Value sensitive design and ‘system change’. the case of empowerment in community based virtual power plants.

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractAcademic


Technological innovations and users’ values mutually influence each other, shown by theories as science-technology and society (STS), mediation or postphenemenology. Policy makers and stakeholders use methods as Value Sensitive Design to proactively maximise certain values. It selects stakeholders and sketching the trade-offs between their various values, it tests the contexts and experiences of stakeholders by technological designs and analyses how the new technologies realise particular values. Overviews of VSD indicate inclusions of important values as accountability, transparency, democracy, justice, trust, privacy and responsibility into the design.

‘System change’ is nowhere in this list. The analysis of ‘empowerment’ into two aspects powerfulness and influence (respectively ‘kracht’ and ‘macht’ in Dutch) can make clear why. Many co-creation projects try to make people more powerful. Stronger people need less help and therefore are cheaper, so decision-makers like that. But stronger people have more skills to interpret the negative structural aspects of their own situation. They have own ideas, which often are less welcome to the power structure in favour of dominant companies or politicians. VSD scholars often prescribe moderator neutrality, value openness, and silent majority respect. Empowerment scholars make another plea. They reject neutrality, they put structural change up and front even when participants are not asking for it and they demand minority ownership.

Let’s take a Community Virtual Power Plant (cVPP) as an example. VPP’s are ICT solutions that aggregate distributed energy sources as solar and batteries to form a virtual power station. Too often, the VPP’s are instruments of powerful companies to manage grid stabilization. Electricity owners are instrumentalised with an empowerment rhetoric. A system-change VSD can support so called community-based VPP’s that allow communities to actively manage and distribute self-generated energy. They can be driven by community needs and goals, such as the ambition to become energy independent by using self-generated renewable energy, strengthen local communities, create local jobs or other local issues. They will inevitably face structural resistance of powerful companies trying to maintain the current agreements of energy distribution and electricity net management and putting pressure to local politicians supporting these projects. cVPP’s will only defeat the counterforces with a revolutionary VSD. VSD can fundamentally change structures, but it therefore needs to carefully rethink its basic premises, not in the academic security, but in the heart of the societal power play.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 7 Sep 2019
EventInternational Conference "Technology and Society" - Hoger Instituut voor Wijsbegeerte, Leuven, Belgium
Duration: 9 Sep 201911 Sep 2019


ConferenceInternational Conference "Technology and Society"
Internet address


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