Designing for the Convergence of the Utility Industry and the Built Environment

Seyi Fabode

As the utility industry gets disrupted by companies like Tesla/Solarcity/Nest, energy generation products move into our homes (solar, batteries, Electric vehicles) and energy management is influenced more by software (machine learning, behavior modification) designers have to focus on creating products that achieve the sustainability goals we’ve set for ourselves (COP21) even as (counter to the sustainability goals) consumers continue to buy more and more of these products for their aesthetic value.


My name is Seyi. I tend to throw up this picture to humanize myself and share the reasons why I do the work that I do. It’s my little boy and my wife there. I’m working on Asha Labs, which is innovation consulting for utilities and HarperJacobs where we write content. It’s a combination of two things that I’m skilled at, for lack of a better way to put it.

I’ll start with a quick story. The old utility used to look something like this. This house has a windmill to run the water into the main house. For the most part, this stayed the same until Samuel Insull got into the game and did what corporations do: brought economies of scale to improve pricing, because that rig you saw in the first slide was pretty expensive to run. But aggregated businesses could be built that would supply power to many more homes than just the one facility that you saw there. A very simplistic structure of the industry up until recently was power generation happened on one end and then transmitted to your home. To take a quick step back, I’m not a designer but a lot of the work you guys do is now impacting my industry. This is as much an outreach to all of you as it is a quick primer on what you’re getting yourselves involved in, so we can all achieve the same goals even though we’re coming from different sides of this problem.

This image is a power station, the type of power station that I worked at for a few years. Back to the point Andrew made in the last presentation, you had these power stations, ones like this. The one I worked in served about 400,000 homes in London. The data centers we’re starting to put into the system over the next few years will require 50 or such power plants in the U.S. alone, just to run those data centers. That’s a bit of a problem because we’re using diesel and natural gas in some of these places. Which are not sustainable fuels, despite what anyone might say. We still have some coal plants as well.

The utility industry is a very complex system. The next phase of the industry can be predicted if you think about this as a complex system. They bundle and then they unbundle. The unbundling is sort of what’s happening right now. The unbundling is happening at the same time as this grid is becoming a lot more connected. The connection just means the utility, or whoever is providing your power, now also gets signals from you in the form of data, telling them when you need power and what you’re using it for. All these changes—the disruption that is happening because of unbundling, again, back to the systems thinking concept—can be explained. We just need to look in other industries and see how these changes are happening. I’ve written a book about these changes. The innovation and the impact of the innovation in design and product development that’s going on for the industry is moving the electricity generation from these big, bulky buildings in far off places into our homes.

This slide shows what Navigant calls the retail industry, the retail future of the utility industry. What that looks like is a ton of solar panels. Which, unfortunately, doesn’t look, in my opinion anyway, that much different from those huge power plants we had. Because we’re not having to manufacture all of these things. Which, in itself, just throws out CO2 into the environment. We need to start to pay a little bit more attention to things like this, even as we move from the coal plants to the solar panels. When we start to build solar farms, there’s a lot that we’re doing on the full supply chain to get the solar panels to the roofs that started to almost negate the effects of the solar panels that we’re putting on those roofs.

At the same time as we’re throwing the solar panels up, everyone’s building a smart device for the home. These devices have been built to be beautiful and desirable. What happens when things like that happen? Consumers buy. We all buy. Despite all I say, I want to have an Alexa in my home. My son wants to be able to play whatever music he likes from his devices. Again, this is great, but probably not the best for sustainability goals.

I’ll throw up a few slides with some products that are utility products for the home that can reduce the energy we use. The Nest. The Nebia shower, which was a successful Kickstarter to reduce water usage at home. We have this Wallyhome leak detector to prevent leakage and notify other detection systems for leakage. These smart plugs reduce and switch things off when they’re required. We also have Awair, which are air quality measures. I’d say the biggest, most familiar of these retail energy products is the Tesla suite of products, which are fitting into our new model Kasita homes. This is a company here in Austin. It’s a self-sustaining home. Beautifully designed. There’s a lot of work going on. All of these devices that we’re putting into our homes to make it smart and use energy in a more efficient way start to get us to a point where, as Gartner suggested, though I don’t believe this number, that we’ll have about 500 smart devices in our homes by 2022. That is scary, in my opinion. It’s probably time for us to start to think about reducing some of these product inclusions in our home so it doesn’t get out of hand.

I’ve put some rules here. You’re the designers, I’m just throwing out and brainstorming here. Why don’t we build products that are multipurpose? This both stores and retrieves and provides energy so it is, to a certain extent. This is the product I’m working on, which is water efficiency and water quality. But again, make is dual purpose is the point here. Then, take full lifecycle responsibility. This is a blank slide because I couldn’t find one company designing a smart home product that has taken full responsibility for disposal of the product at the end of its life. We need to start to think about things like that. And sustainability woven into the form and function. This is a project at MIT called Smaller Homes. Our homes went from 900 square feet to about 2,000 over the course of 20-something years. It’s probably time to start to rethink that. And educate the consumers with the products. This is a bill we designed a few years ago that educated consumers in the eight minutes they spend with their utilities in a year.

I’ll end with this quote, which is credited to Gandhi: “Speed is irrelevant if you are traveling in the wrong direction.” And we are really traveling fast. A search on Amazon shows 152,000 smart home devices. At some point, that becomes unsustainable, even if those products are meant to make us a little bit more sustainable. Thanks.

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Seyi Fabode is systems engineer who has spent 15+ years across 3 continents, applying systems thinking and technology to process improvement and solving business problems. He’s worked in financial risk analysis, power plant operations & management, trading software product strategy and development, built & sold a technology company in the retail electricity space, managed a cleantech fund and currently writes strategic narratives for technology & utility focused companies.

He was recently named a Linkedin TopVoice in Technology, provides “Content Creation as a Service” for energy companies at HarperJacobs and published his book 40 Semi-Obvious Lessons.

Asha Labs