Person in a kitchen holding a large casserole dish, next to a gas cooker.

Transcript: Conceptualising flexibility: Challenging representations of time and society in the energy sector

Home > Online reading room explores temporal aspects of energy demand > Transcript: Conceptualising flexibility: Challenging representations of time and society in the energy sector

Reading time: 52 minutes

28 July, 2020. Online event

Paper for discussion:

Blue, S., Shove, E. and Forman, P. 2020. Conceptualising flexibility: Challenging representations of time and society in the energy sector. Time & Society, May 2020. doi: 10.1177/0961463X20905479


Stanley Blue: I’m Stan, part of the flexibility theme and group as well as working at Lancaster University in the Sociology Department.

So that’s Stan, I’m Elizabeth working on the Flexibility project at Lancaster and together with Stan and Peter Foreman we wrote the article that’s going to be discussed.

Mike Greenough: Hi I’m Mike, I’m a PhD student at Lancaster University and I’m also part of the flexibility team.

Jacopo Torritti: Hi I’m Jacopo, for once I’m not just from Italy but in Italy and I with Elizabeth and Stan also work on the Flexibility theme as part of CREDS and I’m really interested to hear more discussions on flexibility from all of you.

Samuele lo Piano: Good afternoon everyone, my name is Samuele lo Piano. I’m a postdoctoral researcher based at the University already and also part of the Flexibility theme in CREDS and I’m really looking forward to our conversation today. Thank you.

Jose Luis Ramirez-Mendiola: Hello everyone, I’m Jose, another post-doctoral researcher at the University of Reading also with the Flexibility team at CREDS working with Jacopo and other themes as well. Very excited to hear about this new paper.

Max Kleinebrahm: Hello everyone, my name is Max and I visited Jacopo’s group at the beginning of this year and I’m actually I’m from Germany. I’m a PhD student at the Castro Institute of Technology and I’m working in the field of energy system analysis in the residential building sector.

Nicola Labanca: Good afternoon to everybody, I’m Nicola Labanca, I’ve worked for the European Commission until this February and basically during the last five years I’ve tried to integrate complex systems and social practice theory approach to deal with energy transition and sustainability issues

Dale Southerton: Hi everyone I’m Dale, I’m at the University of Bristol although I’m still living in Manchester and I do work on consumption and some stuff on time as well. I’ve got a project at the moment looking at sequence and synchronisation  with Jennifer Williams looking at time diary data and looking at how you can think about how practices connect together. We’re looking at sleeping eating and reading, and we sort of drop to work because it doesn’t work so well in the data, so we’re looking at how they are degrees of sequence so sleeping is highly sequenced the stuff that precedes and proceeds the act of sleeping is highly sequenced across people. I’m very synchronised and everybody seems to sleep at pretty much the same time, whereas reading is the complete opposite and we’re looking at how those connections may or may not have changed over the 20 odd year period in time.

Debbie Hopkins: Hi everyone my name’s Debbie, I’m at the University of Oxford and I’m in Oxford and I work on the Digital Society theme and the FAIR project which is one of the newer projects in the Centre, and I mostly do work on transport mobility, most recently around freight and supply chains.

Selin Yilmaz: Hello, I’m calling you from Geneva I’m a postdoc researcher and a teaching fellow in University of Geneva and I’m working in the field of energy efficiency demand site management, automation, acceptance approval and modelling of these related scenarios for the Swiss government.

Yohei Yamaguchi: Hello everyone my name is Yohei Yamaguchi I’m an associate professor at the Graduate School of Engineering, Osaka University. I’m very happy to be in this meeting.  I’m developing a simulation model of energy demand of buildings based on time use data.

Elizabeth: Excellent, and I don’t think we have Michelle with us but we do have Antti.

Antti Silvast: Okay hello everybody: So I’m calling you from Trondheim in Norway from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology from the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture. I’m working on a couple of things on flexibility including a paper for the Journal of Energy History on energy control rooms and flexibility edited by Elizabeth and Stan in this meeting. Look forward to it

Elizabeth: Okay, I’m just going to say a quick word about how we came to write the paper and what the paper is. I guess you’ve all read it but other people may not have done so I’m really going to be quick on that just to set the scene.

So basically we started off with this puzzle – what is flexibility in the energy world and we read some extraordinary things, like there are gigawatts of flexibility and so on, and from a kind of social theory point of view we thought what is going on out there, how could you describe flexibility in a gigawatt or something like that, you know it’s an extremely strange way of way of thinking, but it turns out it wasn’t strange at all.

We then began to have a look more at how the term was mobilised in energy literature and found, as we described different kinds of approaches, so some were talking about flexibility as a property of an energy system, about entire supply demand system was more or less flexible depending on how it how it was configured. Some, like the gigawatt merchants, were literally putting a price on flexibility and selling it, so there was a kind of commodity market in flexibility which can happen and does happen, and some were not thinking about it like that. They were thinking about actual instruments of flexibility, like batteries and storage and demand-side management, and these kind of things.

Then we were wondering what is going on out there, so what is it that’s flexible and what do these discourses take to be fixed as well, and so we basically came to the conclusion that there were some really strange, even more strange things going on out there, in that despite the language of flexibility there was an assumption that nothing was really changing on the demand-side. In other words, flexibility was all about flexible means of meeting fixed patterns of demand so we were kind of getting stuck into the ironic fixity of flexibility, and how did that come about, and so the second part of the paper we then turned to that sort of issue and began to think about other ways of conceptualising flexibility, not as a property of an energy system, not as a property of an individual person who’s more flexible than their neighbour, but in a way a feature of the social organisation of practices of the kinds of rhythms and sequences and synchronisations that they all might be interested in and others are interested in as well.

