Posts

The Newtonian Shift: playing an energy transition game

By Jennifer Allford

“Endure the chaos,” the facilitator says. “It’s part of the game.” And with that, a few dozen of us start playing the Newtonian Shift, a half-day “role-playing simulation” in a boardroom in downtown Calgary.

Think Monopoly on steroids. But instead of buying and selling property, we’re buying and selling infrastructure and different sources of energy. And we don’t sit around the table rolling the dice and moving a top hat or fancy boot along the board.  Everyone is up moving around the room, cutting deals with other players, going to the table that acts as the energy marketplace and watching as the grid grows and changes on the map of Newtonia in the middle of the room.

Newtonia is a fictitious land with an old electricity grid. Its leaders want to build a more sustainable system that uses fewer fossil fuels and has a new grid that can accommodate using more renewables. Each of us in the room is a player in that very complex system. We take on a title that’s foreign to us. Business people represent NGOs. Environmentalists run energy companies. Oil and gas engineers represent municipalities. We play roles in First Nations communities, the agriculture industry, a giant tech company or a steel supplier.

Years of change is compressed into a few hours. Every few minutes, the facilitator announces the passing of another month and we give each other panicked looks. It’s moving so fast. We haven’t replaced coal with enough solar. The municipality has no power. The strips of plastic that represent the grid don’t yet reach the First Nations community.

Every now and then there is a policy announcement from the government—subsidies for solar, a new tax on fossil fuels. Regular news flashes throw a wrench in the works—an especially cold winter sees energy prices skyrocket, a malfunction in the system is causing outages in the industrial district.

It is indeed chaos. And instructive. And fun.

At the end of the game we are all exhausted from running around the room frantically trying to change the energy system of Newtonia. We happily sit down at our tables and go around the room recounting what we were able to accomplish and where we failed. We analyze deals that were made and others that fell apart. We hear from each other and each and every sector.

As we pack up the map of Newtonia, picking up the gold strips of the new grid and the black strips for the old one, we have all seen firsthand the incredible complexity of transitioning from fossil fuels to a cleaner energy system.

After being immersed in unfamiliar roles and representing other sectors, we leave for the day knowing that as well a new grid, Alberta’s energy transition is going to require a lot of understanding across the board and plenty of dialogue among the many players.

The Newtonian Shift was developed in the Netherlands and adapted for use in Alberta with a grant from the Alberta Real Estate Foundation.

See the game in action here.