By Professor Adrian Smith
As part of my research with the ROLES project, I attended a webinar organised by National Energy Action (NEA) on 26thMay. The topic of the webinar is central to the ROLES project, ‘digital inclusion and the UK energy system’. NEA is a fuel poverty charity that researches and advocates for the elimination of fuel poverty in the UK. The webinar brought together people from organisations working at the frontline with a diversity of groups already excluded or struggling to access energy services.
The webinar provided both sobering examples of why digitalising electricity needs to learn from current social exclusions in energy, and ideas for how innovative developments can become more inclusive. As research by the Centre for Sustainable Energy shows in their ‘Smart and Fair?’ project, there are very real risks that significant numbers of households could be left behind by transformations being promoted now towards digitalised, decarbonised and decentralised electricity systems.
At the webinar, for example, we learnt that poor adult literacy and numeracy can present challenges for people to read energy bills, understand tariffs, and communicate with supply markets. Around 7.1 million adults in England (1 in 6) have very poor literacy skills, and nearly a third of people in national surveys say they struggle with everyday maths. People rely upon friends, neighbours and family for help with understanding energy bills and services. On top of this, are multiple social and economic challenges that undermine one’s ability to access energy on appropriate terms and avoid the anxieties of falling into debt or disconnection. These challenges include low incomes and financial exclusion, poor quality and insecure housing, living with higher-priority pressures and demands, finding oneself on the wrong side of the digital divide, and simply a lack of confidence, awareness, and trust associated with deep-seated inequalities in societies.
These issues are recognised to varying degrees in energy policy, and there is a lot of research to draw upon to understand them better. We also saw in the NEA webinar that there are initiatives that are already bringing in more inclusive elements to some areas of digitalisation. For example, ensuring electric vehicle charging points are designed to be accessible by differently abled people, or providing support and materials about new electricity services in ways that are meaningful and suited to specific vulnerable groups, or through community energy approaches giving people ownership and control over local electricity generation, distribution and use.
However, what remains unclear is how to ensure innovations in the digitalisation of electricity more widely take such issues as their point of departure, so that smart grids become inclusive by design and by default. In the ROLES project we are beginning to see what might be learnt from inclusive innovation research in other sectors and places, and which could inform our own fieldwork. Research into ‘inclusive innovation’ indicates a deeper issue that may or may not be pertinent for digitalisations of electricity, which is that there are different levels and forms of inclusion in innovation. The depth of inclusiveness connects with the presence or otherwise of social justice within the institutions that promote and support innovation in society, and whether there is attentiveness towards who has the power to set innovation agendas, make large investment choices, claim ownership over the innovations and their benefits, and shape the way digitalisation is conceived and constructed. Perhaps deep digital inclusion in UK energy systems may prove elusive when the focus is restricted to piloting and rolling out specifically accessible products or services, without being supportive transformations to the wider contexts in which those attempts at inclusiveness are taking place?