We were thinking flexibility is sort of distributed in society, it’s not this commodity that the energy people are trying to manage, and in a way our paper ends a little bit with a call to arms, so we’re saying come on folks – that’s you all out there – let’s get involved in thinking in a more adventurous way about the concept of social, of flexibility or societal kind of theme, as a consequence of how practices fit together, and if we start from that point of view rather than end up with it, then how do we play that back to the energy field. Stan might have something else to say about the paper but that’s what I would say it does. Stan, I should just check in because he might disagree violently or something and that would be a bad way, just maybe it would be good

Stan: No violent disagreement, see what other people have to say.

Elizabeth: This is an opening to say this is an open question now. Do all of you from your different angles recognise this puzzle or is this a conundrum that we are facing and what are we going to do next? Where can we go on from this paper? It’s an invitation – did you see your own work in the paper, where should we go next and were we right to kind of pick on this as a topic?

Debbie: Thank you. I read your paper a while agand so it was really nice to read it again and actually I spent much more time. I’ve been with people from the FAIR project and we’ve been talking about the intersections of fuel poverty, energy poverty, and transport poverty recently and so I was thinking about much of what you were saying and how that fits in a transport mobility’s context. This brings me to one of the prompts that you gave us around methods because I kept falling back to empirical questions of how you actually start to investigate, or the ways that this that you might tackle the question of flexibility because I think it provoked lots of interesting points and questions and ideas in my mind.

So I could see how it worked in energy in terms of renewables and such like, and then I could see the intersection with transport in terms of electric vehicles, but I was thinking more generally about how we think of the transport system, and how flexibility is thought of in transport about enabling flexibility for people, or provision of services, and how automobility is so closely connected to ideas of flexibility. And then I came back in a loop and thought but then is it even productive, is it useful to be thinking about transport in isolation from the rest of the energy system and I don’t think it is. And then that brought me back to my empirical question, but then you always create these arbitrary boundaries and I think that’s for me where I find such a problem, so just thinking about the transport system, how we constantly separate freight and passenger, and maybe the supermarket as being kind of a hub where we can think about all of those mobilities in a more interconnected way. How the things and the people and other stuff is all moving, and that might be a place where we can think about how flexibility is or isn’t occurring, because I think there are certain discourses of what flexibility is in that context that might be interesting.

Elizabeth: Yeah that’s great I mean we didn’t think at all about transport, so it’s interesting to make that connection. It would be really interesting to know what Yohei made of the paper from a kind of energy modelling proper respectable energy research point of view compared with our sort of rambling around the field.

Yohei: Okay thanks. I’m working on a Japanese time survey data and I’m conducting regulation analysis and how activity is conducted in the daily life of Japanese people. I’m really interested in two items: sequence and synchronisation. So I think I can do some analysis on these with the time use database analysis, and we can collect evidence on how sequence and the synchronisation can be observed in our lives.

Elizabeth: Of course, this conversation is limited to just now, but you will be able to get Dale’s email and chat to him about methods of working with time use data and sequence separately.

Elizabeth: Michelle has just joined, she is the editor of Time and Society so it’s really excellent to have her join a conversation because normally editors are just anonymous people in the background – we never really know exactly what they do, but it would be interesting, Michelle, now we have you here. So, obviously you were involved in the decision to publish the paper, thank you for that, but how do you see it fitting in a kind of time and society journal which is much more social science and not so much to do with the energy side of things, but so how did you see it, what contribution did you think we were making?

Michelle Bastian: Well, I think traditionally Time and Society has been seen as a sociology journal in particular, but after talking with Robert about it when I joined, we’ve actually revised the aims and scope for the journal, so we’ve talked about how it’s the journal’s actually quite interested in a wide range of approaches to time including from the arts and humanities, and social sciences, and interfaces with the sciences – I think that’s how we described it. And also we haven’t had as much published on environmental issues which is such a defining issue of our times, it’s something that we’d like to have more of in the journal, so we were really excited to have more environmental focus papers in general.

Elizabeth: Who knows, maybe the people here will write another sequel for you! We were just talking with Debbie about transport and flexibility, so we could be on to something here.

Debbie: I think we’re just really interested in anything where time is particularly problematised as well, so we’re it’s not necessarily talking about things happening over time but how this issue of what time is, and how we conceptualise it, how we activate it, how all these different kinds of things happen, and there’s work that’s coming in from across all disciplines, so we want to be really open to that.

Elizabeth: Dale is working on sequences and sleeping and reading, and not apparently on the question of flexibility, but what did you get from a car about the concept of flexibility that might contribute to your work on sleeping and reading, for example?

Dale: I really enjoyed the paper. I think for me there’s something really important in the distinction that you’re drawing throughout the paper between what essentially is flexibility, and the distinction between something that is flexible and something that is the opposite, so fixed. I don’t quite know what the best way to articulate that is, but I think that’s really important. So one of the things that we did with the paper which we’ve not written, is to go back to some of the stuff around timings and this links to time use data, but I think is interesting in the context of flexibility – so I no longer think that eating is a more flexible practice. It’s more flexible if you only look at the times when people do things, but if you look at the sequential pattern of eating, it’s actually very similar across lots of people so what is fixed and what’s flexible is opened up then. It’s not simply about the times when things, happen but the ways in which things are done and how they connect.

