Transcript: Flexibility capital and justice in smart energy systems

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Reading time: 52 minutes

20 January 2021. Online event

Discussion:

Elizabeth Shrove: Okay well, welcome everybody and especially welcome to Gareth and Mike, and thanks for submitting themselves and submitting their paper to this group. So we are, I mean some of us have met in different combinations before I think, and in a way what we have in common, we don’t quite know, but something might be some sort of interest in flexibility and energy. So, your paper is perfect from that point of view. We’ve had different sort of reading room topics, some of them have had little presentations because we haven’t had a paper, like the one on seasonality, but some of them where we have had a paper we’ve run in this kind of format where we’ve all read the paper and then kind of get stuck into it and then gradually, and later, let the authors respond.

So, clearly it was brilliant to have the chance to talk about this one which the title of which seems to be spot on in terms of our different interests. I am just going to follow that approach and I’ll ask everybody in turn just to kind of pick up a topic to take further or that they would like to ask the authors, and of course that’s okay because the authors are there and they get to answer later. But I’m going to start with Marius. So, Marius, what would you like to ask the authors?

Marius Korsnes: Okay, wow, what an opportunity! I’d just like to start by saying I think it’s an excellent paper. I read it some time ago and now I just looked at it again before this meeting, so I didn’t have time to go into detail and develop some profound questions connected to the paper.

Elizabeth Shrove: Any questions will do!

Marius Korsnes: That’s great. I mean, I guess the first more conceptual question would be in terms of are you kind of proposing that flexibility capital is something in itself compared to, for example, cultural or social capital, or is it more a metaphorical type of capital we’re talking about here? I guess that would be my first kind of question.

Elizabeth Shrove: Yeah, that’s fine. We can have several rounds of these kind of questions but actually I’m going to abuse my position and go next because one, I’ve got lots of questions, but one of them is indeed about the meaning, why refer to Bourdieu, I mean it’s definitely not treating capital in a kind of a simple commodity way, it’s about sharing, it’s about transmission, it’s about intergenerational acquisition, it’s about the potential to move across different kinds of borders. Lots to say about capital and the accumulation of it is key. So, I was really puzzled about why you were using Bourdieu’s notion of capital when flexibility couldn’t, could it be accumulated or where do you get flexibility capital from and based on what and so on? So, it’s interesting that Marius raises it but I would also say I mean I’ve got about four questions but that was one of them. So, I think it will be worth when we get the chance to talk to the authors, time to sort of interrogate them on Bourdieu in particular. Nicola’s next on my list.

Nicola Labanca: Thank you and I also found that the paper very interesting and my question is somehow related to the one raised by Elizabeth. In particular, I mean in relation to flexibility for me there are these two distinctions between flexibility that can be achieved by stocks of energy storage and the flexibility that can be achieved through, for example, information. These two kinds of flexibility are complementary; the former can be more easily measured, the latter cannot. And so, this distinction between [not clear] adopted by Georgescu Rogan also represented a watershed, I wonder whether this can be incorporated in your viewer, can instead be somehow problematic, especially when it comes to measurement of and the assessment also in legal terms of flexibility.

Elizabeth Shrove: So, we’ve had heard from Marius and Nicola and Yohei is next. Do you have any questions for the authors?

Yohei Yamaguchi: Oh, thank you very much! Actually, I’m not familiar with the concept of the capital and justice, so I think this is my first time to read this kind of concept. So basically, I enjoy but I have a difficulty in understanding what we should, as an engineer, what we should learn from this and how we should change our practice as an engineering researcher. So that’s my question.

Elizabeth Shrove: Stan?

Stanley Blue: Okay yeah thank you! Yeah so I really recognise the I guess like the issue and the ambition of the piece, you know, what’s on the horizon is going to disenfranchise a lot of people and already is probably and you know the opposite to others.

I suppose the two things for me I’d like to ask the authors are basically for you guys what then is the relationship between capitals. So, I think this is a bit further than the classic you know when people go, oh well this could be a capital and that could be a capital and that, and I’m looking at this so this is a capital, and you say well, what’s the point of it then if everything is just a capital? I would be interested to hear your response to that one. But I think it goes the first part goes a bit further beyond that to say what’s the relationship between capitals kind of over time, or something like that, or how are these spaces being made, you know, to be flexible or not as something that needs to be accumulated or not, or is part of that kind of network of capitals.

So, I guess the question is, you know where and they’re responsive, right, like they matter for each other as they’re accumulated in one space they get detracted from another. So, I guess when I looked at your diagram I wanted to ask could there be or did you think about could there be a kind of historical like frame of your graph? You know what the thing that struck me about your diagrams and your graphs was that they were they seemed to me to be quite ahistorical basically. So, I’d be really interested in how would they shift and change over time, would that matter for how you’re developing this idea of flexible justice?

Elizabeth Shrove: Matteo?

Matteo Barsanti: And my question is something similar to what Yohei said before. I have an engineering background, so I would like to investigate more how what can we learn as an engineer from this concept. I see some similarities with an approach developed by Sarah Darby that she presents this framework, this box where flexibility, demand-side manual flexibility, can be represented with three dimensions which are technology, activity and service expectation. So, my question would be I see already that you try to connect the concept of flexibility capital with the interaction with financial resources, so are there some dimensions we can use to quantify this flexibility? And I know it’s hard to do that, to quantify this flexibility capital and to translate into maybe modelling terms. Something that that can be operationalised.

