The Social Value of Energy

The social value of energy is a simple but profound shift in how we view energy. Instead of asking “how much energy does someone use,” we ask “when people use energy, how much value are they able to create for themselves and for their families, businesses, or communities?”

While electricity demand is a product of how many devices you have and how much energy they consume, the social value of energy is a product of what skills you have for putting energy to productive and meaningful use and what opportunities you have to exercise those skills.

This shift is inspired by three transformative ideas:

The first is Indian economic thought, particularly the work of Nobel-prize-winner Amartya Sen. In his theory of development as freedom, Sen explains the critical importance of capabilities to people’s ability to achieve wellbeing. What are we free and able to accomplish? What do we have the capacity to do?

The second is Silicon Valley entrepreneurship, and especially the Lean Start-Up Methodology. For a business to succeed, Lean Start-Up argues, the crucial question is whether your product or service creates more value for your customer than it costs them to buy it. If you can accomplish that, they will keep coming back again and again.

The third is feminist technology studies, which have long been a source of inspiration for user-centered approaches to technological design. Ruth Schwarz Cowan’s book More Work for Mother, for example, illustrated that, contrary to advertisements at the time, the introduction of new technologies into the household in the early 20th century actually created more work for women, not less. The story reminds us that, when we look at technological systems from the perspectives of users, as has been done in research on the social practices of energy, they often look differently.

Put these ideas together, and a picture begins to emerge of how to rethink energy from a user-centered perspective, asking whether and how people are able to make use of the energy available to them to create significant amounts of value, what knowledge and skills they need to create that value, and whether the energy, economic, and political institutions that they inhabit afford them the freedom to exercise those skills to improve their lives and livelihoods.

The idea of the social value of energy is central to much of the center’s research, especially in the Grassroots Energy Innovation Laboratory. The lab’s work is focused on strategies to end the energy-poverty nexus by designing energy systems that are generative of community wellbeing and thriving, as we describe in our report, Poverty Eradication through Energy Innovation.

To read more about the social value of energy, see:

Image by Regan Rosburg for Cities of Light.

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