Hacking for a smarter grid: Nesta Dynamic Demand Challenge Hackathon

I recently attended a great Hackathon as part of the Dynamic Demand Challenge Prize.

Organised by the Nesta Centre for Challenge Prizes in partnership with the National Physical Laboratory – Centre for Carbon Measurement, the Challenge is co-funded by Nesta (the UK innovation charity) and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, with the National Grid as a lead sponsor.

Dynamic Demand Challenge Prize: What is it?

The Dynamic Demand Challenge Prize is an exciting competition set up to encourage innovation in the demand side management sector of the UK electricity industry. Specifically, the goal is to create a new product, technology or service that would utilise data to help households or small businesses demonstrate measurable reduction in carbon emissions by shifting energy demand to off-peak times or towards excess renewable generation.

Imperial College Engineering Department

Imperial College Engineering Department

The Hackathon itself was and hosted by Imperial College London and Climate-KIC, with Judges and demonstrators from OFGEM, DECC, Which?, and KiWi Power.

There’s a great briefing document on the need for demand side management in the UK, written by Marieke Beckmann of the NPL, that is available for free download here.

Why a Hackathon?

10 teams of innovators were selected from the vast number of competition entries and invited to attend a 36 hour Hackathon at Imperial’s Faculty of Engineering to make demonstrable progress on their ideas and to allow the judges to get a better feel for the potential of the both the ideas and the teams.

Although my own idea was not shortlisted, I was invited to attend the event as a “Roving Hacker”, with the task of assisting the other teams in the development of their ideas and adding value based on my experience of the energy sector and demand side management.

However, one of the invited teams dropped out at the last minute and so I was invited to join up with a fellow “Roving Hacker” to form an improvised 10th team to take part in the event. More on that later.

Hackathon structure

The Hackathon was manned by a number of knowledgeable experts (called “Hack-xperts”), demonstrators, and mentors who circulated, adding value to the development process at every stage.

Reverse engineering an electric whisk

Reverse engineering an electric whisk

As well as plenty of free time to go off to the lab or meeting rooms and work on your product, there were several sessions designed to stimulate and inspire the teams.The first of these was a reverse engineering session: each team selected a household object and took it into the lab to de-construct it into its individual constituent parts in order to appreciate the complexity of event the most mundane pieces of household equipment (we counted more than 78 individual parts in a £20 electric whisk!) and get our mindsets into “design mode”.

There was a great “speed-dating” style elevator pitch and feedback session, where each team had 3-5 minutes to pitch their ideas to 2 Hack-xperts and receive feedback before the bell sounded and they had to move on to the next pair. This was phenomenal as it not only forced the teams to practice and refine their elevator pitches,

Smart grid innovation presentation

Marketing and business models lecture

We received expert coaching plus talks on the formulation of business models, on marketing, on the measurement of energy efficiency and power saving claims, and on seeking finance and pitching to investors.

What was your idea?

We developed a “restricted capacity tariff” specifically targeted at the 3.5m UK households living in fuel poverty. By fitting a device into the homes of participating customers that limits the total power that can be drawn by a household, our tariff can give the household a strong discount on their electricity as this predictable load pattern will bypass the need for expensive peak-rate electricity to be bought on the Grid’s capacity auctions. Our idea will be explored in more depth in a further post to come, so subscribe to my mailing list to watch this space!

What happened?

smart grid hackathon feedback and elevator pitch

Impromptu pitch and feedback session

At the end of the weekend, each of the 10 teams pitched their idea to a panel of expert judges and the event’s attendees. The panel then asked the presenting team a series of questions to probe the inherent assumptions and to explore the potential of each idea and team in greater detail. All the pitches were recorded on camera (check out the videos on the Dynamic Demand microsite): perfect for post-event pitch improvement!

From the 10 attendees, 5 finalists were selected by the judges to progress their ideas over a six month period before the Final. Each of the 5 teams won a prize £10,000 of funding from Nesta, technical and verfication support from National Physical Laboratory scientists as well as expert business advice courtesy of Climate-KIC and Imperial College.

The winners

The 5 finalists chosen by the judges were:

Our idea for a capacity tariff was strongly commended by several of the Hack-xperts and judges but unfortunately didn’t make the final cut. However, there was no shame in this as our team was formed at 9am on the first day of the Hackathon, whereas the other teams were formed well in advance by people who had been working on their ideas for months, if not years, as part of their jobs and PhDs. In addition, our team had only just met each other, whereas many of the teams had known their colleagues for years. To be frank, it was incredible that with this competition we were even able to put something notable together within the 36 hours!

To view my detailed thoughts on the five finalists, read this blog post.

What happens next?

The winners of the Challenge will receive a prize award of £50,000 at the Celebration Event in June 2014. Fingers crossed for an invitation…