Understanding the complexity of energy systems with a simulation game

This post is by Dr. Émile Chappin, Assistant Professor of Energy & Industry, Delft University of Technology, and a Visiting Researcher at Fields of View. Dr. Chappin worked with us on developing a simulation game to understand to complexity of energy systems. These are his thoughts about the complexity of the sector and how a simulation game helps in understanding it.

 

Vibrant Electronics City sets the scene for three weeks of intensive research on serious gaming. We are driven by the need for stability and affordability of our energy supply – they are essential for flourishing societies. That’s the reason to deal with the nitty-gritty of typical European electricity markets in which billions of Rupees or Euros are at stake but where megawatts and megawatthours are easily mixed up. The key is not only in the details: electricity markets are complex systems, of which the performance is the result of the transactions in the market, the responses to the influences from outside, such as (proposed) policies, the evolving institutions and rational or irrational expectations.

 

This is where we start: how can we really learn to understand the essential workings of this system? The pure nature of complexity tells us that we can’t, really. But that’s not a satisfactory answer. We should do something that helps us – students, researchers, policy makers and companies – to gain better understanding of these systems. We need to start learning how we can somehow manage the system as a whole throughout the coming decades. Not in the classical sense of management, which presumes that some form of direct control is possible. We need to find new ways of shaping the system in a (more) desired direction. How? Join us in the world of simulation games!

We would like to share four insights we learnt from complexity and developing and using simulation games and models:

  1. The notion of optimality is void. There is no perfect outcome of this system/problem. Such judgments of the system state are observer-dependent, time-dependent and cannot be predicted. One can only speak of trajectories that appear desirable or not, given a set of strong assumptions, a time-frame, a set of objectives and a delineated system.

  2. Simulation and gaming should be used as tools for discussion. Because the system we’re observing is complex, any model we make and any simulation we run is definitively wrong. That, however, does not make them useless: they can be used as a digital laboratory, our laboratory in silico. By applying many modeling and simulation techniques capturing parts of the real-world system and its problems, and using those in a variety of relevant contexts, we may get a glimpse of understanding what patterns may emerge and how we can contribute in shaping the system [1]. That is the approach for TU Delft’s Energy Modeling Laboratory [2].

  3. Experience and involvement leads to deeper understanding. The complexity in the real-world system works in counterintuitive mechanisms and leads to patterns that are hard to really understand. Our experience shows that grasping some of these patterns by experiencing them in a serious game really helps to build an intuition for the consequences of the system’s complexity [1]. That in itself implies that lessons learnt – or patterns observed – may well contribute to understanding the complexity of the real world system and any effort in shaping the system accordingly. An example in our game is the understanding that ‘simple’ economic laws such as the notion of marginal cost bidding really work (at least to a certain extent). Other examples are the irrational response to soft information of future developments, the almost unbelievable developments on world markets for fuels, the wicked trade-offs between short-term profit, market share and the reliability and affordability of energy supply in the long run.

  4. Managing is the art to use the mechanisms that drive change. Understanding and exploring what the mechanisms are that drive our societal system is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Let’s consider this management that, making use of that, an art, an “attempt to bring order out of chaos” [3]. How to know what decisions matter, what actors matter and what outcomes matter? How to measure performance? How to measure change? To answer such questions, we need to bring together theory from various fields (history, engineering, multi-actor systems, complexity, economics, policy, design, etc.) and knowledge from application domains (energy, water, transport, IT).
    We hope that simulation and gaming contributes to this process. By doing so, we make the theory operational in specific domains: we ask questions such as how we can develop and maintain an affordable electricity sector which is both decarbonized and in which supply is secured. It helps us to define what change and stability really means and how we can measure it. That way we hope to find out how we may bring about changes that put our systems on a more desired trajectory. If we can manage our precious infrastructures – the backbones of our society – that may be how.

How can a three week trip to Bangalore help gaining insight in the Dutch electricity sector? Which countries – including their energy sectors – are more different than the Netherlands and India? Well… despite the fact that the Indian and the Dutch culture are fundamentally different, both societies show many communalities. Both India and the Netherlands are quite busy: at least traffic is a pain. The fraction of the Indian population that resides in Holland may not be so far apart from the fraction of Dutch people that are in India. What Indian food is, is impossible to define, as it is for Dutch food (although for different reasons). It is easy to complain about the weather – umbrellas are a requisite in your backpack. Dutch and Indians can express themselves in peculiar ways in English. Indians like chocolate and ‘stroopwafels’ as least as well as the Dutch. And… more often than not, we can meet each other in humor.