Elizabeth Shrove: Selin?

Selin Yilmaz: And so my question would be on what could be the take away for different institutions like the DSOs and councils in Switzerland and regulatory bodies from this flexibility capital?

Elizabeth Shrove: Well, I think it’s quite okay for the authors to respond and we’ll have time for a couple of rounds, but that’s already quite a catalogue about the nature, Bourdieu actually, what’s your take on Bourdieu’s arguments, something about the difference of stocks and technologies and other kind of sources, and you might even say why think of flexibility as a quality of an individual, I mean it’s part of the system maybe, something about actually what can engineers take from this, that’s interesting, or regulators or different actors, what do we learn from this in a way, and then Stan’s point about the momentary nature of all this, or the history of this, or how do you deal with that? That’s my catalogue or summary of what people have said. Over to you one another or both.

Michael Fell: Gareth, given that we both worked really well and closely on this paper together actually over an intense period of days, actually it was really interesting process, but you know the capital side of things is something that Gareth largely brought and that we then developed ourselves and the justice angle is what I’m doing. So, I’m just saying for that reason I wanted to I wanted to ask if Gareth wanted to make any response on the capital questions first but of course I’m happy to contribute as well?

Gareth Powells: Yeah thanks for that Mike, I’ll have a go. So, it’s nice to have this chance to have such a conversation about the paper and more generally about these ideas, and think the paper is very deliberately – and this is, you’ll probably spot, my get-out-of-jail card – it was a provocation, it’s a short paper that tries to open up these conversations rather than nail them down. And that’s hopefully the spirit in which we’ve been trying to have the chat. So, the idea of capital kind of came from two points of origin I suppose, one of them being Bourdieu and the sense in which social capital has value and has some qualities and characteristics, cultural capital has value for those that have it. And particularly these two forms of capital vary geographically in between people and places, they tend sometimes to run in families or bestow benefits on those that hold them and they’re not kind of randomly just lying around the world, they are already kind of accumulated in particular ways as a result of history, basically, and political economy.

There was something about people’s flexibility and the flexibility of practices more broadly because this work kind of came alongside some of the work that we were doing at the time on the flexibility practices of everyday life and energy use. And we do want to say in the paper, kind of open this up as a way to think about how flexibility is distributed and where it accumulates, has accumulated in the economy and society more broadly. That wasn’t entirely specified by the existing theories of social and cultural capital. So, it started to just become a way we were talking about this kind of capital and at the same time was a kind of a growing critical engagement with political economy and people like David Harvey’s understanding of how capital accumulates and drives economies. This paper had a quite a long gestation in that I’ve certainly tried to publish this stuff about flexibility capital over a number of years, and some of you on the call may have been unlucky enough to have to review that, I’m not sure. But I wasn’t very successful in getting that published probably for good reason, but what we’ve ended up with is a heuristic sense that there is something about the flexibility of people’s practices as regards energy use, but also the flexibility with which they can navigate the job market and other aspects of the economy that we just don’t feel was sufficiently captured in another writing about capital.

So, we added flexibility to it and tried to advance this idea that flexibility does have some inherent value that those who hold it can benefit from but it has, as we’ve said, the other thing about it I think is that we try to emphasise it is very socio-technical and that at least one of the axis in which it you can start to specify in some more detail is the degree to which it is based on people’s ownership of access to and confidence around technology, and on the other hand their own personal readiness, possibly willingly or possibly kind of reluctantly, to flex their own lives. So, I’m not sure that’s a comprehensive answer but it’s an honest answer.

Elizabeth Shrove: But it’s really good to have a bit of context and especially about having tried to get these ideas out there before and struggling. I have to say I haven’t reviewed anything by the way. Alright. I think probably we can come back to the broader question of temporality versus flexibility a bit later on, but there were other questions, so maybe Mike you’d like to pick up some of the others.

Michael Fell: Yeah sure. I mean, just a very brief kind of observation on the capital point though. I think for me it’s one of the most useful functions it serves, again in some extents mainly as a heuristic as Gareth mentioned, is that so often there’s a risk of looking at a company or a household or even an individual and sort of expecting that if you introduce a product, with the right incentives you can click your fingers and suddenly this ability to be flexible, maybe with some complications, might be able to be realised or might be able to appear. And that completely ignores the fact that they might be part of a family that had traditionally Sunday lunch together every week for their entire lives, or that they’re part of an online community that is constantly talking about the new time-of-use tariff and how their ability to programme the latest open energy monitor and electric vehicle to charge at certain times allows them to get the maximum price saving, you know. With all of that knowledge having come at a cost and potentially a cost of a gain, in some respects, in the social arena and a loss in others because they’ve decided to dedicate time and resources to building that flexibility capital. So, I think for me that is the thing I find as a useful reminder, that’s one of the reasons why I find this a useful concept. I mean so there’s quite a few other points which I noted down. Maybe one which a couple of people talked about is what engineers can bring to something like this. And I mean we, as some of you know and possibly have played, developed this peer-to-peer energy board game called ‘Watt’s the deal?’ and we are running a session of that game next week for one of the Masters’ courses for Oxford University engineering students. It was run last year actually by my colleagues who co-developed the game Alexandra Schneiders and Anna Gorbachev.

Elizabeth Shrove: Can I just interrupt Mike? I’ve played the game, Stan’s played the game but as far as I know nobody else has, so it’s a good chance to explain a bit more what it is?