I think that’s really interesting, and then that made me think as we got towards the end of your paper I did a talk last couple of weeks on energy and time and stuff in amongst a load of engineers, so it really resonated with me the problems and the framings that you presented and it was this was about Covid and working from home and all of that kind of stuff, and what sort of strikes me about terms like flexibility is if you take the word and put it into a different set of policy debates, so working from home during Covid, should give us more flexibility than we’ve ever had, yet the engineers who measure energy use in particular ways (which I don’t really understand) suggest that actually we’re seeing less flexibility as people are working from home, so times when people work have been curtailed, so when we were in our offices we worked later, now there’s informal rules and regulations that you should have a lunch hour, you should finish work at five o’clock, people apologise if they send you an email out of work – so, this sense of we’ve got to protect people’s time because they’re now working from home, has a countering effect to flexibility, so I don’t really know what’s going on in all of that, but I think it’s quite interesting in that what should be flexible in terms of the working from home language doesn’t appear to be flexible on a different register, which is things like energy use. To emphasise, that if you look at time diary data which is a different story I’m more and more convinced that we should be looking at the sequences of activity, and what forms of synchronisation are going on, which is not just things happening at the same time.

Elizabeth: Nicola, you’ve done some really interesting work on the reification of time or time and energy as concepts, so we weren’t working with those ideas in this paper but there’s probably some point of connection, such as the gigawatt stuff

Nicola: Personally by reading your paper, which was really interesting, I noticed – you mention it at the end – you stress the need for an historical perspective of time studies and so on, but basically what seems to me very relevant is how to frame the problem of flexibility within complex system thinking, historically, I mean. Historically the main research question of complexity is how to manage the unexpected, meaning complexity is rooted in cybernetics which was focused on how control is performed within machines of animals and human beings, and so for me I don’t know what flexibility is or how it can be defined, but it is very important to see how, by taking this paradigm of management and managing the unexpected, to see how it has been implemented through cybernetics and complex system thinking, and how it is important to understand how we have arrived at the point that we are today because when we take this perspective, for example, realise that the information which is closely related to time and energy has an important role to play, and we also see that, for example, storage under a complex system perspective, is an inefficiency, meaning complex systems push everything to be on the move, the idea is that through information because of this new entity that has been named information, now we can match everything on demand and basically the implication of this is that if we store something we are being inefficient, after also the transition to renewables is an attempt to bypass the storage processes related to fossil fuels and so on, so in my opinion rather than storage we should see a focus on how this kind of flexibility is being implemented.

For my contribution to the perspective you have proposed, I would put your discussion within a historical perspective related to complex system thinking, and in particular in relation to these paradigms of managing the unexpected, which by the way relates not only to the normal functioning of the energy system but also to extreme events, blackouts, and so on because there is a management approach that is used also during a blackout and so flexibility needs to be framed the culturally, and for me culturally mean to frame it within this complex system framework

Elizabeth: That raises all sorts of issues also about information, and disruption, and we’ve got another session later on contingency and resilience maybe, so we can we can come back to that. Jacopo has done a lot of work on smart metering which is, in a way, not on the side of the devil, that’s putting it too strongly, but in a way firmly within the idea of feedback making a difference, whereas the whole drift of our argument is that maybe or maybe not, and it depends as Nicola was saying on the kind of history of the social arrangements, that happen at any one time. I’m going to put Jacopo on the spot and say how do you reconcile your work on smart metering with this much more complex in the colour sense take on the social possibilities of flexibility.

Jacopo: Thanks for putting me on the spot! I think this issue can be reacted with one of units of analysis which is something that paper does quite well, a sort of opening up, you need to overnight and you mentioned you know not that the system level gigawatts do not move by themselves and not individuals, so bundles or synchronisation of practices as a way of understanding flexibility, and I see smart meters in the in the context of information we have about how, over time, things change within different scales. I see smart meter data or the information we get potentially more as acting as proxies of the things we do, rather than having the potential to signal individual change in behaviour, so in this context I don’t think it’s impossible to match that level of information with the level of information around how things are done and in and out of the home, for instance, so I think a big question is, which the paper does raise, what are the properties of flexibility that we we’re looking at?

I think when you ask that question you inevitably end up thinking, do we need to consider practices all together, and what do we know about practices all together? If we move away from the idea of individual practices having some kind of proper flexibility properties, it might be that there’s something about when we work, there’s something about when we sleep – the work that Dale is carrying out – may tell us something about the fixities of everyday life, but then there’s a question of how do we actually consider bundles, and which bundles, and how do we see synchronisation? Probably too long an answer for what you were asking, but I hope you know on the point of information I think, in a sense the more the more we know and the more proxies, we have the better we are able to triangulate and identify what’s within the triangle.

Elizabeth: That goes back a bit to Debbie’s point about measuring and observing and detecting any of these sometimes pretty invisible practices, if we’re saying what matters is the relation between practices, then there are some questions about how do you spot that out there in the real world. Selin, you do modelling work don’t you?