These commonalities show that the complexity of our societies does not mean we cannot try to understand and improve them. It means we need to find new ways of doing so. The mechanisms and laws probably do not work as we expect them to! There is only one way forward: dive in the deep, experience new things, debate with an open mind, challenge all assumptions, indulge in to cultural diversity, and… embrace complexity!

 

Literature

[1] Chappin, E. J. L. (2011). Simulating Energy Transitions, PhD thesis, TU Delft, the Netherlands. http://chappin.com/thesis

[2] Energy Modeling Laboratory, TU Delft. http://emlab.tudelft.nl

[3] Stephen Sondheim, composor and lyricist, 2005.

 

City Game session with Sri Kumarans Children’s Home, at IIIT-B

City Game session at IIIT-B from Fields of View on Vimeo.

 

We played a session of the City Game with kids of class 10 and 12 from Sri Kumarans Children’s Home, as part of IIIT-B’s excITe program. We had 40 students participating, who formed 10 groups of 4 each; and the two teachers formed the eleventh group. In this game, the students were asked to build their city by taking turns to place blocks that were representative of buildings. This was the first time we played this game with a group as large as this (42 people!).

Like most other cities, this city had markets, business places, stadiums, amusement parks, residential areas, resorts, Vidhan Soudha and a High Court. However, this city also had a solar power plants, a flyover from a residential area to an IT park, “to let” buildings, nuclear power plants and even 2 dams! The groups used the wooden blocks creatively; for example, the cricket stadium was 6-8 blocks in a circle with 4 other blocks forming the floodlights! This is in stark contrast to many other game runs where the blocks are merely indicative of a building/place/road etc.. One of the teams decided they wanted to be the government. They built the Legislative Assembly, and even passed a law! This was the first time anyone assumed a role in the game. However, none of the teams followed the law, and one of the teams even opposed the way that this particular team “decided” to be the government.

Every team except one said they would not like to live in the city that they built; the reasons mostly being lack of adequate residential areas, lack of planning and lack of other basic amenities such as hospitals and markets. The general consensus among the teams was that this was a city with a population of 2-3 lakh. One of the teams said that this city looked like an island city for tourism, with a population like the Vatican City.

Unlike other sessions of the City Game, we asked the teams to choose for a winner, based on whatever criteria they thought was important. Two teams voted for the team which took the initiative to be the government, and three teams voted for the team which took the initiative to oppose the undemocratic manner of the other team becoming the government!

All in all, a great session of the city game. I’ll stop here, the video is more explanatory!

Feminism and Me – Introductory Note on the Series

A friend of mine, Vinay, told me the other day that I might be a fake Mallu or a fake Gult, but I am a true blue Feminist. For people who work and live with me, being a feminist is one of my primary identities. Most people have come to know, perhaps a little painfully, that I don’t let things go, especially when it comes to gender, sexism, patriarchy, harassment etc.  I can be the quintessential rabid feminist, and most of the time, I am proud of it. A lot of people have asked and will continue to ask of feminists: why are we so angry? My friend, Priyanka, said it best: Because we have reason to be.

 

An often-quoted fact about feminism that gets a lot of publicity, but very little understanding is that feminism as an ideology and practice is very diverse. We can have radical feminists, liberal feminists, ecofeminists, third-world feminists – we come in all shapes and sizes, and it is difficult to say that there is one feminism, and one type of feminist. People often state it, but rarely examine the implications of it. The most obvious consequence of this form of diversity is that if we take a bunch of feminists together, and put them in a room – we will hate abortion, we don’t mind abortion, we want to ban prostitution, we think prostitution should be made legal, we think porn is exploitative, we think porn can be made for women, we hate capital punishment, we want rapists to be hung . . . and it can go on and on. We are a lot of things, and we believe in a lot of things. And one of the most common things that we believe in is that we ought to have our own opinions on what feminism means to us. For us, one of the fundamental tenets of feminist thought is – we define it, we recreate it, we make meaning of it in our own lives. All of us who identify as feminist define, learn, re-learn, understand, disagree, grapple with the overarching principles, ideologies, and the grand narratives of feminism, and we use this engagement to examine the world around us.

 

So, this series – Feminism and me – is really about my personal and professional journey of what feminism means to me. It will be my attempt to articulate why I identify with feminism, not just as an ideology, but also as a lens, as a methodology, as a tool to understand social life, social problems, and the social world. In doing so, I want to be clear that I cannot speak for feminism, or feminists in general. I can only speak of my experiences with feminist thought, action, pedagogy, and methodology. So, this series will be primarily about my experiences as a feminist in social research.