Michael Fell: Okay sure. So essentially, the concept of the game is based around the idea of peer-to-peer energy trading, which is where, in this case households, which are prosumers who can generate storage are able to buy and sell electricity directly between each other as well as the grid. And the premise of the game essentially is that there are four players and they each have in the game a solar panel and a battery, and a randomly generated demand every day for a week. And basically there’s a randomly generated generation every day for each player and they have to every day meet their demand exactly by either taking out of their battery, storing excess in their battery, buying or selling with other players or with the grid, or flexing their demand, by, for example, not using one unit today and using it tomorrow instead. And the players negotiate between themselves and essentially, they have to go through that every day for a week and you can make more profit by selling to other players rather than the grid, for example.

So, it tries to capture some of the benefits that peer-to-peer trading argues for. And there are sort of competitive modes where you’re trying to end up with the most profit at the end of the week, and collaborative modes where you play as a community together, where you’re trying to reduce the amount of energy imported from the grid. So, it can be played in a number of different ways. That was a nice opportunity to give it a plug and you can play it online: wattsthedeal.org. And you play in Google slides, so it’s got background information you can use in teaching. We’re just using the slides straight as they are for the website in the teaching next week. But to come back to the point I was making, when engineers were playing it, what it really just highlights because very few people have had the opportunity to participate, in this case, in peer-to-peer trading, but it goes more broadly to do with ideas of distributed generation and flexibility and storage. They haven’t had the opportunity to be in the situation where you might be rolled a hand where your demand is kind of quite high throughout the week, and obviously that’s random in the game, but it’s an opportunity to discuss why might that happen? You know, is it that household just chose to purchase loads of expensive appliances or are they in a kind of poorly insulated electrically heated home, for example? They can talk about that sort of question, they can observe the fact that some people are very focused on making a profit themselves and hoarding into their battery while others are happy to sell it to support others in the community or donate and so on. Without going on at too much length there, it’s an opportunity to sort of see it first-hand and discuss and think about and feel what it’s like to be in this new situation which people might not have sort of necessarily found themselves in. So, I’ve only been talking about the game there, but to come back to the paper and the flexibility justice idea, I think the aim is, to again come back to this point that we don’t want to kind of give a completely unnuanced idea of engineers obviously, there are many.

Elizabeth Shrove: There are some in the room.

Michael Fell: Exactly, very thoughtful and fully aware of these issues and probably will take less from the paper necessarily, but it might emphasise the idea of, for example, if you build on some of that thinking, and thinking about the fact that different groups of people or households or businesses also with different characteristics might be able to engage with flexibility in different ways, how would you therefore design for that? You know, if you’re using user-centred design processes or designing for accessibility, how do you go about thinking about your design team or the people who are feeding into those early designs and the process by which you’re developing it? And I think if you take an appreciation of those issues and those possibilities, it foregrounds potentially in the mind of people who are involved in those processes how to potentially address them early on in the process. I’ll stop talking there. I mean there’s more to say on the regulation thing, but we can come back to that and.

Elizabeth Shrove: I mean certainly the game raises some basic issues about trade-offs and things like that. I’m just sitting here fantasising about when you’re going to introduce flexibility capital into the game as another commodity or what. And in a way that raises the bigger, like I would be interested like what’s the unit, what’s the measurement, like we were talking about before? So, Gareth, do you think Mike can add flexibility capital into the game?

Gareth Powells: Well, a tantalising prospect; I’ll come to that in a moment. I think I would just add to what Mike said earlier, I’d add that it also is another reminder, it’s not the only way to think about it, it’s another way to bring an ethic of care into the design. You know, there are a lot of other ways to do it, but if engineers have a kind of easy-to-handle concept that the energy systems had, historically, was flexibility around generation. As we move into demand-side response that flexibility capital is moving through to a different part of the system, and it’s now at the human end of the system, the socio-technical demand end of the system, you know, it provides I think an intuitive way to think about how the system might find the flexibility it wants. And also, that now that we’re going to find flexibility at the demand end of the system, that it has some different characteristics depending on how you try to create it, can be more or less socially or technically derived, or more or less convenient, or more or less inclusive and exclusive. So that was just a way to answer the question about how either engineers, system designers or also kind of market mechanism proposition developers can maybe engage with the idea.

Your question, Elizabeth, I guess what you’re asking is it a commodity and how can you measure it and how can you kind of trade it and things like that; what’s occurred to me is that although it’s kind of tempting to call it a commodity, it sometimes looks more like a service rather than a good, it’s more like something that is provided rather than something that you buy and then have. I’ve in the past thought about it more that the flexibility that’s kind of economised is a service which has to be re-performed and indeed quantified and verified through something like smart metering or some other kind of data provision, so that becomes the kind of mechanism through which the flexibility gets recorded and quantified if we’re talking about electrical demand, or even gas demand with the smart meters in place. That it becomes the provision of service to somebody who wants that service. And your ability to provide that service and the nature in which you can provide it is a function of your flexibility capital.

Elizabeth Shrove: We have people from different countries here. So, I sort of want to go back to Stan’s question about history, in other words how are you conceptualising change? You’ve mentioned different social technical systems but also, in Norway, in Japan, in Switzerland, in Italy, and in Finland there are quite different histories of temporal organisation, there are different seasons as we talked about. And clearly temporality is the kind of rhythms of society which exist beyond the individual, clearly they do. They also clearly have a history. So, I suppose this is another way of framing the bigger question about where are you, and where is this kind of scheme in the longer term history or indeed the cultural arrangements of temporality, energy demand, rhythms of society in all these different places which are as we’re learning through these reading rooms kind of more and more intriguing for their differences. So, how does that fit with what you’re writing about?

