In some ways, COVID-19 may have accelerated a feeling that was already. Although the virus physically has distanced us from each other more than ever before, there is a sense that, as humans, we have become much closer.

If closer ties to our local area can help to foster a more intimate sense of connection and community, could they also be the answer to a more sustainable energy future?

No time online for utilities

From Greta Thunberg's face on the front of newspapers around the globe to endless carbon commitments from countries and companies, sustainability can often seem to dominate news cycles. This could lead you to assume that consumers are highly engaged in these issues. However, that is not necessarily the case. While the topic interests, that interest is not being converted into action.

The number of households committed to using green energy is not growing as fast as expected. For some, the hesitation in going green is rooted in a misunderstanding about the technology itself. Is green energy reliable? Will my lights go off if the sun isn't shining? Is the source even sustainable in the first place? For others, there's a worry that switching to green energy is prohibitively expensive.

Even though a broad cross-section of society has not actively chosen against green energy; they aren't sufficiently engaged in the subject to begin with. After all, the average customer spends just eight minutes per year engaging with their utilities online. Could switching to green energy be more of an engagement problem than an environmental one? 

A beautiful day in the neighbourhood

Elderly lady by window

What if neighbours, already dependent on each other for mutual, social and safety benefits, also started to lean on each other for energy needs?

There are already examples of successful microgrid systems that see local homes and businesses feed into a smaller decentralised system that operates independently of, or in combination with, the main grid. Could scaling out versions of such decentralized systems help make them the norm?

E.ON Innovation project PowerZone, for example, is one easy-to-understand example, whereby whole neighbourhoods within a four-kilometre radius are connected. Local 'prosumers' (consumers who also produce energy through solar panels, for example) share their power with their neighbourhood and the main grid. The local area can then draw from the local supply or the wider network, ensuring a consistent source of power.

The advantages are numerous and comprehensive. For starters, the more prosumers there are in any area, the more self-sufficient the community becomes and the more they can all profit from discounted community prices. Plus, the PowerZone system is rewards-based. By feeding or using power from the area network, prosumers and consumers can earn rewards points that they can use against other products.

Most importantly of all, the whole system is based on the engagement of the community. While individual members can be anonymised, members and the community at large receive detailed information and visualisations of their consumption patterns. This not only motivates more members of the community to become prosumers, but it creates a dialogue around sustainable energy.

There are exciting permutations to consider too. In the future, smart homes could connect to the local green energy supply to make sure that cars charge and dishwashers run automatically at times when there's a ready supply of local green energy with low demand.

By making the future of green energy communal, we would not only be able to create a more sustainable future but, just as importantly, also drive engagement and connection with the topic within communities and neighbourhoods.

If the customer relationship disappears, how can brands differentiate on anything other than price?

AI requires as much of our data as possible to improve the assistance it provides; the more it can track and profile us, the better the service. In return, we expect seamless and personalised support from our AI assistants. The same will apply to the companies we engage – or our AIs engage on our behalf.

Companies must tap into that data to provide highly convenient, contextualised and smart solutions that are personalised for our exact needs. They'll also need to prove to be trustworthy and transparent in their use of our data. When privacy is dead, trust becomes everything.

If this all sounds like science fiction, it's not. The digital assistant human-machine partnership is already here and gathering pace. All companies with an eye on long-term relevance should be making plans for how they'll deal with the bot-to-bot future. If you don't believe us, just ask Alexa!         

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