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Is power becoming hip?

The SXSW—formerly known as the South-by-Southwest Festival—kicks off in Austin, Texas, tomorrow and you're already wondering—why is that fact being mentioned in a power industry column at all? After all, that annual confab is where bands go to get a record deal, right?

Well, the point here is that SXSW has morphed into a music and film festival that also leverages the forward-looking, diverse, socially conscious interests of its performers, participants and audience to interact around a multiplicity of ideas and mutual interests.

For a columnist whose only notion of "hip" is that it's part of the human anatomy, I had to have the advantages of this fact explained to me. But once Jay Iorio, technology strategist for the IEEE's Standards Association, explained it to me, it was both brilliant and painfully obvious (notions that are not contradictory, I'd venture).

We just featured an "Industry Expert" column by Wanda Reder, chair of IEEE Smart Grid and immediate past president of IEEE's Power and Energy Society (PES), who is working to attract engineering students to work in grid modernization.

Iorio is taking a different tack by heading to SXSW to converse with like-minded people in an emerging technology field that includes virtual worlds, gaming, simulated realities, etc. I had a brief conversation with Iorio yesterday and will simply run some of his thoughts past you, if only to jog your thinking. Not everyone involved in creating a smarter grid will come from the academic ranks of electrical engineering. It's very likely that many third parties will be involved on some level with utilities, with vendors or with customers in some way that could benefit from Iorio's approach.

"My purpose is to attract people to the IEEE-SA for this new, interdisciplinary area, one that involves the arts, military simulations, really a whole spectrum of activities that conceptually are allied," Iorio told me. "I'm trying to create a new community. Judging from the hugely diverse set of people at South-By-Southwest last year and the imaginative discussions that I had, I'm confident that I'll find some people for this new group I'm creating and get them interested in the IEEE's activities."

Hmmm. Gather free thinkers from outside your specific bailiwick and see how they might collaborate on problem-solving relevant to your challenges.

"The thinking behind my effort is that a lot of fields are coming together," Iorio said. "They're separate now, but not really. From the point of view of the underlying technologies, they're all pieces of the same animal. Computer-generated cinema, interactive television and media, 3-D in all of its forms—augmented reality, virtual worlds. There's no real name for this area, thought it has been referred to as 'new media,' 'advanced media.' So I'm trying to create a community that doesn't realize that it's a community."

When you consider the oft-cited convergence of IT, telecom and power, transferring Iorio's mission to one involving the power industry's interests isn't a big leap.

"I found last year that with the South-by-Southwest crowd, I got the most excitement out of them when they thought in terms of helping society," Iorio said. "It's really a very idealistic crowd. When I talked about how work in this new field could transform society with all its applications, that's when I saw the spark in their eyes and found them really engaged. So I look forward this year to getting people involved in a specific subject.

"My specialty is this virtual stuff," Iorio continued. "But I've got people working on smart grid, for example. The Internet of things. The same principles apply to all of those. We want imaginative thinkers to serve as the engine for all these activities.

"The 'Internet of Things' is a clumsy term, but the smart grid is a part of that," he added. "I'd like to attract general thinkers who see the smart grid as a piece of a ubiquitous Internet, for lack of a better term—the fact that the entire environment becomes intelligent to some extent. That includes power, water and things we haven't even thought of yet. Clearly, electricity is the backbone of the IEEE."

The IEEE and the power industry are somewhat analogous, in that the IEEE, for instance, "was a stodgy thing of the past," Iorio said, warming to his thesis. And now the IEEE and its related vertical industries are becoming "the hippest areas because they involve all those transformative technologies."

"It's like the 'hip-icization' of the IEEE and the power industry," Iorio said, chuckling at his newly minted term.

Who knew a music and film festival could turn into a socially conscious movement leveraging technology to transform society? Especially with beer in hand.

But I really liked Iorio's fresh thinking around recruitment for imaginative problem solving and future-shaping. Why not wade into gatherings of young people with myriad backgrounds and talents and see what this low-budget, high-touch approach might yield? Maybe the power industry's myriad players would find that a similar strategy would bear fruit.

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily

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