Gareth Powells: It’s a great question. Clearly, geographically and historically, you know, supply, consumption and provision of energy and how people organise themselves and energies does vary. I guess, my answer is that what we’re suggesting is that at least in some of the ways that we’ve sketched out, and very likely in others, we’re trying to establish a kind of a framework for thinking about how flexibility is produced and valued across different economies, and in our case we’ve been focusing on the energy economy in the U.K. around this period that we’re in, that we’re now entering where we’re kind of moving towards smart metering and the emergence of time-use pricing. But the framework, and as we openly say in the paper, and by opening up these ideas rather than nailing them in any framework is trying to provide some ways to think about how flexibility can be produced and valued across different economies and different cultures. And absolutely that kind of socio-technical gradient is one of the ways we might try to distinguish different instances of flexibility capital and justice, but another might be the degree to which it runs across or varies across from supply to demand, and I think what we’re seeing here in our context, the movement and what is problematising is the movement toward assuming that it can be provided at the demand end in an increasing way, but that in other contexts, as you’re saying, that those kind of sliders are set differently.

Michael Fell: Can I just very quickly add a brief perspective for my thought on that, which is that of course there are different communities, sects of society, even in this country, for example, different religious communities, different ethnic communities who have temporalities which might be in some respects all the same depending on which community you’re looking at, but in others different, the ways in how religious observance of those particular days of the week and holidays and so on are conducted. Those obviously have long histories, have been going on for a long time and as we imagine the increase of, in the energy area, the potential role of when certain activities are performed having an impact on, for example, very immediately how much you might pay for electricity to do certain things, which might suddenly then find that there are certain dimensions of difference whether it’s on, you know, I gave the example of religion there but it could be any other that you are interested in which has historically determined certain rhythms of life might have suddenly quite different outcomes, whether you work at home or not, your career, your choice of work, all of these things, suddenly it’s like you’re seeing this new dimension added in to this timeline. Yeah, hopefully that’s, that conveys the idea I’m trying to get.

Stanley Blue: I suppose I was thinking about, we wrote a paper with Elizabeth and Peter on conceptualising flexibility and I was sort of putting my mind there and thinking, and this question actually is one that I do find really interesting, which is basically how is flexibility, for lack of a better way to put it, different for different groups, made and making for different groups and to recognise what you’re calling flexibility and injustice. I suppose what I’d be interested to think about is an example, and I recognise it’s a simple example, it’s like train times and peak travel time or something like that. And in a way it’s a really clear one because either you have the money to get the peak time train or you don’t, or you have the capacity, I guess, read that as a middle- or upper-class job or a white-collar job, to be able to work flexi-time or something like that, you don’t have to be at a certain place at half past eight to do what do labouring or something like that. But I suppose then it’s back to this question of the two things, the relationality or the relation between those times, so they’re a product, that we want those jobs to be there at that time or something like that, and the relationship between, I suppose, economic and cultural capital, and then flexible capital that you want to add in.

So, I suppose the whole point about Bourdieu is that cultural capital, what counts as cultural capital, moves through the groups and it’s not really the content that matters, it’s the exclusion of the things. And so too then the times and places, it’s not really the fixed times and spaces that matter, it’s the exclusion from those times and spaces that are made, and that are also relational so that they matter for each other and shape each other but over time, like the peak time shifting or something, I guess. I guess it’s just when you’re talking it’s making me think of this, and I suppose that’s why I’m asking a bit about the history and the movement and the making because at times in the paper it reads as if, and in a way it’s true that, you know, either you have the ability to be flexible or not at this present moment in history and if you can be flexible then you’re probably in a particular group and if you can’t then you’re probably in a different one, or something like or you have these effects for you. But then that begs the question, does it all just boil down to economic capital then? Is flexibility and justice just injustice basically? That was a bit of a long way around to say that sorry.

Elizabeth Shrove: But the point you got to, is it just economic capital?

Stanley Blue: But I don’t know, because they make each other right, so that’s why I say I’m interested in that because who’s colonising those, like you say you’d think the ability to work whenever you want to work and sleep when you want to sleep would, you know, the theory of the leisure class or whatever. But of course, you know, your other good example of the gig economy and gig homework shows that place has been colonised, now those flexibilities have been colonised and actually probably a standardised nine-to-five working regime is probably coveted, anyway, you get my point.

Elizabeth Shrove: All of which are changing all the time.

Gareth Powells: Yeah so, I think it’s really good I have this chat to get into some of these questions. What strikes me is that, that sense of capital as having accumulated, and some of this for me at least would be informed by people like David Harvey, that there are these long-standing processes through which over time inequality is established and inequality of what, certainly inequality of economic capital but also cultural capital, but then in some ways they’re not the same as social capital or forms of flexibility that are enabled by, for example, extended families living locally and another kind of assemblages of capital, assemblages through which capital accumulates that enable flexibility that there are, you know, for example, this year, not right now because we’re in full lockdown, but certainly as somebody who lives close to my extended family I’ve got this additional benefit of flexibility around my child care and allows me to do the things that I might not otherwise do, and it allows me to do things that my professorial colleagues who make twice my salary can’t do because they don’t have local free child care. So there are some flexibilities that emerge from the combination of long-standing kind of accumulations that I think are interesting, and in some ways I’d see these let’s say holdings of flexibility capital, for want of a better phrase, these kind of pools of flexibility capital as the emergent properties of several assemblages interacting with one another, they’re all kind of in these kind of relations of exteriority with one another so you have home life, work life, school life, all the other things that we do, interconnecting to create particular kind of constellations of flexibility that certainly do bear the trace of kind of historical accumulations of cultural and economic capital but that I guess we wrote here because we think there’s something distinctive there about capital.

