Beyond technical smartness: Rethinking the development and implementation of sociotechnical smart grids in India

Beyond technical smartness: Rethinking the development and implementation of sociotechnical smart grids in India

Energy Research & Social ScienceVolume 49, March 2019, Pages 158-168



How smart grids are understood and defined will influence the kinds of smart grids users will encounter in the future and their potential impacts. Practitioners and policymakers largely perceive smart grids as technological interventions. However, a number of social, financial and governmental interventions can also make grids smart, i.e., more efficient, more responsive, more inclusive and more robust. Drawing on qualitative research done using elite interviews, site visits and document analysis of eight micro-grids in India, this paper provides concrete examples of what could be understood as social, financial and governmental smartness, and in doing so, broadens the knowledge on smart grids beyond the technical understanding.

This paper argues that social, financial and governmental interventions are central to ‘smartness’, and that multifaceted and relational sociotechnical approaches will build cheaper, just, more democratic and sustainable smart grids. The paper observes that smart grids are not conceived as smart grids but rather develop incrementally. An incremental approach, rather than pushing a premeditated set of ideas and technologies, reduces adoption of non-contextual interventions as well as unnecessary investments in new technologies. The paper recommends that policymakers and practitioners should understand and develop smart grids as sociotechnical and incremental grids.

Link to open access article:

तकनीकी स्मार्टनेस से परे: भारत में सामाजिक-तकनीकी (सोसियोटेक्निकल) ग्रिड के विकास और कार्यान्वयन पर पुनर्विचार

खंड 49, मार्च 2019, पृष्ठ 158-168


स्मार्ट ग्रिड को कैसे समझा और परिभाषित किया जाता है, इसका प्रभाव भविष्य में उपयोगकर्ताओं और उनकी संभावनाओं पर होगा। प्लानरों और पालिसी निर्माताओं ने अभी तक स्मार्ट ग्रिड को तकनीकी हस्तक्षेप के रूप में  समझा है। हालांकि, कई सामाजिक, वित्तीय और शासन संबंधी हस्तक्षेप भी ग्रिड को स्मार्ट बना सकते हैं, अर्थात्, अधिक कुशल, अधिक उत्तरदायी, अधिक समावेशी और अधिक ठोस। भारत में आठ माइक्रो ग्रिडों के मैनेजरों के साथ साक्षात्कार, उनके वेबसाइट का दौरा और दस्तावेज़ विश्लेषण का उपयोग करके किए गए गुणात्मक अनुसंधान पर आधारित, यह पेपर सामाजिक, वित्तीय और सरकारी स्मार्टनेस के ठोस उदाहरण प्रदान करता है, और ऐसा करने में, स्मार्टनेस पर ज्ञान को व्यापक बनाता है।

इस लेख में तर्क दिया गया है कि सामाजिक, वित्तीय और सरकारी हस्तक्षेप ‘स्मार्टनेस’ के लिए ज़रूरी हैं, और यह कि बहुपक्षीय और सामाजिक-तकनीकी (सोसियोटेक्निकल) दृष्टिकोण सस्ते, अधिक लोकतांत्रिक और टिकाऊ स्मार्ट ग्रिड का निर्माण करने में मदद कर सकता है। लेख समीक्षा करता है कि स्मार्ट ग्रिड को स्मार्ट ग्रिड के रूप में कल्पना नहीं की जाती, बल्कि वो वृद्धिशील रूप में विकसित होते है। वृद्धिशील दृष्टिकोण गैर-संदर्भीय हस्तक्षेपों और नई प्रौद्योगिकियों में अनावश्यक निवेश को कम करता है। पेपर की सिफारिश की गई है कि नीति निर्माताओं और प्लानरों को स्मार्ट ग्रिड को सोसियोटेक्निकल और वृद्धिशील ग्रिड के रूप में समझना और विकसित करना चाहिए।

ओपन एक्सेस लेख के लिए लिंक:


Valorisation best practices of DISGI


Johanna presenting in the Hague

On Tuesday, March 27 Johanna gave a short presentation at the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) in The Hague. Her lecture was part of an internal NWO workshop on valorization of research. About 30 NWO staff attended the workshop. Johanna was invited to share the experiences and best practices of the DISGI project. These activities can be seen as examples of social valorization. These social valorization activities DISGI engages with are manifold and address different audiences. They range from giving inspirational lectures for students and public enrolled in Studium Generale activities to organizing knowledge exchange events with businesses.

Contact us if you would like to know more about our activities or if you want to organize an event with us.

Justice and politics in energy access for education, livelihoods and health: How socio-cultural processes mediate the winners and losers

Our team member Dr Ankit Kumar recently published a new open access article on the role placed by local socio-cultural processes in access to energy in the global South. This study also illustrates a need to engage in more in depth ethnographic work to grasp the nuances of energy access and impacts of energy access interventions.