Selin: Yes I do. I’m an engineer of course I do modelling, so when I read your paper  it was such an enlightenment, because the first three things you explain – flexibility as a resource, flexibility is a commodity, or the quality of the energy systems – this is how we define our projects and for the reports or the scenarios that we make for the Swiss government, which is in gigawatts, then they translate and convert that to Swiss Francs. But, there was always this thought, there must be something going back around because people aren’t responding every time, sometimes there’s a response from them, they shift something that we have absolutely no idea, what and sometimes there is no response. Then I started doing quite a lot of literature reviews, I came across your books and papers – for me what was shocking is there are so many studies, which say we provided feedback information, we gave them financial incentives, this is how much demand response increased etc., but I couldn’t find any study (perhaps you know of one, please let me know) about how this flexibility was provided in terms of activities, appliances or technologies.

There are so many surveys which at once you want to shift, but there was no evidence, or no study that I found, where was it actually the washing machine you shifted when you received the signal. I found that quite shocking, I really like the idea people are now starting to talk about it and hopefully there will be now studies and trials to observe this and maybe measure it. My interest is really to model this and that’s why the other things that you were talking about, like sequences and synchronisation, are very important for me to understand and then put in mathematical models.

We wrote a project which is about the automation of heat pumps and electric vehicles. I wanted to do more on behavioural demand-response but the DSO was more automation-oriented because it’s much more reliable and there’s more certainty, so hopefully we will undertake a trial. Due to Covid it has been postponed because the market has stopped, the smart meters and other stuff for piloting appliances haven’t arrived yet, but one of the things I want to collect during this trial is when the DSO does the automation, is there any frustration or discomfort, and how much are these related to the practices or the routines that you guys have at the moment? Obviously as an engineer I have absolutely no idea how to collect that data.

Elizabeth: I think Stan might disagree with me, but it’s fair to say that we just simply copped out on methods. The project of modelling flexibility as we define it in the second part of the paper is an interesting conundrum, is that a kind of crazy thing to do? Or is that just something that hasn’t been done yet or are we lacking in the imagination required to know how to do it? And I think this is also interesting thinking about a wider world of social science expertise in time and society, are we just sitting on the fence and not really trying, or are we actually reflecting the kind of current state of debate out there in the wider world?

Stan: I’m not sure so much of a cop out. Like Debbie before said in thinking through this problem you have to go a bit back and forth, so maybe this is the first forth before going back. But I really like that we’re talking here about flexibility, as we tried to say in the paper, flexibility across society if you like, or in the extension of social practices, so I really like that we’re not so straightforwardly thinking about flexibility of something such as, does a practice happen at a certain time or within a certain time slot, and as Dale was saying, this is actually what matters or what gets brought into view about what counts as fixed and flexible changes, if you move from thinking about time slots to sequences of practices, so actually it becomes about the fixity and flexibility of the connections between practices in a sequence. But then there’s questions about how to see those connections, so is that about connections on average, so is it about variation? If you take the total population, or you take your time use surveys, and you say 60 percent comes after this and it has this sequence, and 40 percent it has this so it’s more flexible here or something like that, and then there’s a question about extension as well.

I guess it’s never just one sequence, or maybe there’s doubles and hopping, so in any method you’d have to have other chains of sequences not just in a linear chain as well, but maybe other intersecting chains. And then I think there’s a really interesting question as well about over time or historically, is that something to do with flexibility? So how much something changes over time, and I actually think on that there’s an even more interesting question, which me and Jose are trying to think about – although, I admit I’m a bit behind in getting back to Jose – which is about does the actual very reinforcement of reproducing certain sequences contribute to the strength of dependency of those chains, if you like, of those sequences, so actually contribute to the strengthening or weakening, the relative fixity and flexibility. So I don’t think it’s a cop out, I think it’s the first forth and then the going back and forth between theory and method, trying to pick these strands out and how you’d see them in something like time use data or other kinds of data, you know every step we have to have these kinds of these kinds of questions.

Elizabeth: Okay now we’re on our way in that I’ve now got Nicola with his hand up and Michelle with her hand up too so we’ll take those two and then see what after that we’ll see what Max has to say just for good measure, so Nicola.

Nicola: Thank you. I would like to stress two points in your paper for example you mentioned it that the ontological irreducibility of the social practice perspective with the flexibility perspective that you have presented as refined by the market, for example, and then at the same time you said that flexibility emerges, comes from the emergence, not from social practices. I would like to focus on this aspect of emergence because there is an invisibility at stake, and there is the question of how complexity generates this invisibility. We have a world which is made of abstractions of energy flows and so on, and then we have an underworld or over world which is made up of practices, but this ontological irreducibility, and this emergence from social practices is something that cannot be solved, meaning that in a complex under-compensated perspective when you have something emerging you will never be able to study this emergence by starting from the elementary bricks, you know because everything is very interconnected, and so somehow there is no hope to create this link within this ontological incompatibility. And then the other point I would like to stress relates to how complexity intends change, and how change is studied because the complexity perspective is a surveillance perspective, and when you surveil something you renounce understanding what is going on and what will happen. You would think that, okay I do not know Nicola, but the only way I have to influence him is to surveil him, to continuously follow him and with the hope of being able to intervene whenever I see some signal emerging.

So under a complex system perspective, there is no understanding, no possibility to explain change, there is surveillance, and this is what is happening in my opinion more and more intensively nowadays. And also what can happen for the transition to renewables and for flexibility, we have to expect an increasing surveillance of what we do in such a way that we can for someone be influenced in given critical moments, and these are the two aspects that I wanted to highlight.