Michael Fell: Two lines for me which is that clearly there’s an important economic element; you can, if you can afford it you can buy a battery and suddenly get a lot of flexibility capital but there’s clearly more than that as well. You know, your cooking knowledge, for example, cooking is something I think about quite a lot because I do this website called Should I bake which is just renewable energy on the grid, but if Sunday roast or cooking meals in the oven or you’ve got an induction hob or something like that are important to you, you might have to completely learn new styles of cooking, a new way of cooking or change your cooking technology or change the times at which you socialise. So, it’s clearly in that respect not just an economic question in the same way that you can buy a degree by paying the fees and going to university and doing three years or even getting one off the shelf, but it wouldn’t be the same as getting an education.

Elizabeth Shrove: Nicola.

Nicola Labanca: Thank you. Adding to what Michael just said, yes, it’s mainly not an economic question. But probably it should also be considered that there are two different kinds of flexibilities, one that can be exercised in times of normal functioning of systems and the other that plays a role in times of disruption. And when you observe these two different regimes, we might discover that the affluent, for example, which might be more flexible in times of normal functioning are the least flexible in times of disruption. So, the impression is that the picture that you are giving which is very valuable is mainly a reified one which can work very well in terms of a normal functioning regimes, but if you want to look at how history plays within a flexibility you and to somehow exit this reified framework which I repeat it seems to me very fundamental, your paper is a kind of a leap forward in the future. Now for me imagining how engineers and people working in economics might want to implement a flexibility concept but I have the impression that it has to be restricted to this reified world which is not actually the world story of flexibility.

Gareth Powells: Thanks for that, Nicola. So I mean one of the things I’ve taken from that is – I think I’m kind of interpreting what you see correctly and saying – that you’re identifying or kind of reminding us that there are these kind of flexibility under normal circumstances which might be normalised or become a part of market provision or system design that may or may not be just, or may or may not be fair for everybody or for everyone differently, but then there are other flexibilities which are more exceptional and that those things are actually just as important but we haven’t yet looked at those. Is that?

Nicola Labanca: I meant that your picture is very enlightening, but it works much better in times of normal functioning. you can implement a concept of flexibility justice in times of normal functioning. You will have real troubles if you will try to implement the same concept in times of disruption, and so in the concept you are proposing can work very well under an engeristic point of view, an economic point of view but it cannot probably be pretended that you can englobe the whole story of flexibility and probably it would be clearer now if the picture would be restricted and presented just within this reified regime of normal functioning which is a very artificial one because renewables and the way they would be implemented take us in something which is very artificial because flexibility linked to seasonality, for example, might change and be not very useful, you know, in this regime because when we are all interconnected, the sun that goes off becomes less relevant because I can take the energy from elsewhere. And so, everything becomes extremely artificial, and your picture works very well within this artificial regime, it seems to me at least.

Gareth Powells: I think you make a really good point, and that makes perfect sense to me and I would, you know, recognise it as a pretty accurate reading of what we have and haven’t focused on thus far and certainly gives me and I would imagine Mike food for thought about a) where the limits of the framework are but also where we might, you know, move our thinking out about developing it further.

Elizabeth Shrove: Mikko?

Mikko Jalas: Yeah, thanks for the invitation and thanks for the opportunity to listen to this. This is a theme that I’ve been myself and with my colleague trying to put also thoughts forward and we will be presenting in I guess in March in the reading room, so great to be here. I was thinking of kind of continuing from what Nicola said about normal and intermittent. I was kind of thinking of the same things but more in terms of kind of an evolution of or unfolding of time, where we may first have something that looks like disruption, something is not available where it used to be and over time then different people or different groups of people might adjust to a kind of a new rhythmicity.

So that’s kind of like a second level ability to react, and I think it’s fundamentally different in this disruption versus normal sense because firstly it kind of unfolds in time, and then it’s not apparent that those who kind of readjust their rhythms might be somehow worse off. So the kind of the justice question really is open when we start to say that various resource scarcities actually what they are doing is kind of disintegrating the shared social rhythms that we have, so you have a multiplicity of new rhythms or slightly altered rhythms that are responses to scarcities or under-capacity of infrastructures and so on and so forth. But they may serve well some groups and the kind of religious groups that Michael mentioned just reminded me of this, I’ve been trying to think whether we see kind of a new form of social segregation because these are permanent enough patterns so it’s not like everything is flexible all the time and people are kind of shuffling their activities constantly, but it’s rather that you see a patterning over time. And of course, intermittent power production is more of a special case here, because that’s really also the production or the capacity to serve is changing. But if you think about the rail network, the road network or other infrastructures, their production capacity is pretty stable or it’s predictable, and there the kind of capacity constraints are more a question of just redistributing social rhythms and the question is how do you do that, what other techniques, whether you go for dynamic pricing or whether you have some other non-kind of market-based mechanisms of doing that. So those kinds of thoughts, so two layers, the immediate need of flexibility and then the kind of what comes out over time out of this. So, it’s not a question but just a comment on how I’m reading and thinking also and listening to Nicola’s point.

