In the utilities industry, disruption will mean a change of roles and control between those that produce, distribute and consume energy. Yet, this does have to be at the detriment of the industry’s established brands. The use of emerging technologies to enhance the consumer experience and expand choice will have a huge impact in deciding the pioneers, and victims, of the industry’s impending disruption.
“The energy sector is about to undergo a fundamental disruption.” This was the opening statement at the inaugural WIRED Energy conference, where an array of speakers and attendees from the energy and utilities industry came together to discuss the imminent advances in the sector last week.
This opening remark set the tone of the day’s talks, all of which explored what our future might look like from an energy perspective. How will the increasing desirability of electric cars affect the industry? Will energy eventually be shared on a peer-to-peer basis? How will artificial intelligence play a role?
The event certainly raised more questions than it answered. Yet, there was a clear consensus that the way in which we produce, consume and distribute energy is due for a significant overhaul.
Representing OMD EMEA, I was there for two reasons. The first was to better understand how brands in the utilities industry should behave and react in the face of inevitable change. And, the second was to inquire how brands can help to shape and influence the coming disruption.
Giving power back to the consumer
The balance of power between providers and consumers was a major theme throughout the conference. Developments in solar generation and storage are shaping a future in which consumers can produce, sell and buy energy within their own communities through the installation of microgrids. Lawrence Orsini, Founder of the Brooklyn Microgrid, discussed the consumer appeal of a local peer-to-peer energy marketplace. He stressed the appeal lies in the transparency and consumer control that this new means of energy production provides.
Going one step further, Joanna Hubbard from the start-up Electron laid out a future in which the peer-to-peer exchange of energy becomes completely disintermediated through the integration of blockchain technologies. These visions of the future for energy show how technological innovation is a real threat to the dominance of the established energy giants, as agile and innovative start-ups such as these are, quite literally, putting the power back in the hands of the consumers.
The importance of trust in the age of automation
The point at which technologies such as these are implemented at scale is still a way off. However, Nina Bhatia from the Hive was there to talk about a technology that has seen rapid consumer adoption over the past years: the connected home. Even though some believe automation and the rise in AI signal a shift of control away from the individual in favour of machines. Bhatia emphasised that ultimately the integration of AI and machine learning in homes should be regarded as an increase in consumer choice.
These technologies allow us to understand behaviours, enabling brands to tailor their services to increase the efficiency and ease of living. But allowing technologies to do this depends on trust, which the brands introducing such technologies must earn. Currently 33% of consumers do not trust AI, according to OMD EMEA’s Retail Revolution study surveying over 15,000 consumers across 13 European countries. Consumer trust and the guarantee of safety are even more important for utility brands, who are integrated into people’s homes.
How to harness technological developments to define disruption
So, how do brands balance individual control and trust into the process of technological innovation? A topic that was returned to several times throughout the day. For utilities brands, it is clear that their future offerings and services must be both tech-led and consumer-first. OMD EMEA’s AI consumer research takes an audience-first approach, taking into account different consumer perceptions and behaviours, to help brands integrate AI solutions that add value to their overall consumer experience.