Watson Fellowship Conference

Wow! I can’t believe I’m back in the US after a year of traveling. I landed in Boston on July 29, flying from Santiago de Chile with a layover in Atlanta. A lot of people have asked me what my first meal was after landing in the US, so to answer the question, it was a spinach, mushroom, and Swiss egg sandwich from Einstein Bros. Bagels. My first “real” meal was atukula, home-made by my loving mother.

Shortly after landing, on August 1, I headed to Bar Harbor for the Watson Fellowship conference. I had an amazing time. The conference involved a fancy welcome dinner and then two full days of breakout sessions, Fellow presentations, and deep conversations with other Fellows during breaks/late into the nights. I really appreciated the sense of community I found among the other Watson Fellows. Although our projects were all very different, we had many shared experiences, and it was great to discuss the ups and downs of my year with people who just “got it.”

During the conference, I gave a ten-minute presentation about my project. From the Watson Fellows’ Guide, “Obviously, one cannot convey the entirety of a whole year’s experience in such a short period of time. One can, however, share a meaningful piece of it… This is not a business powerpoint presentation, but an opportunity to share your experience with each other from your unique perspective.” In the spirit these guidelines, I decided to tell two stories that illustrated my experience. You’ve seen one of these before (in this post) and the other one is new. For those interested, the text of my presentation is below. Enjoy!


Watson Final Presentation

Hey everyone! My name’s Priya, and my project – though it used to have a fancier name – is now called “What is a Smart Grid?” The term “Smart Grid” is a really broad buzzword that can mean completely different things depending on whom you talk to. Basically, though, it describes the transition to a next-generation energy system — perhaps one that uses cleaner energy, provides energy access to more people, is more reliable, or involves certain “key technologies” such as sensors and smart energy meters. This year, through formal interviews and casual conversations, I tried to get behind the buzzword, to understand the social and policy factors that interact with the “bettering” of the energy system. Today, I want to share two particular experiences I had that shaped my thinking, in the form of “spruced up” journal entries. So here goes.


Entry #1: October 2, 2015
Berlin, Germany

On the way home today, I talked at length with a fashion student named Raphael about fashion and sustainability. I met him when I was waiting at the Yorkstraße S-Bahn stop and noticed that someone had left their cell phone at the station. Raphael noticed at the same time, and we worked together to return it to its owner. He then asked me what I was doing in Berlin, and I told him I was researching Smart Grids and renewable energy (which are basically synonymous in Germany). Like many Germans do, he got really excited about my topic and shared some of his experiences. He talked about how he and his friends use a car trip-sharing platform and always look to use electric vehicles on it. He showed me the “Green Label” on his jacket and shoes, indicating that his clothes were sustainably- and locally-made. He also talked about how the German government had been slowing down renewable energy development, perhaps because they felt like they’d done “enough” to feel good and stop pushing. Like many strangers I meet at bars, in trains, or on the street in Germany, he told me a lot of things I didn’t know about Germany’s renewables and sustainability initiatives. I love that about Germany.

Raphael then told me a little bit about himself. He’s currently in fashion school, but he hates it. He felt like he and his fashion designer friends simply make extravagant, ridiculous clothing geared towards the rich whereas everybody else simply shops for cheap, throw-away clothing at discount stores. That being said, he felt like fashion also gave him an avenue to make a tangible impact immediately. For instance, a fashion designer can sustainably source their cotton and labor. Fashion is also an art form that people interact with every day, which you can use to change minds. Raphael told me about a fashion designer who makes clothing from scratch — spinning the thread, weaving the cloth, and shaping the cloth into an original design — and then sells this clothing along with the video of how it was made. This fashion designer’s goal is to make people think about their clothing as something with a meaning and story behind it, rather than something cheap you buy often and carelessly throw away. In doing so, the fashion designer hopes to promote a more sustainable culture. Raphael noted that it’s true you can’t scale what this fashion designer is doing — the clothing is expensive and takes a lot of time to make — but it’s not about scaling sales of the actual product. It’s about doing something dramatic to make people change their mindsets.

Raphael’s story made me think about my German Smart Grid explorations. Many climate change and Smart Grid experts agree that energy consumers will need to change their lifestyles in some nontrivial way to stop climate change. These changes may include making deep cuts in energy consumption, being more conscious about when you use energy based on when renewables are generating energy, living in smaller spaces, or buying fewer things. However, Smart Grid experts are unsure how to get people to change their lifestyles. They pilot test scalable technologies such as Smart Meters, in hopes that monitoring people’s energy use will get them excited about changing their energy use, but in most cases people’s interest eventually tapers off. Today’s technical environmental solutions often measure, infer, and predict, but less frequently do they change hearts, minds, and attitudes. Perhaps we should think more in terms of over-the-top demonstrations and dramatic gestures.


