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May 25, 2017

Taking Cues from Amazon and Airbnb: Designing the Future Utility at the E Design 2020 Conference

Innovators from more than 40 utilities recently gathered in San Francisco for two intense days of learning and networking. We rolled up our sleeves and tackled the future of utility products, services, and experiences for the new energy consumer. Our 135 attendees represented a broad utility cross-section—from Customer Insights, Technology Innovation, Marketing and Communications, In-Home Technologies, Market Transformation, New Energy Solutions, Retail Strategy, Customer Experience, HR, and Demand-Side Management. Having a cross-functional team is one of the key facets of design thinking, which was the overall conference theme.

Workshop Highlights

Our agenda featured utility insiders and outside industry experts, mixed with hands-on design-thinking workshops. Attendees empathized with Mike, a microbrewery owner who claimed to know nothing about energy, but showed amazing knowledge of his facility’s energy use and his interactions with the utility. They also met a retired couple who are enthusiastic about electric vehicles and solar and want people to just try out a new lifestyle. Five-person teams worked together to understand these customers’ latent needs and points of view before they moved on to ideation, idea selection, and iteration.

Photo of E Design 2020 workshop participants

One team developed a concept that involved utility coordination of a joint community solar purchase program for their local breweries. The utility would match funds raised for the solar garden through beer events and provide a kiosk that allows the breweries to publicly display their solar output and impact on the environment. The concept also included quarterly meetings, hosted by the utility, to educate brewers about water, energy, and sustainability issues and facilitate knowledge-sharing. Overall, the team created a holistic solution that covered more than just energy use. The concept was responsive and personal (by calling for a dedicated account manager who knows the brewery business), focused on sustainability (by creating a community-based solar solution), and business-oriented (by allowing small businesses to take credit for the community solar farm and providing matching funds to pay for the project).

Photo of E Design 2020 workshop participants

Speaker Highlights

During the keynote address, Sven Newman, principal and social innovation lead at Daylight, led us through the stages of design thinking and highlighted how empathy research can lead to the discovery of subtle yet profound insights. In one example, Daylight was tasked with understanding how to motivate kids to exercise more and designed the Kid Power Band, sending children on digital missions around the globe. As the kids take physical steps during their mission, they unlock a parcel of food for undernourished kids in other parts of the world. The big-picture idea: encourage kids in the US to exercise for the sake of feeding children elsewhere. And it worked!

We also heard from Justin Burks, head of Worldwide Strategic Programs for Amazon Web Services (AWS). He kicked off the session by sharing Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ 1997 letter to shareholders emphasizing that the company’s strategy is about winning in the long run. Quarterly earnings may suffer, but by having a consistent approach to innovation, all of their employees know what to do in any situation. Bezos debunked the notion that big companies can’t innovate. These days at AWS, Burks explained, new ideas are presented in exactly six pages that include a section on what the press release and the user manual will look like. Then the decision team spends 30 minutes together in a meeting, silently reading the proposal.

Finally, Aaron Taylor Harvey, Environments Creative Director at Airbnb, took us on an office-space design journey. His team wanted to create a call center environment that was as comfortable and inviting as the properties on Airbnb’s rental network. Check out a video narrated by Taylor Harvey to learn more about the company’s design process and innovations.

After two full days of immersion in design thinking, attendees were energized and motivated to take what they learned back to their utilities and start turning the traditional mode of problem-solving on its head. By tapping into empathy, design thinking can help utilities start creating a truly customer-centric culture.

Join Your Peers

Interested in continuing the innovation journey with us as part of E Source E Design 2020 initiative? Contact us to learn more about this three-year collaborative project to reimagine the next generation of utility products, services, and experiences.

About the Author

Bill LeBlanc


Chief Instigation Agent

Bill LeBlanc previously served the business as vice president for Marketing, vice president for Consulting, and vice president for Research. He’s also president of the Boulder Energy Group. Bill has more than 20 years of experience in strategic marketing, new product development, pricing, market research, and DSM as well as social marketing. He focuses on helping utilities understand the intersection between the customer and the utility’s products and services, and specializes in maximizing marketing effectiveness. He holds a BS and an MS in mechanical engineering from Stanford University and a BA in management economics from Claremont McKenna College.

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Contributing Authors

Chief Instigation Agent

Bill LeBlanc previously served the business as vice president for Marketing, vice president for Consulting, and vice president for Research. He’s...