Gareth Powells: Thanks very much for that. I mean nobody’s mentioned COVID yet but I think COVID is giving us a really good example of how life can change in quite profound ways and in ways that nobody would have given any credibility to prior to this time last year even. This kind of sense in which the disruptions can lead to these new polyrhythms for, you know, the school day, I’m speaking from a personal perspective, but I think more broadly the school day as having this huge structuring effect on rhythm of the day, that having removed it is creating all sorts of new practices, many of them digitally enabled like we’re doing now, I mean my six-year-old’s doing a Zoom call right now as well. So, we’re seeing all sorts of new practices emerging as we know, but whether and the ways in which they adopt and settle into new rhythms is fascinating certainly.

Elizabeth Shrove: Mike, and then I’m going to have a go.

Michael Fell: Just a quick observation that for me, which I agree with completely, that sounds very reasonable to me but I want to kind of bring it and relate it to the question which Selin asked, which is about issues for regulators. And I think for me and I want to contextualise this by saying I think we’re probably moving into a situation where regulation is going to be more principles-based, I think, is generally accepted, it’s not a set of rules about what you can and can’t do, but here are the sorts of principles that generally speaking we want to uphold in regulating energy markets or the energy system, I guess. And I think the key way for this is in my view effectively managing a kind of principles-based regulation system, being attentive and thinking what do we need to look out for and make sure that we measure the right things and anticipate and be able to act to prevent harm, or at least serious harm especially if it’s affecting the vulnerable, as quickly as possible.

I think it’s useful to come at this from a justice perspective because it makes you consider these questions with ideas of fairness and so on in mind, but the chances are there’s probably going to be relatively restricted groups of those people who for whatever reason can’t adapt and end up at risk of harm because of economic costs or sacrifices they’re making in terms of their living conditions, which we and regulators should be attentive to, and just prompting to think, and not saying ‘here are the characteristics you need to think about’ but saying we might need to think about a broad range of characteristics when looking at the types of groups who might be more or less vulnerable in these situations. So, for me that’s what I would say to regulators, probably expanding beyond fairly simple existing measures and being a bit more open to the research that’s coming out about the different kind of vulnerabilities and harms that exist in these areas as well. I often neglect to mention the opportunities and highlighting those areas and championing those areas where people have, especially vulnerable people, have really benefited.

Elizabeth Shrove: Gareth.

Gareth Powells: Just a quick one to add to that point that the idea to prompt people to adopt that sense of ethical care or awareness, or serious questions to ask themselves is that I think again, advocating for some version of the ideas in the paper, is that it might provide a way to think about not just the acute vulnerabilities but the kind of chronic vulnerabilities that may seem insignificant in any one instance but over time can lead to harm. This for me at least is one of the ways, one of the reasons why that kind of slider of locus of control and social to technical means of performing or providing their flexibility is helpful because even if it’s a mild harm that persists over a long period of time that can clearly be problematic, but might not in at the point of decision-making be seen as too problematic.

Elizabeth Shrove: I want to go back a step on the normal and the disruption. So, we haven’t got Frank Trentmann here, but he’s a historian who’s written about the unfolding of the permanent nature of disruption. But there isn’t such a thing as normal ever, but there’s constant kind of shift and there’s a political move to call it disruption or normality and these kinds of things. But I think it raises these bigger questions about ‘to do what’ and your equity and justice talk does that a lot more as well. In other words, and even these kind of ideas about capacity – economic, temporal, socio-technical, flexible, whatever – the significance of it depends on being able to do what is valued in society. That’s the kind of invisible backdrop to all of this discussion. And I suppose some of us are saying that’s not a backdrop that’s separate from the temporal constitution of systems of provision. It’s one and the same actually; the one creates the other. So, I think there’s, to put it really, there’s something, I mean to use your example of COVID, the question would be, is flexibility capital different now given that the challenges and structure of society and what people are doing and what they’re valuing is different? Has that changed flexibility capital itself or the distribution of it? I completely appreciate the struggle to think about this. We haven’t got the answers either so that’s why we thought this was a good topic to discuss. It’s not to say, come on Gareth give us the answer. It’s like more an invitation to say, how do you think about these things then?

Gareth Powells: What I was getting at earlier, and this is really kind of not explicit in the paper, I’m kind of increasingly thinking about it through assemblage and, Mike feel free to answer as well. I don’t mean to speak on behalf of Mike. He’s more than capable of doing that. But I’m kind of thinking that flexibility capital can provide a way to think about the qualities, a particular set of valuable qualities, that emerge from like intersecting assemblages, and as those assemblages are changed as a result of either shocks like COVID or other changes like the technical changes as we go through, kind of decarbonisation, the rise of digital service provision, you know, digitisation more generally, like this call now but also in particular around energy.

So as the assemblages are recombined, like Trentmann’s kind of making this point that these things are always in recombination, and sometimes it kind of feels like a crisis but actually that’s far more normal than we commonly think. So as those things recombine the whole time, the emergent properties of their relationality also change. And I guess I’m trying to say that this one emergent property that we’re interested in is people’s flexibility, and we’re trying at least to find the vocabulary for that, and flexibility capital is as far as we’ve got in trying to find a way to do that. And actually, this call has been really helpful in at least in my own thinking about trying to further specify it.

