low carbon home, but ultimately its success rests with the actions and engagement of people.


A connected home with responsive intelligent systems and low energy devices offers many opportunities.

Smart meters in particular promise not only to give control back to consumers but also nudge them into more sustainable energy behaviors. By responding to near real-time data, individuals can reduce or shift their energy use to save money on bills or make the most of local renewable power.

But while some will be able to take full advantage of these systems, for the vast majority of people a smart meter is unlikely to change anything.

Part of the problem is that energy is not used in the same way that it is sold or measured. The smart meter approach only works if energy is thought of as a uniform commodity. But to most people, energy is only a part of lots of different activities we do, like making a cup of tea or working on the computer.

So changing demand isn’t really about energy, but changing how we do these activities. Providing information that doesn’t connect up with people's lives is not going to lead to better energy saving behaviors.

A better understanding of how customers actually engage with energy along with improved end-user design is one approach to overcoming these issues. InnovateUK funded projects like eViz and APAtSCHE are creating more intuitive displays and smart meters which fit more easily into people’s lives.


One key insights from APAtSCHE is how diverse a household's use and engagement with energy is. A one-size-fits-all approach followed by many companies and governments will never work for everyone.

Automation is another way around the problem and seems to be favored by many customers. For example, using a ‘black box’ system to control when appliances are turned on and off will take much of the responsibility away from people. The system can even learn to adapt to the needs of each individual household.

It's clear automation will be a big part of future demand management, particularly as we move toward more responsive payment systems - but it doesn’t come without a price. It is likely to make energy an even more abstract, invisible concept to the majority of customers. Taking people one step further away from their energy use makes it even more difficult to encourage people to change other energy behaviors.

Automated demand management won’t help retrofit buildings either, and this is one of the biggest problems. This is particularly the case in the UK, which has one of the highest rates of fuel poverty in Europe.

On top of this, trust and understanding is still vital to the adoption and proper use of smart technologies. Pilots consistently show that if the technology doesn’t act in the way people expect, they just turn it off and never use it again.

While smart technology will help achieve the technical goals of reducing energy demand, it won’t necessarily make us want to do it.


Building trust, understanding and making energy a less abstract concept is no easy task. Face to face contact is the best way to provide this support, but it is expensive and hugely time consuming.

Communities and volunteer action on the other hand, has proven to be a very effective way to not only help people make the most of smart technology but also improve energy efficiency measures and tackle fuel poverty.

Nesta has seen first-hand how well this can work through its Cities of Service project in the city of Plymouth in the UK.

But community action can do a lot more than this. Communities in Germany, Denmark, UK, Costa Rica and elsewhere around the world are coming together to take more responsibility over parts of the energy system.

Many groups are generating their own renewable energy and even exploring innovative ways to further localize supply and demand management. By taking on these new roles, people build a much closer relationship with energy.

These projects also bring unexpected benefits. Not only do they deliver clean renewable energy or low carbon heat to local homes, but they also strengthen local resilience, promote economic growth and build community cohesion.

These initiatives offer insights into how a future smart sustainable energy system could create benefits that go beyond energy - putting people, communities and local resilience at its heart.

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