Justice and politics in energy access for education, livelihoods and health: How socio-cultural processes mediate the winners and losers

Energy Research and Social Science, Volume 40, June 2018, Pages 3–13

The rhetoric on development benefits of energy access often focuses on education, livelihoods and health. Using case studies of two energy access projects in India, this paper demonstrates that these claims, while true in part, are neither simple nor straightforward. It argues that pre-existing socio-cultural processes mediate the development outcomes of energy access projects. In particular, the roles of gender, socio-economic positions and the local economy are vital in understanding the links between education, livelihoods, health and energy.
This paper is important for two reasons. First, working with culture as a mediator, it provides nuanced insights into relationships between energy access and three key development goals. Second, by presenting this analysis, the paper identifies a need for further research on the relationships between socio-cultural processes, development and energy access and, how by keeping these processes in mind, the benefits of energy access could be extended to less privileged social groups. This paper is based on a nine-month long ethnographic research in five villages in India’s Bihar state. Home tours, interviews, participant observations and group discussions were used to collect the data.

Please read this in conjunction with his previous article on Cultures of Lights.

Link to open access article:

energy politics

Justice and Politics: With access to modern lighting the boy of the household gets to study while the girl has to cook on a hazardous and polluting wood fired earthen hearth

Continue reading

Has the NSGM become what it attempts to solve?


In 2015 India’s Ministry of Power established a National Smart Grid Mission (NSGM) with a total outlay of INR 980 crore. The aim of this mission is to unify existing government-led smart grid activities in India (MoP India, 2015b). Those activities show that, like several western countries already did before, India also wants to hop in on to the development of IT-enabled electricity grids. With already several smart grid pilot projects over the country, an institutional framework, i.e. the NSGM, and an India Smart Grid Forum, the country intends to combat the problems that have plagued its electricity grids from the beginning. Continue reading

Balancing responsiveness and investor security in Responsible Innovation

Our colleague Dr Auke Pols will be presenting at the Fourth Annual OZSW conference (Dutch research school in Philosophy), 9-10 December 2016 on the topic ‘Balancing responsiveness and investor security in Responsible Innovation’.

Here’s an abstract of the talk:

In recent years, Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) has become a popular framework for developing and implementing new technology in the EU, as witnessed by its incorporation in Dutch and EU funding schemes. Building on process values such as anticipation, inclusiveness, responsiveness and reflexivity, RRI seeks to invite and incorporate stakeholder input from early on into the design process (Stilgoe et al. 2013). The hope is that this will lead to technical innovations that better fit societal and ethical values.

A general criticism of RRI is that it often ignores questions of power, politics and institutional settings (Van Oudheusden 2014). One significant political aspect of RRI that has received little attention so far is that RRI operates in a policy context where technical innovations are by and large developed by or in cooperation with the private sector. In this paper I argue that one fundamental problem of this arrangement is that the private sector prefers guaranteed returns on investment and thus stable and predictable policies supporting the innovation, or investor security. I show that this preference is in tension with RRI’s value of responsiveness and its stress on the importance of agility and flexibility when innovating. Basically, there is a trade-off here: increasing investor security diminishes motivation and opportunities to be responsive and vice versa. I explain how RRI could respond to this value conflict, using examples taken from the field of renewable energy technologies.

Renewable energy technologies illustrate this tension particularly well, as they often have difficulties competing with entrenched fossil fuel technologies and thus require significant and prolonged policy support and investor security to get off the ground. For example, the EU has an ambitious biofuel blending target for 2020 meant to create investor security and thus stimulate biofuel innovations for transport energy (Pols 2015). This target became controversial when it turned out that many biofuel projects created serious environmental and social problems. Nevertheless, in the face of diminishing social acceptance and ethical acceptability of biofuels, the EU changed its target only slightly. This was done to maintain investor security in the hope that this would stimulate further biofuel innovations that would solve the problems caused by earlier biofuel innovations (cf. Levidow et al. 2012). Thus, though this policy change exhibited some responsiveness towards the signalled problems, this responsiveness was made dependent on and limited by investor security. Hence the need to investigate the role investor security should play in RRI.


Pols, A.J.K. (2015). The Rationality of Biofuel Certification: A Critical Examination of EU Biofuel Policy. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 28(4), 667-681. DOI 10.1007/s10806-015-9550-2.

Levidow, L., Papaioannou, T. and Birch, K. (2012). Neoliberalising technoscience and environment: EU policy for competitive, sustainable biofuels. In: L. Pellizzoni and M. Ylonen (eds.) Neoliberalism and technoscience. Theory, technology and society, 159-186. Farnham: Ashgate.

Van Oudheusden, M. (2014). Where are the politics in responsible innovation? European governance, technology assessments, and beyond. Journal of Responsible Innovation 1(1), 67-86.

Stilgoe, J., Owen, R. and Macnaghten, P. (2013). Developing a framework for responsible innovation. Research Policy 42, 1568-1580.

