Is your company, organization, or community prepared for a radically reinvented future of energy?
It’s the time of year when demand on the world’s energy systems peak. Summer in many parts of the world means that electrical grids are working overtime to power the cooling and ventilation systems that keep large cities safe from sweltering urban heat. And yet, in other less developed parts of the planet, temperatures will reach deadly levels from which there is no escape, and people will die. Our comfort and survival depend on our ability to continue to power the planet. But because energy is a limited resource, it’s not equally distributed.
Most views of the “almost probable certain future” show this situation being addressed slowly over the next five decades – and way too late for many who will perish for lack of a reliable energy supply. But what if we could embrace a fundamental shift in thinking, reset our priorities and investment plans, and set ourselves on a very different path to the future? In our book, The Future Reinvented – Reimagining Life, Society, and Business we explore a range of such alternative, surprising, and unexpected future scenarios of how we might change the path to the future across a number of societal domains and industries. In this article, we draw on those perspectives, combined with new outlooks, visions, and fantasy thinking to explore four scenarios for the reinvented future of energy.
The scenarios draw in particular on a workshop on how global societies might be powered in the decades to come, which our team designed and facilitated at the Finland Futures Research Conference in Tampere, Finland in June 2018.
Scenario 1: A Sunlit Solution
This future takes place between 2020 and 2050. This future rests on the progression of the idea of organic solar cells and advances in solar panel performance. There would be a focus on peer to peer energy distribution systems. Cutting out the grid could lead to a healthier, renewable, and optimized quality of life. It gives regular people something of value that they can trade or sell to meet their basic needs.
It starts in 2020 with politicians trying to maintain the status quo and resisting the changes being enabled by solar energy. By 2030, the powers that be realize there are more energy producers than consumers. Not only that, but there is enough clean energy to last a lifetime. Sustainability becomes the norm across the planet.
By 2040, in this scenario, the claim to ownership of energy could change completely. Each person might be producing their own energy, sharing it with others, and viewing it as something completely renewing and abundant. By 2050 there would be drastic changes in lifestyles. An example life might look like this: An Indonesian family with one child; the parents work from home as part of a global network doing professional jobs in a small business. They get to do what they love because abundant energy sources mean they don’t have to struggle for basic survival.
One challenge of this future is that almost all-natural surfaces are covered in solar panels. This seems at odds with the fact that all local natural and human resources gain more and more value. Natural beauty becomes a rare sight in some places that were once revered for it, such as Indonesia.
Scenario 2: I’ve Got the Power in Me
This scenario explores a world in 2040 where social values have evolved significantly. The people of this future prioritize open access, trust, and love. Unlike other utopias, we arrive at this wonderful future without a catastrophe. The triggering event is a truly game-changing new energy technology. A personal wearable device is invented to provide personal freedom powered by unlimited energy – capturing and transforming the different forms of energy produced by the body such as motion and heat.
The reader is asked to imagine a decentralized future where the body can actually produce all the energy needed to run society? There would likely be so much energy available that we wouldn’t know what to do with the excess. We could perhaps transform it into technologies that provide shelter, heat, and transport.
On the downside, it is also possible that future uses of abundant energy would be applied to negative purposes. Weapons, pollution, illness, and social control could be some of the darker ramifications of a future where the human body is an energy source itself.
As an example life this future, consider Frida who lives in a city in China that stores the energy of the citizens. Not every city has this technology yet, so the city is a prosperous one. The economy is based on energy: producing and selling it. The starting point for the technology was that it was used first to eliminate air pollution. This was a very popular advancement. The next stage was to develop the technology that enabled the city to store personal energy. In this future, Frida has the freedom to choose what to do with her time because in her daily life she is producing wealth with her own personal energy. She can choose any path she likes or just enjoy the wealth.
Scenario 3: Post-Apocalyptic Networked Nomads
This scenario describes the emergence of a nomad network after an ecological crisis on earth. It takes place sometime before 2050.
A major climate change induced ecological and civilization crisis has struck the earth. The rising sea levels destroyed entire cities. The populations that survived live in extreme weather conditions. Society has become nomadic and post-urban.
There is radically less energy consumed per person in this future. Society becomes a series of tribes connected by mobile devices. People have learned the lessons of the disaster, so they are collaborating through their devices and becoming a global mobile community. Energy regulation is based in the values of the nomadic tribes.
Similar to ancient Mongolians, people have robotic horses to move from one place to another, living in tents enabled with solar panels. Cities are not livable, so old buildings and skyscrapers become the platforms for solar panels and storage units.
Because of the climate-induced super storms, these tribes cannot practice traditional agriculture. Instead they have turned to marine agriculture, producing different types of algae that are grown with the use of robots. These farms are not sufficient to support a lifetime’s food supply, so the nomads move from one place to another on their robotic horses and wait for new algae to grow in order to come back to harvest their crops.
Scenario 4: An Ikea World
This scenario explores a vision of a smart Scandinavian megacity design colonizing the earth between 2020 and 2050. Communities have extremely efficient physical infrastructure in terms of housing and residence. However, there are many overlapping activities taking place in the virtual world, which is where the real “community” exists. Mobility has slowed since self-sufficiency of most buildings reduces the need for transport. Education and work are virtual, urban gardens produce ample food, and waste forms a key energy source. The megacity design encapsulates the self-sufficient zeitgeist of the times.
This future started due to migration problems but thrived thanks to technological innovations. Renewable energy infrastructure, the internet of things (IOT), and artificial intelligence gave birth to the optimization of truly intelligent cities and a new network of smart, self-sustaining communities.
Consider the life of the Perez family, who joined a Scandinavian-inspired energy cooperative residential community in Mexico. They are required to adopt a collective mindset, so they commit to become more efficient in their energy consumption as tenants of the co-operative. They have everything they need within their comfortable building: ample food from vertical gardens, good neighbours, community entertainment, and a supportive social safety net. Although they live in a tiny apartment, there is plenty of space for kids to explore in the virtual world.
The scenarios deliberately chose to push the boundaries of what our energy future might look to allow for radical new ideas, environmental disruption, and game changing innovations. They explore how reinventing the future of energy might unleash new balances of power. How radical are the energy conversations where you live? How are your company, organization, or community preparing for a range of possible futures? If people are operating within narrow paradigms, what can be done to push the boundaries and reinvent the range of possibilities?
- Which challenges would we face in adapting to each scenario?
- What are the most pressing implications for business and education in these different futures?
- What might be the critical steps to enable our preferred scenario?
image: https://pixabay.com/illustrations/energy-technology-light-power-3857970/ by TheDigitalArtist