Elizabeth Shrove: Matteo, one thing before that, it might be the unit that’s the puzzling problem here. In other words, and this is just a possibility with your talk of assemblages and systems and so on, you’re not talking about individual capacity to move left or right or get up at seven in the morning, you’re dealing with the nature of the assemblages. And yet you’re trying to say something as well about a very different unit of investigation and conceptualisation. But that’s just a suggestion. Matteo, you’ve got something to say.

Matteo Barsanti: I have a question which is connected what you just said. So, is there a specific scale which we should look at, like individual or a family level or even a community, because energy, as we know, there’s a shared activity, I mean energy consumption especially household levels is a shared activity. Looking at a different scale, we will arrive at different results, right? And so, is there a specific scale or there are multiple, and we should look at their interaction? Thank you.

Michael Fell: Yeah, I think we intentionally in the paper explicitly stated that the concept could be applied at multiple scales to multiple units of analysis or groupings. And the point is that depending on how you arrange, looking at something as simple as I mentioned a peer-to-peer game earlier, ‘Watt’s the deal’, depending on the version of that that you play, the ultimate outcomes for the different players can be quite different depending on whether they’re individual households competing against each other, or a collective of households acting as a community potentially subsidising each other at times when there are short, you know, shortfalls elsewhere within the community.

Gareth Powells: Yeah, I’d agree in short that it can be applied at different scales. In many ways it’s about setting some boundary conditions for any particular inquiry or any particular intervention, and trying to free yourself from thinking in a hierarchical sense about scale, and more just that there are objects of inquiry, there are puzzles to solve, and whichever one you’re working on, you can try and use this concept. I’m kind of picking up on Stanley’s comment there that, you can tell I’m struggling with DeLanda, that so I’ve used this phrase earlier on, relations of exteriority, which is in this kind of style of thinking that there are just multiple scales of inquiry and that they coexist with one another and have equal standing, so that the flexibility capital of a household can be analysed this way, the flexibility capital of a substation and a low voltage network could be analysed for its flexibility capital. And I would probably approach it in those ways. The point which you either want to do some research or actually, you know, in the case of an engineering project that is say led by a DNO that they, I wouldn’t encourage them to read DeLanda but I would encourage them to think about the flexibility capital that is circulating, and where it’s accumulated in whatever it is that they’re trying to study or engage with or intervene in.

Elizabeth Shrove: So now I’m a bit more puzzled I think than I was before.

Gareth Powells: You’re welcome!

Elizabeth Shrove: I have been wondering, especially with the kind of engineering angle about storage, and where and how you conceptualise storage and where that fits, but this idea that a substation could have flexibility capital has just momentarily, yeah confused me, but I think that’s because, this is another suggestion / hypothesis, that actually you’re using flexibility to stand for any number of different ways of conceptualising temporality, which is what I was wondering about earlier. But never mind the flexibility capital of a substation, a substation is a certain size, it has certain capacities, it fits into certain temporal rhythms in different ways, fine. And now you can then layer on to that an idea that somewhere that permits different rearrangements of sequences or different moments in time. Why do we need to call that flexibility capital? I was doing fine until that point, I think.

Gareth Powells: The first thing I would say, Elizabeth, without wanting to sound like Donald Trump, I think I misspoke in saying that it was a property of a substation. What I meant was, the property of say, a community served by a substation. So, the low voltage network that exists past a particular, really any scalar collection of households and their homes and their technologies and their lives and everything. And I guess the short answer for why would we want to call that flexibility capital would, to me, would be that it, and I might be, I probably am, I’m biased, I think it provides you an accessible way to think about the things that you want to find and produce and probably manage in that place or space or network. And a lot comes with a series of kind of ethical concerns, a series of kind of socio-technical and justice implications. So, it packages up a number of useful things in an accessible language which, you know, I think there’s some value in trying to do that.

Elizabeth Shrove: Can we go back to storage then because this is another part of the puzzle. You mentioned storage a few times, and of course there’s storage everywhere, like there’s no natural size of anything, and thin or thick or little or big or whatever, is a kind of consequence of a whole gamut of different histories and arrangements within a home, across a network, whatever, whichever way, wherever you look, you have these kind of histories of size of volume and so on. And I mean we’ve thought a bit about this in the flexibility project. In many ways, that’s based on an assumption of normal. Like, you have, you keep so many tins of beans or milk because of the rhythm, a normal rhythm of shopping, a normal rhythm of consumption, a normal rhythm of bean eating or whatever it might be. So, all of these kinds of little pockets, even in a supermarket, the size of the big freezers connects to the logistics chain, connects to this sort of thing. So, you could call that, I mean, or at least that you could call that all about flexibility because it’s about managing the temporal rhythm and flow and the resources and so on. But if it’s all about it, then what exactly, you know, where does storage differently fit into a discussion of flexibility, which is not like, just part of everyday life anyway, because everything is sized differently for those sorts of reasons. I mean, I suppose, the question is how are you thinking about conceptualising storage?