Elizabeth: Great, thanks, so it sounds like Selin you’re on a hiding to nothing there, it’s never going to work, there’s no hope of putting these pieces together.

Michelle: I wanted to add something to what Stan was just mentioning before, and forgive me if you did talk about this, but that another aspect of those things to look for I guess is what reference from phenomena people are using to decide the timing of things, I suppose. So I’m quite interested in time metrology, they talk about what reference for a nominee you’re using, so are you using the spinning of the Earth, or using cesium atoms, or using that imaginary point in the middle of the earth to develop your time standard from, and it’s really interesting that they talk about choosing between different reference phenomena depending on what kind of problem you have to solve, and that’s a really common approach, but when we talk about social life it seems to not be so prominent that actually people are choosing different kind of reference from phenomena to figure out duration, to figure out timing, to figure out sequence ,and what those things are and they might be these kind of vernaculars that don’t stretch out that far, or just a part of this family, or they might be quite widespread.

I’m partly thinking about that because of Kevin Birth’s work, I don’t know how familiar everybody here is with Kevin Birth’s work, but some of the critiques he makes about clock time and how it sort of strangles our imagination when it comes to understanding how time works, are really helpful, and how those jobs of time – so sequencing, timing, figuring out duration – all get sort of collapsed together when we’re thinking of clocks and how clock time works, it promises that it can solve all those problems of sequencing and timing and duration, and can just solve the riddles for all of them, but actually we know in our life that’s not how we solve the problem of timing, we’re actually looking at – as Dale was just was talking about – what’s more important for eating is the sequence of things rather than that it’s exactly twelve o’clock or exactly nine o’clock or six pm or whatever.

I was just thinking how that might open up what the timing references might be, if you’re thinking about how you might look for those, how you might draw those out from households, because they might not be so aware of them even themselves, I suppose, because the events that we’ve run when we’ve done things on temporal design, people will share the kinds of timing hacks that they have, but they’ll also quite often say I’ve never told anybody that I do this, or I’ve never even articulated to myself that I do this, so it’s really interesting how these ways that we manipulate time are really so hidden so often. So thinking about flexibility just to say again I would be really interested in what are the reference phenomena, a very broad understanding of what people are looking for to decide on timing for all these different things.

Elizabeth: I think that’s great because that’s exactly the kind of conversation we wanted to provoke with the article, where we get that kind of contribution along with energy modellers who’ve got their watches very firmly fixed on their wrists, and quantifying in minutes and seconds is meat and drink, because you can’t actually proceed without that – or can you – and those are the sorts of questions.

Michelle: It’s a problem, I’ve got a new research project on phenology which is the study of timing and plants and animals in ecology, and having really interesting conversations with phenologists to see what are plants and animals looking at to tell the time, what are their reference phenomena, and it often it seems like it gets reduced to some length of day or temperature, but that actually it’s much more complex, so looking at what are the different factors that plants are using to triangulate, when is it the right time to put their leaves out or to fruit or something like that, it opens up a much more complex picture and I can see that applying here in this situation too, treating that activity of timing in a much more complex way.

Max: It was quite nice for me to read the paper, for me it’s kind of different papers than the ones I normally read, I’m more from the engineering economics background, so it was quite nice for me to see the broader social context and all these different definitions of flexibility. I especially work on modelling these behavioural contexts and therefore I was quite interested in the sequence and synchronisation part and therefore I looked a little bit deeper on how different parts of sequences depend on each other on a daily basis, so I do not only work with time use survey data, I also take a look at mobility data and try to connect them in order to get longer dependencies in between sequences. So therefore, this was quite nice to read and to see how it all comes back to these time and practices, to the basic concepts, that was quite interesting.

Elizabeth: so I’m going to intervene a bit here and say do you think that it’s possible to go beyond time slots, and beyond, as it were one sequence at a time, have you got any thoughts on this kind of conceptualising the total flux of society. Dale’s probably got an answer to that though.

Dale: I don’t think I’ve got an answer to that. So when Stan was talking about the strengthening or weakening, I think that’s interesting because I think the key question is strengthening and weakening of what, so I agree with you, I’m not good questioning that. So you know what strengthens and what weakens, and I think one way you can think about that is in the context of times when and durations, so what I take from the paper, which I agree with if I’m interpreting the paper right, flexibility is verified as a form of time that is a time when things happen, and I think the answer you give in the paper is that actually what strengthens and what weakens is the connection between practices, and what we should be looking at is what is doing the strengthening and the weakening, and that’s to do with materiality, material arrangements conventions, and so on

That means that flexibility is nothing to do with time, or flexibility is not time – we shouldn’t be thinking about flexibility as time – and we should be thinking about flexibility as practice arrangements and we can see, from materialities and so on, the things that we should be looking at to see where is their strength to hold those practices in place, i.e. be fixed, and where is their weakening, which perhaps opens up possibilities for flexibility, which I think is similar to the points that Michelle was making about if you look beyond clock time, or allow clock time to capture and gather up all instances of the temporal then you can start to think in those kinds of ways so that was really my point.

Elizabeth: Mike is doing some really nice work on seasonality, which is kind of straddles conventional energy type measurements of gas and electricity and time of year and so on but also in a way speaks to some of Michelle’s observations about what is a season anyway, by the way, and whose seasonality are we talking about, and what about not just days and minutes and seconds but kind of over longer rhythms, periods of time, so Mike in a way did the flexibility thing how does that relate to seasonality in your view?

