Innovative thinking typically starts with a problem. Adults tend to dissect the problem from a million different logical aspects, and they start dismissing concepts immediately based on that thinking. Kids don’t. Kids go naturally to the “what if” game: What if I could fly like a bird and take my dad to work every day so he didn’t have to drive through all that traffic? What if dogs could talk and I could send my dog next door to see what the neighbors are having for dinner and prove to mom that not every family is having liver? What if I had a robot hand and could fly and could pick up our house and move it to Disney World so I could visit every single day forever?
Kids believe. Adults call this “magical thinking”—mostly because we’re amazed kids say it and think it could come true.
As we get older, all that amazing magical thinking inherent in the “what if” game morphs a bit. We don’t think it will instantly come true. We stop focusing on gifts for ourselves and getting amazing powers. But, it still—kind of, sort of—exists in every one of us adults in small doses.
We adults say we’re “thinking outside the box.” That’s the modern adult equivalent of magical thinking. And, as long as you don’t revert to believing it will all happen in a nanosecond without hard work and planning, the old/new “what if” game is a great way to encourage open-ended, innovative problem-solving within the utilities industry.
We know utilities have a unique imperative: They have an obligation to deliver safe, reliable, affordable service, while at the same time preparing to take on industry disruption. And distributed energy resources, or DERs—particularly customer-owned DERs—are one of the big disruptors currently challenging this industry.
So, where do we start? Outside-the-box thinking. But, outside-the-boxing thinking not with the magical connection of childhood but with that added layer of adult logic and planning. What would that look like, and how might we go about it?
We’ve learned that the key to thriving within disruption is a platform upon which both core business processes and new business models can be transformed—a common technology platform that supports that necessary balance between reliability and agility.
Thriving requires both tracks to work in tandem—so that while core business processes are strengthened and streamlined with automation and deeper customer engagement, new, agile models of innovation can be explored and defined as well. It’s a technology platform that allows grid operators to simplify management of thousands of miles of wires, while also getting ahead of the demands and opportunities of the increasingly distributed and connected grid.
We’re talking about the concept of dual innovation, blending that “what if” game with smart adult logic and an eye on both the status quo and the future.
Other transformative technologies then build upon the strength of that common innovation platform to help both the utility survive and the customer thrive.
Utilities are facing an evolution in their relationship with their customers. What used to be a purely transactional relationship is turning into more of a partnership, a customer-centric approach to doing business. Today, creating meaningful customer value and really putting customers first engenders the most—and the longest-lasting—business value.
Technological innovation has spurred this evolution of the customer experience, enabling more choice, and customers now want from their utility providers the same instant access to the most up-to-date information—on the platform of their choice—that they receive from their other service providers.
Let’s expand on that growing customer service focus with a few “what ifs” we’ve been working on: What if personal energy insights could do more to help with load shifting by educating customers on time-of-use rates and encouraging them to shift their electrical usage to more economical times? This could also be coupled with demand response and smart thermostat control to reduce load on the grid and defer the need to build new generation and the heavy costs associated with it.
And what about those customers with rooftop solar generation? What if you could provide them with a whole new set of customer experiences centered around providing them with information about how to understand their solar generation, how their solar equipment is performing, how their bill is different with net metering, and so on.
All of these personalized “what if” customer moments rely on big data and analytics, and big data and analytics have proven to be wonderful places in which to play that thinking game. We’ve learned a lot from the “what if” questions we’ve asked in this arena (and the answers are enabling all that customer-service dreaming we’re doing now).
One thing we’ve learned as we continue to innovate in our technology efforts is the importance of both layering analytics over the entire platform but also—and even more importantly—embedding analytics in every utility technology solution across the enterprise to further enhance the value and actionable insight that can be derived from all of that data.
Machine learning, in particular, has made remarkable strides in the utilities industry in just the past few years, now permeating all parts of the utility enterprise—from back office work to field work to touchpoints with the end customer.
It all circles back to the customer (and we’re working on solving the problems and building the things they want—and will want—as quickly as possible). As our analytical thinking improves, we’re getting closer to making magical thinking a reality—and having those “what if” questions come true in real-time.
Here at Oracle Utilities, we’ve built an amazing set of analytic insights off of the world’s largest smart meter data repository, and we’ve proven to over 100 utilities that we can use those insights wisely to help boost customer joy—not just customer satisfaction.
And we’re just at the beginning of what’s possible—with the right thinking.
This is part one of a two-part series on innovation and planning. Read part two here. Ready to get more in-depth on outside-of-the-box thinking and innovation? Dive into our recent innovation blueprint we created in partnership with Navigant. You can get that for free right here.