Michael Fell: Well, this one I can start talking with just my sort of conceptualisation. So, one of the things that we talked about, and this kind of relates to the spectrum, on the kind of the socio-technical spectrum, and where the capital is derived primarily through technical means or social. And one of the things that we recognised about various kinds of storage, it almost wouldn’t matter whatever you were talking about, is that to some extent it insulates those kind of activities of daily living from the actual ability to offer flexibility to the energy system. So, it’s key contribution, let’s just give a very simple example, if you’ve got a battery versus if you haven’t, and you’re faced with extremely high prices during a critical peak, one person has to change when they would have used electricity, change when they would have switched on their oven at that time, the other person would be able to draw on their battery. And that there will clearly always be issues. Well, I’ll stop talking there because I think that’s fundamentally one of the key points about storage, and Gareth, do you want to add?

Gareth Powells: Yeah, I was going to start with that sort of similar point that storage or other kind of smart devices that we, I think we use the phrase buffer, how individuals from the grid effectively constitute part of their socio-technical flexibility capital. So, if you have more of these things then you can in some configurations offer more flexibility because of these assets that you have. And to go back to the earlier point that you could make a similar point about, say, a low voltage network, if it has network scale storage on it, like big batteries somewhere, then the flexibility that exists and there’s quite lot of flexibility capital accumulated in one place there on that network. And it’s probably sufficiently sure that others in the network might be freed up from having to offer flexibility because of the presence of this big battery.

Mikko Jalas: Can I continue with some thoughts? So, I’m kind of thinking that I would like to challenge the thought that every system has storage. So, I think that, for example, the electricity grid can be, to my understanding, it can be operated without the storage, and that is possible because of flexible production technologies or generating technologies. So then, it’s really important to say that one is a form of flexibility storage, another one is the flexible operation of very just-in-time, lean, narrow delivery systems, whatever it be. And then the beans example, that’s just a matter of logistics on how, what is the kind of lump size when you get things, and the electricity grid doesn’t have, I guess, that kind of shopping bag type of thing that you would need to buy in a lump. So, for the first the main thing I guess is that storage and flexible operation are two different things.

Elizabeth Shrove: But I think both connect in some sense to scale or size. In other words, the total volume of customers is quite important for managing peaks and troughs as we know, and that’s not necessarily storage but it is something about temporal response. So, I agree with you. Nicola?

Nicola Labanca: I just would like to follow up what Mikko and you said about storage because there are really these two different kinds of flexibility. One thing is a storage and the other is having the possibility of being interconnected with the whole possible available energy sources which exist in the world, and having the possibility to use this energy that I know is there when I need it. And this second type of flexibility is really linked to the network and to the information that is available for me. Storage can be measured and is much more similar to capital flexibility because when you pretend to have capital you have something that is there and that you can measure it. In case of the second type of flexibility which relates to information, you have nothing to measure basically, and so it seems to me that you have really a watershed there, you know, between these two kind of flexibilities. When you speak about the capital flexibility you are mostly referring to the storage type.

Michael Fell: I mean, I’m not sure if this is quite relevant to that but very briefly, I think there’s an important question as well about a lot of this concerns what the sort of conversion value into money essentially of your flexibility capital is? There will be circumstances where the sale value of it is incredibly high, you know. If you’ve got a very constrained substation, for example, the same household or the same business in the same circumstance, its flexibility capital might be worth a lot more economically in those circumstances than where you’ve got a much more highly interconnected system, you know. In some respects, it doesn’t affect the flexibility capital, just what it’s worth.

Elizabeth Shrove: I’ll start with my last comment. I think it was a really good conversation and nice to have this mixture of people and nice to share our bumbling confusion, ours and everybody’s, on what a complicated topic flexibility is and actually how many different ways there are of thinking about it. So, I mean, it was really great to have this contribution to engage from different points of view and it’s clearly unfinished business. I mean that’s okay; we’ve got more seminars to come and so on and more years hopefully to get stuck into this. I think this sort of struggle, you know, you begin to think you’re getting onto something and then it all disappears again. I don’t know. It’s a tricky topic but there are ways and I think we’re proving that there are ways of approaching it carefully and steadily and systematically. So basically, I’m finishing by saying thank you. But next to Stan, a last word?

Stanley Blue: Yeah, unfinished business, I’m really keen on the ideas and the ambition basically. And I think, you know, especially when we started getting a bit more DeLandian and into assemblage theory and thinking in terms of flexibility of that’s produced and affecting other parts, I think we were starting to open up some of that ground anyway. So yeah, you know, great conversation and hopefully keep them happening in this reading room and in other spaces as well.

Gareth Powells: Can I add a couple of things? First of all to thank you all for engaging with the paper. It’s nice to have a chance to talk to people about something you’ve written in this way, with a certain high quality of engagement, that’s really very much appreciated and really does give us lots of food for thought and indeed kind of morally more support and encouragement, and trying to continue to work on these ideas. I’m glad I didn’t have too much notice because I was probably stressed about this meeting for about four nights in advance and the fact that it came out of nowhere was probably a blessing, but I might have been a little bit more prepared. And that stuff about assemblage and DeLanda is kind of where I’m at the minute, so I’m pleased to see that that’s also what you found interesting.

Michael Fell: I just want to quickly add my thanks to Gareth. Thanks Gareth as well for joining us at such short notice and, yeah, real privilege. And I just finally wanted to say, the way we did this paper for me and Gareth, we got together very intensively over a couple of periods of two days, lots of discussion, we actually wrote on a big screen together, it was a really kind of enthusing process to go through and I’m sure others of you probably have done stuff like that but I hadn’t before. But I highly recommend it for those who haven’t.

Elizabeth Shrove: We’ll leave it there. Well thank you all very much and see you next time.

Banner photo credit: Romaset on Adobe Stock

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