Mike: I think it’s quite critical, and I think it will play a part in the next discussion that we have in a month’s time talking about seasonality. Just thinking about with my own work, you mentioned quite a bit about the social rhythms involved in the formation of flexibility, and I was linking that back to what I’ve been looking at and thinking about how social natural rhythms interact with different seasons, and how does the intermittency of renewables provide flexibility, and then how do we think about seasonality in a way that thinks about the synchronisation of practices, what’s rigid, what is moving about, and are seasons sort of flexible or inflexible. So I was thinking about at the moment with Covid going on, we’ve had the football season come back in quite a quick succession, and that’s sort of had a ripple effect on the different sporting activities, that cricketing has moved up slightly, and I started to think about the connections between the two, how that provokes ideas of the relationship between practices, and how the sequencing comes together to form the practices that we’re thinking of. It’s the discussions about seasonality and flexibility being intertwined with one another, it’s quite exciting to think about.

Elizabeth: And some of these other things about light and dark and heat, and trees putting out leaves and not putting out leaves, and these other kinds of ways. I would be interested, is anybody else working on seasonality? I’m shopping for contributions for next time shamelessly! You don’t need to admit it now, but if you have or know other people working on seasonality – it doesn’t need to be energy, so seasonality and shopping, or seasonality and food, or you know whatever have you have you ever had anything on seasonality Michelle, in the journal?

Michelle: I’m sure we have, we’ll have to have a look at all the back issues, I have to start planning for our 30th anniversary coming up in a couple of years, so there’s quite a lot of back issues. I’m sure we have, but I would love more as well, it’s really fascinating important. There’s lots of really interesting stuff about ecological calendars as well, of people trying to recreate agricultural ecological calendars and make them responsive to climate change. I’ve been working with somebody on things like that, there’s more about how you could adapt traditional calendars that understand seasonal cycles to shift to how things are changing now.

Elizabeth: Can I just ask, we’ll move on to Antti next but before we do that, can I just ask the modellers whoever you think you are if you pay attention to seasons? Selin for example?

Selin: Yes, of course we do. One of the concerns is that because there’s less heating in summer especially in Geneva – because now it’s 34 degrees by the way – that all the amount of flexibility that you calculated for winter, that you would like to match with PV, it’s not there anymore in summer because there’s no heating, people do shower but it’s cold showers. So we do analyse that, and then now the new idea is maybe we still fill this with EVs, but there’s no study on EV yet, on the seasonality, we don’t have any time use data, for example, for EVs when they’re charging, but it’s definitely a big concern because the flexibility in summer is not comparable exactly.

Elizabeth: And whatever a season is now is not the same as the season was a hundred years ago.

Selin: Of course, I was reading your paper, in the UK you stopped eating lunch at home, people would normally go back home to each lunch, that’s still the case I think in Switzerland, so let’s see if that changes.

Elizabeth: We haven’t heard from Antti, Antti’s done some great work on energy control centres where they’re dealing with the instant response to demand and supply, and flexibility is not an academic topic it’s just what they do every day, so what does that experience bring to this discussion?

Antti: Well first thanks for the article, I mean this is going to be slightly different I guess from the earlier discussion, so how I read this article is that it of course talks a lot about the demand-side practices or even end-user flexibility if you want to use that term, but I’m applying it also to the production of energy, the production of energy infrastructure in these control rooms that I’ve been studying, and I’m doing a paper now for a special team issue by Peter, Elizabeth and Stan. When you start with these three meanings of flexibility in the energy field, I would perhaps argue that they are also problematic in the case of these control rooms, these people who are constantly producing the energy infrastructure in their everyday work. I’ve been trying to scope for different kind of theories I guess, different social theories to explain the control rooms or understand them better, and one thing that comes very clear is just in different methodology or workplace studies people have their own methods and their own theories in these control rooms and they like to work well, there is a lot of emphasis on skills and also I mean practices in that sense. I also think this kind of pragmatism is very inherent to how flexibility is seen in these control rooms, people have lots of habits, and the habits work – as long as they do work – and when they are disrupted then something different has to be done. Within this kind of workplace study and pragmatism, flexibility becomes something slightly different and there’s lots of fixity as well in habits, I think, although habits are reflective to an extent – I guess that’s what pragmatism tells us – and the last kind of theory or concept I’ve been trying to use is science and technology studies, and the new sociology of markets because a lot of the management of energy infrastructure that happens through these practical tools – and these practical tools whether they are market-based or something else, kind of planning or operational tools, they actually seem to reinforce a lot of things you’ve been talking about – this time slot thinking comes from the kind of statistics that people have at their disposal, and they’re managing the energy infrastructure.

Seasonal thinking comes also partly from habits and partly from the kind of tools that people have at their disposal, and the last kind – and this is a big puzzle and I don’t really have an answer – is the role of the market, because we have a big power market in Scandinavia and in some way the market really reduces everything to just prices, and flexibility somehow becomes perhaps just a kind of occurrence on the market, all the information is enterprises, as some Austrian economists tell us, this is kind of created in the energy market in some ways. I mean I don’t have really any kind of conclusion from this, I just think it is slightly different and we’re still trying to write all of this into a paper, that’s as far as I have got.

