Revolutionising our way of perceiving energy: viewing it, or rather, imagining it, as an immense force capable of improving our lives. Is such an idea science fiction? Ray Bradbury, one of the masters of that literary genre, defined science fiction thus: “observing the new machines that are gradually appearing, and imagining incredible uses for them.” In this light, then the answer to the above question must be yes. And this is no mere stylistic exercise because, according to Bradbury, science fiction “pretends to look into the future, but it’s really looking at a reflection of what is already in front of us.”
“Energy as a Digital Platform,” or the powerful truth that energy is showing us in its thousand implications, was, in actual fact, the topic at the centre of the edition of #EnelFocusOn that took place at the Enel Innovation Hub & Lab in Milan on 22 October. The 18th edition of our global cycle of open discussions, which began three years ago and have now been streamed to more than 17 million viewers, involved experts and influencers from eight countries.
Discussing the topic was Silvia De Francisci, Head of New Technologies and Innovation at Enel Brazil, while the keynote speech was given by Kathryn Parsons, co-founder and CEO of Decoded, a tech training company set up in 2012 with a pledge to teach coding to anyone, anywhere. A commitment that was somewhat visionary but, nonetheless, one that has been maintained: today Decoded is active in 85 of the world’s cities and has initiated more than half a million people into the secrets of binary code.
The language of data for the development of humanity
“Over the last 100 years our world has changed radically,” began Parsons, “but the way we learn has remained substantially the same. If you think about the last learning experience that transformed you, I’m sure that it will have been a long, long time ago. When did we stop learning? Estimates tell us that up to 50% of today’s workers, if they are unable to learn something new, will be replaced by machines in the next 10 years. Faced with this information, we have two choices: we either say we’re going to write off 50% of the world’s working population, or we’re going to have to start learning again.”
For Parsons we have everything to gain from learning the language of technology, and in particular data analysis, since “every single economic sector is based on, and will be increasingly based on, data,” and in the United States alone the unsatisfied demand for data analysts is equal to 2.8 million jobs. The possibility to learn “should be available to everyone: the language of data is just like any other language, being able to use it should not be the prerogative only of nerds, just as the study of ancient Greek should n0t be limited to archaeologists".
Why this democratisation? Because anyone who becomes proficient in that language, whatever their professional background, is potentially capable of contributing to the development of humanity. This is the reason, the tech entrepreneur went on to say, why Finland recently offered its citizens free online courses in programming and Artificial Intelligence.
“When I talk about the development of humanity, I’m referring to the fact that the new technological tools, if made available to anyone, can rapidly solve problems of incredible complexity that until a few years ago seemed irresolvable, such as certain pathologies, or questions concerning the energy sector". Indeed, energy in combination with the new technologies, can enable further energy savings. An exemplary case is that of the Google data centres that, thanks to the use of Artificial Intelligence, have managed to make 40% reductions to their energy consumption for cooling their servers.
Cities as tech laboratories
In short, the only limit to our journey into the future is our imagination, the boarding card is energy and the first stop is the urban environment, which, according to De Francisci, who addressed the event after Parsons, represents a fully fledged “laboratory in which to experiment with new technologies in real time".
In a world in which an estimated 70% of the world’s population will be living in megacities by 2050, “the combination of electrification and digitalisation (the latter enabling an increasingly widespread and efficient use of renewable energies) will be a crucial factor for sustainable urbanisation, facilitating decarbonisation and contributing to achieving the goal of zero-emissions megacities".
Data-driven networks, explained De Francisci, are at the heart of this process. Advanced connectivity enables intelligent urban services and creates digital communities, contributing significantly to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) outlined in the United Nations 2030 Agenda.
“We are playing our part by applying the concept of the digital platform to our world, energy, to create an environment that is open, accessible and sustainable, involving all stakeholders in a shared ecosystem".
In particular, smart grids promote energy saving, leading also to greater awareness of consumption, thanks to the data that customers can access in real time. This ensures greater stability and reliability of the energy supply, reinforcing the electricity grid in general, limiting power dissipation and boosting efficiency and resilience to extreme weather events that, due to climate change, we will increasingly need to take into consideration. Last but not least, they facilitate an ever-greater expansion of zero-emission services, such as electric mobility.
Artificial Intelligence and the digital twin
Nevertheless, continued De Francisci, “for us, smart grids are just a starting point. With 20 years of experience working on intelligent networks, we are ready for the next step – the so-called Network Digital Twin, a perfect replica of our grid that reproduces its structure and processes in real time. This is an example of a genuine energy platform in which automation, the Internet of Things and the power of Artificial Intelligence, together with the incredible possibilities of interaction between man and the platform offered by the latest generation technologies, are creating a new, exciting frontier in the management of grid infrastructure.” Our Group is already exploring this frontier in Brazil, in São Paulo, where we have recently launched Latin America’s first Network Digital Twin in the Vila Olímpia district. Progress on this front enables us to imagine (echoing Bradbury’s “imagine incredible uses for the new machines”) an extraordinary quantity of new services and benefits for the cities of the future on a scale that is infinitely more vast, and more compatible with the giant dimensions that demographic forecasts predict for the megacities of 2050.
“We’re not talking about science fiction,” explained Enel’s Director of Communications Roberto Deambrogio at the end of the round table. “This very building, the Enel Innovation Hub & Lab, houses some extraordinarily advanced technologies: for example, we have the possibility to simulate an energy blackout affecting up to a million users in various parts of Italy. This enables us to develop contingency plans to restore the efficacy of the grid in the case of such a catastrophic event. Technologies like this would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Today they are a tangible reality that is developing constantly".
In the end, it was perhaps Leonardo da Vinci 500 years ago who gave us the best definition of science fiction: he called it “prescience” and intended it as simply giving “notizia delle cose ch’è possivine che possm venire” (“news of things that may come to pass”).