As a systems engineer, scientist and entrepreneur who describes himself as a deep introvert, Dr Graham Oakes FBCS, FRSA has a deep passion and fascination for working through complex problems. He really enjoys it – he says he finds it exciting. I wonder if you can pick that up from the way he talks? His voice is gentle, his choice of words is careful and his energy is constant. If you’re an extrovert, you might need to slow yourself down to match his pace of expression. And perhaps it’s his capacity for listening that tunes him into what people say and drives him to create space and time for them to get their thoughts out on the table.
Graham helps people think about challenging situations in ways that draw out the opportunities and possibilities – most recently in the energy sector. He was the founder and chief scientist at Upside Energy – a company built in response to a challenge prize run by Nesta, a global innovation foundation, in 2013. Upside has built a cloud service that uses algorithms and AI to coordinate large numbers of devices like home batteries, electric vehicles, heat pumps and back-up power supplies. The aim is to make it easier to get energy onto the grid and thereby increase the use of renewable energy.
In conversations with Graham you start to understand just how chaotic and complex the energy sector is but he’s optimistic about the opportunities new technology presents to us. As well as traditional energy users and providers, there are new stakeholders joining the grid which includes local community groups and prosumers – people who both consume and produce products, basically owners of smart energy systems like solar PV arrays, home batteries, electric vehicles, and so on. The best solutions aren’t always clear. In fact, often he finds his clients overwhelmed by the web of options.
Graham uses his conversation style – listening, slowing down, and enquiry, to help them first understand the problem they have, and second, make choices and decisions about the best way forward. And the best way forward typically involves working out how to decarbonise the energy source in response to climate change, how to make access to energy easier and fairer, and how to take advantage of digital technologies.
Given the complexity of the energy system, Graham’s work means he’s conversing with a huge range of people – government and policy makers, regulators, energy generation and supply companies, technology developers, network operators, local authorities, and property developers and facilities managers, as well as citizens like you and me, consumers, community energy groups, academics, data scientists, mathematicians, engineers, software developers, economists, financiers, and designers.
He says that a key part of what he’s trying to do is to help society develop an energy system that works better for all these people – cleaner, more equitable, cost effective, and reliable for today’s generations and generations of the future.
Graham has taken his deep knowledge and experience of the energy sector to help his clients across the UK and Europe do just that.
We talked about what makes him successful in helping clients navigate their landscapes, what a good, joyful conversation looks like, what type of dynamic he rates as counterproductive and counter-collaborative, what has shaped his thinking about conversations, and he shares a delightful story about communicating across language and cultural barriers that perhaps you can relate to if your work takes you around the world.
To learn more about Graham, check him out on LinkedIn.
Better Conversations, with me Sehaam Cyrene, is where my guests open up with disarming honesty about what’s important to them about conversations, what’s hard, what frustrates them about poor conversations, their own worst habits as well as their best conversation skills, and what they wish more of for all of us.
Each of my guests is an expert in their field and brings a passion to what they do with their time on this earth. It’s a complete honour to learn what’s important to my guests and an indulgence for me to dive deep into what makes for a better conversation.