Elizabeth: I think that’s really interesting and that’s right, so actually some people could say well, what were Dan and Peter and Elizabeth wasting their time doing fretting about these issues of flexibility, it’s just the market, you know the market will solve all of these issues of timing and everyday life, we don’t need to worry anymore about this or write anymore, or have any more ideas. Obviously, I think they’re completely wrong, but nonetheless it’s a recognisable position and one where money is the proxy for energy, is the proxy for time actually, it rolls all of these things together. Now I’m looking at my list and I’m looking at the clock as one should in this situation, and we’ve got about 20 minutes and Samuele hasn’t said anything, and Jose has hardly said anything so they I get the next chance, but then I’m going to go back to some of the bigger themes that we seem to have gathered together.

Samuele: Thank you Elizabeth. I joined the CREDS flexibility team less than one year ago, so to me the paper was a continuation of the conversation that we firstly had last year in Lancaster in September, and then in December in Abington. There is a certain continuity going from the people right there, and when you say how do we follow up from here that’s like you were asking the question to the modellers, what’s a follow-up step. I think there’s a crucial point that you make in the paper that the current understanding in terms of techno-fixes is not adequate, because it misses completely the picture that if you introduce a new technology, a new material artefact, it’s going to trigger a different way to perform a given practice, so the system will readjust to that, and that it is entirely missed in the framework in its overall discussion and production, so if you want to think about going ahead, an idea how can you operationalise the framework you are proposing into a modelling exercise, which does not necessarily need to be quantitative but also in qualitative terms, that is to say, how is the introduction of the given technology of a given material artefact likely going to affect the evolution of social practices. Even a qualitative discussion simply to stir up some brainstorming around that, if we want to operationalise what you are proposing in the paper.

I have another remark, it’s about the title of the paper – Challenging representations of time and society in the energy sector – are we talking about the energy sector or energy modelling? Or are we talking about the representation made by energy modellers, because the energy sector as we said functions according to market rules and according to a market logic, so it does its own job which is actually to fulfill energy demand, to provide energy, so why do you want to challenge the energy sector, or the energy sector does its job. What you may want to challenge is the current energy model and activity and the thinking of energy modellers, so Nicola made reference before to complex system thinking, even if by introducing your framework social practice theory, I mean if you force them to think about, okay how the introduction of a new material artefact or a new technology will trigger changes in the system, that’s already a higher order effect which helps them maybe to go beyond what is being currently done. I don’t know if these reflections are useful, but it was my take on the paper and kind of addressing the question that you posed in the very beginning of this discussion. Thank you.

Elizabeth: I think what we mean by the energy sector is something we should perhaps say a word on, if we could think of a good word to say, shortly, but Jose you’re directly working with the challenge of operationalising or so called operationalising these ideas.

Jose: I too did find the paper very interesting and it got me thinking really hard in terms of whether there is a way of sort of breaching the different theories used for these different descriptions of time and temporalities, because all the people who have done modelling work have expressed the sort of natural sciences or physical and engineering approaches to these sort of issues, embrace this sort of realism where time is something that just is, it’s there and it kind of determines how you do things, how you measure, how things happen, when things happen, and it’s embedded in the framework that you are using as a default to describe anything, whereas the kind of relationship that’s used to describe the more social aspects of how things in everyday life just happen, and these issues with the emergence or the understanding of time as something that comes, or is made from the different rhythms and the cycles of people’s activities and that kind of thing, it’s a very different approach, so I was thinking whether there is way or whether it is worth looking at some sort of general theory to integrate these two approaches, and then be able to breach those two different understandings.

Elizabeth: These kinds of ideas of bridging across totally different ways of conceptualising time strike me as being challenging.

Stan: Maybe I could give my answer about the sector, and then I had a question for Nicola, and I suppose my answer to the sector thing is I’d be a bit careful about separating out a kind of market way of working, a market version and the kind of research modellers version. We picked out three representations that we’ve found across those areas, and one of them is maybe more specific to the kind of marketing thing, but I think it wouldn’t be so clear which ideas / units – different modellers work with different units and things like that – so across those, and then the other thing that I’d say about it is that somebody was just saying the market does its job, and I think the reason to challenge representations across those more broadly is because they have effect, and they have effect in creating this ironic fixity of flexibility by working with proposed and more static baselines. So I think the two things are connected a little bit to the question that I want to ask Nicola as well, which is yes of course we recognise that representations of flexibility have effect, but we’re saying actually maybe we should reconceptualise flexibility, and consider a world of moving, connecting, strengthening, and weakening ties between practices.

Nicola made the point, which I’m really sympathetic to, which is actually there’s no possibility to explain those changes, once we get to that kind of space, once you understand it as in Nicola’s terms like complexity or something like that, there is no kind of anchor. Michelle was talking about where’s your reference point from which to know different durations and that sort of thing, but I want to ask Nicola, because I’m really sympathetic to that, and in a way I sort of agree, that once you get to that complexity and once you don’t have a reference point, then how can you do the measuring, and that those things are kind of diametrically opposed. I’m just wondering, and this is a broader interest of mine, this is why I’m interested in the flexibility thing, is isn’t there a way to better describe emergence and isn’t there a way to better describe complexity? Nicola made this claim that the reason there’s no possibility to explain change is because everything is so interconnected, but ‘so interconnected’ is an epistemological statement on its own, so what’s more and less interconnected. So I’m wondering, can’t we get closer, can’t we describe differences in emergence more and less flexibility, and can’t we then have some measurements that are on those terms themselves?

