Helge Fischer: Grid Republic of Germany 2042

It is the year 2042, and energy is central to the life philosophy of the German public. We have transitioned to renewable energy and we now live in the Grid Republic of Germany. Crazy? Perhaps.

As part of the VISIT programme, Berlin-based designer Helge Fischer explored “speculative futures” in an imaginary world following the transition to renewable energies, and presented his visions in a combination of short films and designs at an exhibition in July 2013.

Helge Fischer (born 1981) interviewed experts regarding their ideas about the future. He spoke to technical specialists and innogy employees from the areas of Research and Development, Strategy and Innovation Management. For Fischer, this was a valuable chance to build up his background knowledge for the project, because according to him, “there’s no science fiction without science.” During the exhibition, Fischer surveyed guests’ reactions, which in turn influenced the project itself and became part of the final documentation. #VISIT2012

Website of Helge Fischer

Into the thicket of possible futures

We have a great gift: we can imagine the future. We are able to put ourselves as individuals or as a community into the future in our mind and look at ourselves from all sides. If we like what we see we ask ourselves what steps we should take to get to that place. If we don’t like it so much, we ask how we can avoid such a future.

This practice of visiting the future in your mind is remarkable, and it is probably something that a handful of other animals can also do and may have served them as an advantage on their intricate path of evolution. For mankind, before the age of enlightenment, the idea of the future was still intimately linked with that of fate; after all, something came to be because that was God’s will. Even in Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s time the idea prevailed that we are always led to the “best of all possible worlds” – our present – from among an infinite number of possible worlds. [1]

At this point there was already an inkling, fuelled by the growing importance of science and the secularisation of western society, of a burgeoning awareness that the future may be in the hands of man, especially when it comes to his own concerns such as politics and technology. With the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead the notion of speculation took on a new significance, the ability to “make thought creative of the future; […] durch das Erschauen von Ideen, die das Beobachtbare umfassen.” [2] A idea that – once followed through – has lost little of its radical nature: we create the future by thinking about it.

Whitehead, in his philosophy of speculation, placed great value on what he called “the observable” and what we today would probably called information or, more scientifically, data. We are undergoing the mathematisation of the world and the strategic look into the distance becomes a possibility of everything; the question what the observations that we use to speculate about the future are remains. Are the data perhaps in truth more mysterious than the future itself? Many things can be mathematicised only with difficulty, especially man and the cultural somersaults he does when he gets together with others and forms a community in all its complexity and quite often irrationality. To be able to deal with the future here you need tricks that lie beyond mere data.

One such trick is the what-if thought experiment, used in the present paper by Helge Fischer. The thought experiment only takes an interest in the data in passing and instead explores the future through a particular positing and the scenario that emerges from it. The stone is thrown comparatively far away – into the year 2042 – and the posit is this: what if energy was not just one consumer product among many, and instead the identity-giving element of a society? As a radical consequence, the political structure of Germany collapses and is replaced by the Grid Republic, whose citizens make their place of residence dependent on their personal decision on energy technology and its consequences.

Unrealistic? Certainly. Radical? Definitely. But it also reflect one aspect of the energy mindset in Germany, which is characterised by unusually strong convictions in international comparison. What is being described here is a coherent closed world that is at least similar to ours. The different sub-scenarios, typified by the individual fictitious regions and their inhabitants, are used as a narrative tool to explore the underlying attitudes, which, just like the Grid Republic itself, reflects certain facets of the present, lending it, as it were, scope to act in a laboratory. In a way we see aspects of ourselves in the future, can observe ourselves and ask whether that’s a world that we want to move towards.

There is the Grid Republic Exubenergy for example, where electricity has become a financial luxury good. What you pay for, however, is not artificial segregation, but rather electrical energy that is regionally produced and renewable. The result is that the well-known feeling of guilt of the energy consumer has disappeared, at least among those who can afford it. Because what if there was electricity that can be generated without drawbacks? The resulting abundance, which feeds the artificial word “exubenergy”, has been promised many times, not least by nuclear power. What if it came about, progress without losers? Of course there are drawbacks, because while the abundance may at first sight be ethically neutral it is not equally distributed. In the unregulated zones of the detailed map of the Grid Republic developed by Helge Fischer and Ann-Kristina Simon, the flow of electricity is irregular. Electricity thieves looking for electrical subsistence are causing mischief at great risk, pursued by the unmanned aircrafts of the electrically better off.

One of the republics, called Energy Brotherhood, takes a different direction and abandons the economy. Entirely dependent on the whims of nature, they meet their energy needs directly from the wind and the sun. The citizens see this as an “emancipation from modernity”, and times without electricity are tolerated proudly. Because each year in autumn the republic hosts what they call the Storm Reception, where the generated electricity is consumed at a spectacular rate, until the infrastructure of the republic breaks down under their burden of ecstasy. Here we have the motif of abundance again, of squander; almost as if energy is a good that is there to be wasted, in Georges Bataille’s sense [3]. Or perhaps it is a good that we couldn’t truly squander – if only we made the right technological decisions.

Fischer’s supposedly fictitious scenario mirrors much of the complexity of our actual world. We can see how technological developments can not only change economic conditions, but may potentially have a transformative impact on man, while other conflicts remain like a prosperity gap. Minor changes to preferences and practices generate coherent realities in the Grid Republic Germany. It’s almost as if Leibniz’s best of all possible worlds are deliberately left behind to take a look round the thicket of the possible futures – with the intention of trying to understand what might drive people to choose one vision and not another.

Then there is the figure of the Listener, a former software engineer who listens to the 50-hertz sound of the grid electricity through many speakers and hears various events in the electricity grid based on variations in sound. This, combined with his experience and intuition, means he can predict electricity prices, which his listeners use as a basis for their decisions about using electricity. Here we have come full circle, because the data that the Listener uses cannot be captured in numbers and his position could not be any more subjective. Nonetheless – or indeed for this very reason – even the electricity companies in this republic allow his predictions to inform their computer models.

The Listener appears almost as a meta-scenario that Fischer uses to describe the role of those who work on the future and know about other forms of speculation and are able to express them – even without figures. Because ultimately, in a world where the future moves from a fateful event to a process that can be moulded, it’s all about decisions, nothing else.

Sascha Pohflepp (September 2013)

[1] Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: Die Theodizee, 2 volumes, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1996 

[2] Alfred North Whitehead: Die Funktion der Vernunft, Reclam, Stuttgart 1974 

[3] Georges Bataille: Das theoretische Werk I: Die Aufhebung der Ökonomie, Rogner & Bernhard, Munich 1975