Small is Beautiful – Lecture by Johanna Höffken

On Thursday, 20 October out team member Johanna Höffken will give a lecture on ‘Small is beautiful’ where she will also talk about our project? The lecture is organised in the context of TU/e becoming a Fair Trade University soon.

Here are the coordinates:

Thursday 20 October
12.45-13.20 hrs lecture (12.30 hrs welcome to get lunch)
Trappenzaal Vertigo

More information here:


Demystification and localization in the adoption of micro-hydro technology: Insights from India by Johanna Höffken

Our team member Johanna Höffken has just published an article titled ‘Demystification and localization in the adoption of micro-hydro technology: Insights from India’ in Energy Research and Social Sciences journal.

Here’s the abstract:

The phrase ‘small is beautiful’ holds true for the micro-hydro plants discussed in this article. Micro-hydro plants can convert the energy of falling water into electricity. In India, access to electricity cannot be taken for granted, especially in rural areas, which do not yet have grid extension or where it is too costly or infeasible. In these cases, micro-hydro plants are a welcome solution. Here I discuss the efforts of two non-governmental organizations, a private company, and a government agency, to facilitate micro-hydro projects in India, thereby increasing the socio-economic empowerment of rural inhabitants without electricity access. Based on extensive ethnographic data and constructivist conceptualizations of scale and consequences I find that these projects can indeed be described as “beautiful” technology interventions. In line with the common discourse on “small is beautiful,” the projects emphasize community engagement, control, and locality. Yet, importantly, they are “beautiful” in diverse ways. The actors set different priorities when implementing their small-scale technology interventions. Highlighting these priorities is important because they can empower people to acquire different roles, ranging from engaged consumers to prosumers. Instead of solely concentrating on the (small) scale of a technology I plead to consider the significance of implementing these interventions.

You can find the full article here:

Stakholder involvement and the case of Hidden Design

The first output from our project was published yesterday. Dr. Auke Pols published a paper titled:

‘May Stakeholders be Involved in Design Without Informed Consent? The Case of Hidden Design’

The paper is open access. You can find it here


Stakeholder involvement in design is desirable from both a practical and an ethical point of view. It is difficult to do well, however, and some problems recur again and again, both of a practical nature, e.g. stakeholders acting strategically rather than openly, and of an ethical nature, e.g. power imbalances unduly affecting the outcome of the process. Hidden Design has been proposed as a method to deal with the practical problems of stakeholder involvement. It aims to do so by taking the observation of stakeholder actions, rather than the outcomes of a deliberative process, as its input. Furthermore, it hides from stakeholders the fact that a design process is taking place so that they will not behave differently than they otherwise would. Both aspects of Hidden Design have raised ethical worries. In this paper I make an ethical analysis of what it means for a design process to leave participants uninformed or deceived rather than acquiring their informed consent beforehand, and to use observation of actions rather than deliberation as input for design, using Hidden Design as a case study. This analysis is based on two sets of normative guidelines: the ethical guidelines for psychological research involving deception or uninformed participants from two professional psychological organisations, and Habermasian norms for a fair and just (deliberative) process. It supports the conclusion that stakeholder involvement in design organised in this way can be ethically acceptable, though under a number of conditions and constraints.

Upcoming paper presentation by Dr Johanna Höffken at 4S/EASST conference in Barcelona

Dr. Johanna I. Höffken will attend the upcoming 4S/EASST conference “Science and Technology by Other Means”, which will take place from August 31-September 3, 2016 in Barcelona.

Together with a colleague from Renmin University Bejing she will present a paper in the session on “Smart eco-cities: experimenting with new urban futures”.

Paper title: Smart and eco cities in China and India

Authors: Johanna Höffken (Eindhoven University of Technology)  and Agnes Kneitz (Renmin University)


Image: Johanna Hoeffken


Short Abstract

The development of smart and eco cities in both China and in India has gained high political attention and momentum on the national policy agendas. Following a comparative approach we explore the meaning of smart and eco by analyzing public discourses around eco and smart cities in China and India.


Long Abstract

The development of smart and eco cities in both China and in India has gained high political attention and momentum on the national policy agendas.

Since 2014, China is officially building an “Ecological Civilization” for which eco-cities are believed to be strong pillars. India has announced a “Smart Cities Mission” for similar reasons in May 2015 and has engaged 98 cities to compete in a smart city challenge. Winning cities will be supported in the implementation of their smart city plans.

The proposed paper explores the meanings of “smart” and “eco”, which are the key rhetoric lynchpins of these initiatives. In particular, the paper analyses the public discourses around eco and smart cities in China and India. It shows how manifold political, economical, and social aspects influence the shaping of the two concepts and what this might mean for the type and orientation of urban development in these two growing Asian nations.

The paper contributes empirical insights from recent and topical initiatives currently unfolding in China and India. It thus contributes new empirical/conceptual insights about smart-eco city dynamics to a growing body of STS literature on urban development in Asia.

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