Entry #2: May 9, 2016
Yokohama, Japan

I just got back from “Golden Week,” Japan’s annual vacation week. During this time, I traveled to Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Kumamoto. Kyoto and its surrounding cities were beautiful, with lots of history and temples, nice people, and good food. However, I most enjoyed my time in Hiroshima and Kumamoto.

Since the Americans were responsible for bombing Hiroshima in 1945, as an American citizen, I kept my head down. I tried to look as inconspicuous and un-American as possible. But then, as I walked around the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Park, had one-on-one conversations with in-utero survivors of the event, read a book one in-utero survivor had compiled, and learned how to fold a paper crane from another in-utero survivor, something changed. I finally felt comfortable admitting to some of these survivors that I was American, and instead of chiding me, they thanked me for taking the time to visit and learn about the history. Through my visit and conversations, I overwhelmingly got the sense that the Japanese — at least those I encountered in Hiroshima — weren’t interested in playing any blame games. They were more interested in ensuring future peace and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. They were more interested in rebuilding.

And Japan has to rebuild pretty often. Atomic bombs and man-made disasters aside, it’s also one of the riskiest countries in the world for natural disasters — earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, volcanic eruptions, you name it. For example, the Fukushima disaster in 2011, with its earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown, devastated nearby prefectures (districts) and caused major electricity supply shortages around the country. The Japanese also expect that such disasters will only worsen with climate change. The Fukushima disaster catalyzed the Japanese Smart Grid movement, and in the Japanese Smart Grid world, the word “resilience” pops up quite often. In a way, what Japan’s doing is the “opposite” of what Germany’s doing. When Germany builds Smart Grids, they think about mitigating climate change by making their grid carbon-free through renewable energies. When Japan builds Smart Grids, they build them with the goal of adapting to climate change in mind. They think about renewables as a local source of energy that will keep running even when everything else stops.

That’s why my visit to Kumamoto, the epicenter of Japan’s huge earthquakes three weeks ago in mid-April, was so powerful. It reflected the reality of a Japan where rebuilding is a common event, where resilient infrastructure has innumerable value. The earthquake had caused major power cuts, gas leaks, and water shortages in Kumamoto, and train and plane services to Kumamoto were stopped for a while. Since Kumamoto is on the Japanese island of Kyushu, it was then basically isolated form the mainland. The rebuilding was well underway by the time I visited – the utilities were back and train services had been restored a few days before my visit – but there was still a lot to do. As I walked around the city, I saw many modern buildings with visible cracks in their foundations, shattered windows, or red “unsafe” inspection signs. I saw older houses, small cottages with grass roofs, caved in like crushed cake frosting. I saw trash piled up three weeks deep, a mix of normal waste and cleanup debris that the city trash services simply couldn’t handle.

To me, though, what was more interesting than observing the infrastructure was observing the people. I saw community. I saw volunteers in the city center serving food. I saw trash trucks from other cities including Kyoto, sent by these other cities to help clean up. I saw temporary vendors in a main market, presumably set up there because their normal buildings were unfit for use. The result was a juxtaposition of permanent shops, closed-off buildings, and stalls with cardboard boxes piled behind them. In this market, I saw lots of people walking around, hanging out, shopping. They were smiling, socializing, and coming together as a community. Like in Hiroshima, I saw a city moving on and moving forward.

Because in a disaster-ridden area, what matters as much (if not more) than resilient infrastructure is a resilient community. I think that’s why Japan — which has traditionally had a top-down, big-company-focused electricity system — is now switching towards a more liberalized electricity market and looking at local community approaches to power. I think that’s why Japan brands so many of its Smart Grid activities under the “Smart Community” label, connecting issues of local infrastructure (solar panels, batteries, resilient hospitals) with the issues of local people. Japanese Smart Grids and Smart Communities deal not with some abstract threat of climate change, but with a real and present need, and that’s why the Japanese effort is taking off with so much more force than in many other countries.


BonusMy first morning in Bar Harbor, our lovely conference assistant Ashley (a previous Watson Fellow) drove two of us to the top of Cadillac Mountain to see the sunrise. So gorgeous!



One thought on “Watson Fellowship Conference

  1. Pingback: Kumamoto Earthquake Aftermath Photos (a.k.a. The Case for Resilience) | Priya's Watson Fellowship

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