The Future of Energy and Water: a Virtual Journey with the Smithsonian, Part 1

Mike Ballard, Vice President, Industry Strategy

Mike Ballard, vice president, industry strategy, for Oracle Energy and Water, describes his journey to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. It was a career high that catapulted Mike and his colleagues into the metaverse.

Part 1: “I’ve got a fun little project for you.”

A museum about the future? How does that work? In November 2021, the Smithsonian opened its first-ever FUTURES exhibition in the Arts and Industries Building, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Celebrating the reopening of a building closed for nearly 20 years, the exhibition was organized to highlight innovative ideas and encourage dialogue on the many potential futures our world has to offer—the future of communication, of society, of transport, of agriculture, of energy and of water.

Whilst the exhibition had been planned for almost three years, our involvement started just a few months before opening.

I got a Slack message from my boss Hillary Martin (vice president of industry strategy and marketing) with the ominous words: “I’ve got a fun little project for you! 😊”.

Hillary had been talking with the Smithsonian curators about providing an activation (definitely not an exhibit) that engaged visitors in the future of energy and, crucially, provided them with a sense of agency in that future.

Oracle knows a thing or two about engaging consumers in matters of energy. Opower (now part of Oracle) is the world’s leading customer engagement platform for the energy industry. Using a unique combination of behavioural science and data science, Opower has delivered 1 billion home energy reports and over 32 TWh of energy savings through behaviour change. This is the largest contribution to energy sustainability and affordability through behaviour change across the globe.

The remit was clear: Create a pop-up experience in a 10’ by 7’ space that allowed visitors to explore an optimistic future of energy and discover the role each individual plays in shaping that future.

An optimistic future? You don’t hear that phrase much nowadays.

Our goals were to:

  • Talk with hope about the future, without ignoring the realities of our environmental, political, and economic crises.
  • Engage and educate visitors about their role in that future without victim blaming (other industries tried this when they had to face into the truths of their dirty pasts. You know who you are).
  • Make it fun, empowering, interactive, energising even!

Oh, and we had only three months before the opening!

So naturally I looked to what Oracle already had: experiences that engaged on the topic of energy. Over the last couple of years, we had built some models called Connected Hubs which showcase the technologies Oracle provides to the energy and water industries.

They look great and are very interactive, but they take up more space than we had available at the Smithsonian. Further, they were designed to talk to energy and water utilities, not end consumers.

And they were designed to talk about the challenges of sustainability and affordability today and in the near future. The FUTURES exhibition looks towards 2050!

Finally, how well would they withstand the thousands of visitors, many of them inquisitive, hands-on children?

I had also recently worked with an augmented reality (AR) company, EDX Technologies, to develop an AR version of the Connected Hub that could run on a iOS or Android device.

So, my next idea was to just tether some devices in the exhibition space and allow visitors to play with them. Simple!

It’s got a lot of cool challenges, like changing the weather, balancing supply and demand of energy, flying drones, and even creating outages.

But again, it wasn’t directed towards end customers, it wasn’t using any of the proven insights and behavioural science of Opower, and it just didn’t feel good enough for the Smithsonian!

But we now had the beginnings of an idea: A digital experience, immersing the visitor in the challenges of energy sustainability and its potential future, and surfacing Opower’s insights into individual behaviour change, so visitors can learn about the role they play in the future of energy and take those actions home with them.

Augmented or virtual reality?

FUTURES already had a number of augmented reality activations. Visitors could point a tablet at a static exhibit and have various digital overlays, animations, or didactic content to engage them in whatever future they were exploring.

So, not only would we have to build some physical thing to augment, but we would also be in a crowded field of augmented reality activations (many of which had been in development for months or even years).

Virtual reality, however, would give us a unique opportunity to transport the visitor to any place and (importantly for a FUTURES exhibition) to any time.

“Imagine, you start in an 1860s America town and travel through time to 2050, learning along the way about the past, present and future of energy.” This was my opening pitch to the Smithsonian curators, three months before opening. Laith Alnouri and Ashley Molese were my audience. They are quite possibly two of the smartest people I have ever worked with, and so deeply immersed in the FUTURES project that I knew, if they were on board, I was on the right path.

But they reminded me that I needed to find a way to make the experience interactive and actionable, and I knew I needed our Opower insights infused in the whole experience.

“How about if we stop off in 2020 and let the visitor explore a typical home to learn the best ways they can use energy more sustainably and more affordably?” I suggested. Lots of nodding heads and big smiles.

“Oh, and at the end we’ll get them to choose which of the top tips they will do when they go home, just to drive home the behaviour change,” I added.

I don’t know if it was my infectious enthusiasm or my British accent, but I don’t recall either of them, at any point, expressing doubts that any of this was possible.

Like John F. Kennedy’s commitment to having mankind land on the moon, once the words were spoken, the consequences for failure were just too scary to contemplate. I had thrown my hat over the wall. Now I was going to need some friends to help get it back.

Next up, we make the original vision a reality (well, virtual reality). In part 2, I’ll tell you about the intended and unintended magic we created.

Oracle Energy and Water

Prepare for a sustainable and affordable future with Oracle Energy and Water. From better grid management tools to smarter utility asset management options, get support from every single step of your utility's good work. Learn more at Oracle Energy and Water.