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 kids from Tara Trust at IIIT, Bangalore

City Game session – TARA Trust from Fields of View on Vimeo.

 

We played the city game with 13 children from Tara trust who were at IIIT-B for 17 days for a summer camp. These kids were from under privileged areas of Goa and Bangalore. Amar Chadgar (Photographer and Observer), Akhil Sukumaran (Observer), Vardhan Varma (Note-taker) and Bhagyalakshmi (Note-taker), Juhi from Tara Trust and I (game-master) were also a part of the game session.

 

The game was an interesting experience for us because just that morning we had a game session with kids from Sri Kumaran Children’s Home. We were excited to see the differences in the these two cities. We began the game with a round of introductions and said that we would do a trial round. A mixture of Kannada, English and some broken Hindi were the main languages used to communicate. After the trial round, we just continued the game to the 2nd round.

 

They sat around in a circle and put in a lot of factories, big bazaars, mountains, drinking water (separate for humans and animals),  Majestics [sic] (3 of them), Infosys, speed breaker, road, Chinnaswamy stadium, community TV, animals, solar company, Agra Taj Mahal, Mysore palace, Mysore zoo, an IIT,  Indian ocean river [sic] to name a few that were interesting! In between they started placing aspirations such as ‘I want a beautiful city’ and ‘save water’, but we asked them to replace these with actual places.

 

After 13 rounds of the game, when asked if they wanted to live in this city, all of them said they would like to live here. It was a crowded, clustered space with almost everything one could think of. We then asked them what is missing in this place that they need to live. A few pointed out there was no poultry, farm or milk – where would they eat? Then one of them said we could source all of these through the malls they had. One of them pointed out fire stations were missing. They also said there was no place they could buy gold or a place to cut their hair, or even a place to buy spectacles!

 

This game was a special one for us, as these children built a city of their experience. Some of these building came up as a result of their experience at the summer camp and a few were from back home. They said since this place had a lot of factories, the city could hold up-to 2 crore people.

 

As a facilitator, this to me was an ideal use of the game where we actually saw their perceptions brought out so clearly through the game. The city that they built looked like a perfect mixture of Goa and Bangalore. Here is how Go-Bangalore, which is what the kids called it happened – https://vimeo.com/64564481

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!

Musings on Solid Waste Management in Bangalore

The last couple of months have given us so many unique experiences which we never thought we would have during the course of our Industrial Engineering & Management degree. Working on our project on understanding networks in solid waste management has been an eye opener on so many levels. We are slowly, but surely coming to terms with the complexity of the garbage issue at hand in Bangalore.

 

The complete process of waste management is a complex one involving multiple systems and sub-systems. Through our project we aim to apply concepts and tools of Industrial Engineering like Network Optimization, Supply Chain Management and Simulation Modeling to analyze ways improve the process and provide a more systematic approach to addressing the problem. Our primary area of work is the optimization of transportation network in solid waste management which includes push carts, collection autos and trucks. We also aim to create a problem statement of the garbage situation through our findings throughout the project.

 

The garbage problem in Bangalore has become more evident since the irregular functioning of the three main garbage landfills leading to pile up of garbage at various points mainly on roads and empty sites. The coordination and organization of this process is poor and leads to pile-up of garbage at these pick up points whose location is chosen without appropriate planning. There is no synchronization or time management in the movement of the collection vehicles till the secondary point, and also of the trucks from this point to the landfills. Through the course of the project so far, we have interacted with the various stakeholders associated with the problem. From the Pourakarmikas to the officials to residents, we have tried to view the problem from various perspectives. Through these interactions we have obtained quite a few interesting details and insights.

 

 

Garbage collection point
Garbage collection point

 

The basic process of collection consists of dood-to-door waste collection by the auto-rickshaws. The autos consist of 1 driver and 2-3 collectors. Once the auto-rickshaws are done collecting, they go to one of the truck’s pick-up points and load the waste into the trucks. The dry-leaves and other waste left on the roads are collected by the Pourakarmikas using push-carts and those too are loaded into the trucks at the pick-up points.

 

In our first field observation at ward 19 (Sanjaynagar), in a casual talk with the driver of the garbage auto, we were told that no instructions were given to the drivers on what route he should take to complete the area assigned to him. We followed the auto and accompanied the collectors through the process. The BBMP had laid out a directive stating the incorporation of waste segregation at every house (into wet and dry waste). Our presence gave them a sense of empowerment as the residents took the collectors’ pleas to segregate the waste (as instructed by their supervisors), more seriously with us going along with them. Most residents on the other hand found the exercise of segregation pointless as they assume that all kinds of waste were mixed eventually in the garbage truck/compactor.

 

In another such chat with the same garbage truck driver, he mentioned his inability to cover all points of collection on certain days. The reason being, the truck overloads well before they could cover 75% of garbage pick-up points, at times leaving a pile of foul garbage until the next day/ trip. We also found differences in the actual number of vehicles (auto-rickshaws, trucks and push-carts) assigned for Solid Waste Management (SWM) in Sanjaynagar ward and the data provided in the BBMP SWM monitoring file[1].

 

These are few of many details and instances we have observed and recorded through the course of our work in Sanjaynagar ward. We hope to understand the problem in a deeper sense in the days to come.

 

 

This article is written by Anuj N.K, Akhil Sukumaran, Nandhakumar S, Kunal Vinayakya and Prateek Sultania, final year students at M.S Ramaiah Institute of Technology studying Industrial Engineering and Management. 


[1] www.bbmp.gov.in

Event Report – 12th Plan Hackathon, 6-7 April 2013

Students from M.S. Ramaiah Institute of Technology – Akhil Sukumaran, Anuj NK, Kunal V and Nandha Kumar, who are currently interning with Fields of View, participated in the 2-day Hackathon organised by the Planning Commission of India. They submitted an info-graphic about “Solid Waste Management in Urban India”, which is attached at the end of this post; and won the second place for visualisations in Bangalore. This is their report of the event.

 

The Planning Commission of India in association with Data Portal India organised the Hackathon, a two day event conducted in select centres across the country. The Hackathon was an event created to hack the 12th Five-Year Plan (2012-2017), through competitions in three categories: Short films, Visualizations and Applications in one of seven sectors of the plan which consisted of:

  • Macroeconomic Framework
  • Agriculture and Rural Development
  • Health
  • Water and Environment
  • Energy
  • Education and Skill Development
  • Urban Development

The aim was to represent the issues(s) in a sector and convey what the 12th Plan recommends on these issues.  We, the team of four from MSRIT, had the opportunity to contest in the Visualization category in the event conducted at IISc, Bangalore. The topic we chose for our visualization was ‘Solid Waste Management in Urban India’ in the Urban Development sector of the plan. We focused on key issues such as waste processing in India, allocation of funds for scientific treatment and disposal and also compared certain parameters in waste management in six tiers of cities classified based on population.

 

The next segment of the info-graphic consisted of the recommendations of the 12th Plan for Urban Solid Waste Management which included: The 4 R’s i.e. Reduce, Re-use, Recycle and Re-manufacture; enhancing re-cycling facilities for E-waste; incentivizing Private Public Partnership (PPP) in hazardous waste management and also emphasized on segregation of waste at source and its effective disposal.

— Akhil Sukumaran, Anuj NK, Kunal V, Nandha Kumar and Prateek S

 

Click on the below image to view the full info-graphic. This work is licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0 License.

Solid Waste Management in Urban India

 

Certificates of Appreciation

Nandha Kunal Anuj Akhil