How gamification can support the energy transition

Gamification enables companies to create customer experiences that take on game-like qualities - proving valuable in improving user-engagement across many industries. Northern Powergrid's innovation project manager, Andrew Webster, explores what makes game-playing a potential winner for the energy industry and explains how to harness this technology to benefit customers and the power network.

How gamification can support the energy transition

As customer behaviours change and we become more digitally orientated, gamification of otherwise mundane tasks can help motivate people to take actions that benefit their health, their wallet and their lives. But, can gamification play a positive role in essential services or critical infrastructure?

 

Gamification on the rise

Let’s compare today with five years ago. Chances are, you interact with gamification now in ways you would never have imagined. Did your smart watch give you a thumbs up when you hit your daily steps goal? Did your workflow app proclaim you a hero when you ticked off all your daily tasks? Did you get a digital trophy for practicing your French before your holiday in a language app?

Exploring the psychology of gamification, Susan Jacobs – an education and technology expert – considered there to be five core principals behind the rise in this approach to consumer engagement. First, gamification satisfies fundamental human need for recognition, reward, status, and achievement. Second, it bolsters a sense of community, engagement in friendly competition – encouraging buy-in and igniting engagement. The third principal considers the focus on the forging of an emotional connection: narrative develops and grows around a user’s activity.

All straightforward so far, but it gets more technical: as we reach principal four: gamification relieves cognitive overload. It’s easy to think of all digital activity contributing to overload – but gamification has been shown to relieve stress and clear the brain of distractions. Finally, we come to the final point around loss aversion: psychologically, losses can maintain engagement as much as a win, especially with “super users” who lose the ‘status’, which principal one underlines is so important. These users will keep playing to try and win back their losses.

As mobile hardware, 4G and superfast broadband connectivity improves, software and app developers can help more industries, including those such as energy network operators, use this behavioural psychology to achieve business aims in a way that fits seamlessly into customers’ lives and can deliver wider benefits.

 

How is gamification benefiting the energy industry?

With this increase in psychological understanding and technological capability, gamification has been gaining traction in the energy industry over recent years. Opportunities to support reduction and load shifting are attracting the most interest, with energy management and consumer demand side response (DSR) the focal points of early trials.

In an early collaboration, California-based energy analytics company, Bidgely, ran a small DSR pilot in Australia in May 2016 to test the potential for the technology for utility United Energy. With four carefully timed DSR events over the summer, the trial showed that gamified user interface including personalised goals and targets and near real-time feedback of performance and rewards via mobile apps could deliver shifting of up to 30 per cent from home air-conditioning loads. 

In the energy management field an eight-partner, seven-country consortium has been pushing forward with a gamification platform for energy management called FEEdBACk. The aim is to promote, stimulate and deliver energy efficiency and a more responsible consumer behaviour pattern through behaviour change. The intention is to build on previous research and see if motivated behavioural change can increase by fostering bespoke awareness. If applications can analyse context, send personalised messages and manage gamified peer competition, will engagement increase? Logically this draws on Jacob’s key psychological reasons for the success of well-executed gamification.

 

Speeding up the transition

Electricity use will grow significantly as electric vehicles and electric heat sources become mainstream, increasing demand on the network and generation sources. Gamification offers a fun and effective solution to engage the next generation of users of these technologies, to help manage this demand, rewarding them for reducing and changing their consumption patterns.

The energy industry has an opportunity to harness the power of gamification to speed up and smooth the transition to a low carbon world. 

 

 

CASE STUDY: could gamification turn every household into a flexibility provider?

Network operators are increasingly looking for alternatives to costly upgrades by paying customers to reduce consumption at times of peak demand. Many businesses receive payments for providing this DSR but there have been few residential trials in the UK.

Mobile games could become an important tool for networks as they seek to manage power demand and keep costs down for customers. In Northern Powergrid’s patch more than 2,000 customers are competing for cash prizes in a trial to show how a mobile game can incentivise households to reduce their consumption at times of high demand. The app engages with customers in a way they can easily participate and has, in effect, created a pool of people signed up as active flexibility providers.

Northern Powergrid collaborated with Newcastle University and gamification experts GenGame to develop the GenGame mobile app. At periods of high demand, players receive an alert saying: “It’s GenGame time.” The more they reduce their consumption, the more points they earn, increasing their chance to win cash prizes.

Part of the rationale behind this gamification trial is that pausing your washing machine is only worth around 10p, which isn’t going to change customers’ behaviour. However, if you aggregate lots of small actions into one pot and create a £100 monthly prize, it becomes much more interesting.

So far, the trial has found that players reduce their electricity consumption by an average 11 per cent. Although the average is 305 Watts, some cut as much as 4.9kW, turning off appliances such as tropical fish tank heaters for short periods of time.

The lessons of GenGame are now being used in a follow-up GenDrive project with Northern Powergrid teaming up with Ecotricity, Gengame, EnAppSys and Newcastle University to explore how gamification can motivate electric car drivers to use their vehicles to support the UK energy grid.

The “Activating Community Engagement” project has generated valuable insights into how energy companies can engage with a much broader demographic than the minority of ‘energy enthusiast’ customers, and incentivise consumer behaviour change at a time when networks are planning how best to manage demand from rapid take-up of electric vehicles. For instance, if there is an increase in electric vehicles in one particular area, the app could reward people for charging their car when there is spare capacity on the network – a valuable network tool as DNOs consider their best route to transitioning to a distribution system operator. By lowering the incentive costs needed to motivate EV owners to less than the cost of upgrading the local network, gamification could be a winner. 


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