Elizabeth: That’s the question. Maybe Nicola has a response to that, but then maybe Dale as well because he’s in the same field.

Nicola: I leave the floor to Dale, if he wants to answer first.

Dale: I agree. So I on complexity thinking I’ve got quite a lot of sympathy with complexity theories, emergence, episodic change and so on, I always take from them the key point that you need to focus on interconnections, you can’t explain everything so you draw a boundary to get an object of analysis and you recognise that it’s only ever a partial explanation of things. So the kind of question, what is more or less connected or interconnected, or stronger or weaker interconnections I think is exactly the right kind of question, but I haven’t got an answer to what actually I might mean or you might mean but more or less, stronger or weaker. I don’t have an answer, I think it’s an interesting and important topic to try and raise, partly because it shifts, going back to the stuff around measurement and methods and all that, it shifts the radar of what you’re looking for into essentially what you’re measuring, if measurement matters.

Elizabeth: Exactly, just describing anyway even if not measuring. Nicola next and then we’ll see where we go.

Nicola: Thank you. Concerning emergence, I stick to the physical definition of it, as long as we have non-linearities and we cannot pretend to make any meaningful prediction of what will emerge from this plentiful interacting and strongly interacting path, so for me as a physicist, that’s all, I stopped here. Concerning the possibility of measuring I personally prefer to consider a measurement as an operative function which creates abstractions which are fundamental for the organisation of societies, but the point is that there is always another dimension which escapes measurement, and so whenever we try to define time slots and attach functions, or also when we try to identify correlations between practices we should pay attention, I think, because we should ask what do we want to do with it, do we pretend to provide an understanding to better manage this phenomenon, and my answer is not, because basically while doing so we are reducing everything to an endogenous factor, but unfortunately there are exogenous factors that trigger change. And so when it comes to approaching the problem, for me it is a matter of reducing complexity, how complexity can be reduced, and this is for me the way in which we can escape all these paradoxes and the incompatibilities between worlds which are created by complex system thinking and reality, I would say. So it is a matter of understanding in which configuration we can assume that complexity is reduced or how complexity can be reduced.

Elizabeth: I’m just going to check if anybody else has got anything to add. Dale has and anybody else.

Dale: I just wanted to say I agree with everything but the last statement, Nicola, I don’t think it’s about reducing complexity, I think complexity is just out there, the world is complex, there’s lots of complex forms of interaction and so on. So I don’t think it’s about reducing complexity, I think it’s about looking at it from different angles, understanding it and I mean what we’re describing that’s as good enough for word for me as measuring or anything else, so I think we work with complexity rather than try and reduce it.

Elizabeth: Okay, well that’s a nice point to end on. This was an experiment, we’ve never quite had a reading group on our own paper with people from really different backgrounds, and I think that’s been a major strength, we’ve got different views and different sorts of expertise ,and different ideas and different takes on just launching out the same papers. So we’ve got a plan to have one on seasonality, at the beginning of October, the conventional start of the heating season in Britain, and we haven’t yet got one paper to focus on, so we need to think about. It would be great to see you all again at that, and certainly to maintain this kind of interdisciplinary mixture on these sorts of topics – energy, time, flexibility, whatever.

Seasonality we need to think about, but also you can contact each other or if not you can contact me and we’ll put you in touch with each other, because there are clearly some overlaps between people who haven’t had the chance to really chat amongst themselves, between this group so that’s really nice to have that kind of connection possible. If you have any other thoughts on papers that we might sensibly discuss, we don’t need to limit this to the next two or three, we can go on and be a little kind of friendly group on flexibility and time, a sort of set of consenting interdisciplinary adults that like to meet and chat about these things occasionally. That’s basically what we were aiming for and not much more than that I don’t think, but I need to check with Jacopo if that’s all that we need to say and with Stan as well.

Jacopo: I would say this discussion is at the very core of any discussion on flexibility, and you mentioned the things that we achieved in terms of getting together and discussing some of those issues, gives me even more hope for the future discussions. To put it in a less formal way, one thing I felt is the group that we have here has a bit of anxiety to measure on the one hand, and anxiety of something else on the other, but perhaps the paper is really a starting point, and there are so many connections to be made in order to get to some of the issues that people discussed, so there’s also work ahead in this in this area. We really hope to collaborate and keep speaking to those who joined today and others.

Elizabeth: Absolutely, we’ll have Dale’s paper or even his book on Time next maybe. Stan do you want to say goodbye?

Stan: Yeah just say thank you very much everyone for coming and thanks for reading the paper, and I’ve got a pad full of notes now to take away and think about things some more, so thanks a lot I’ve really enjoyed that.

Elizabeth: So we’ll see you in October.

Thanks very much.


  • Jacopo Torritti
  • Elizabeth Shove
  • Stan Blue
  • Stefan Smith
  • Nicola Labanca
  • Antti Silvast
  • Michael Greenhough
  • Max Kleinebrahm
  • Selin Yilmaz
  • Debbie Hopkins
  • Dale Southerton
  • Yohei Yamaguchi
  • Michelle Bastian
  • Samuele Lo Piano
  • Jose Luis Ramirez-Mendiola

Banner photo credit: Edgar Castrejon on Unsplash