Sometimes innovation is discovered in hindsight.

I think the best story to illustrate this point is the history of aluminum. The original techniques to refine it were so very expensive that aluminum was a major player in the jewelry market of the 1800s—right up there with gold and silver. It was hard to get, and its use was reflective of that uphill trudge.

Then two fellows—one American and one French—hit upon new and cheaper ways to refine aluminum. As aluminum got cheaper (and lighter), it became much more affordable. And, when the need for cheaper and lighter intersected a World War (the first) and air power, we found that leap-ahead moment in aluminum as it jumped from element to invention to innovation.

Not even the fellows that made aluminum cheaper could have foreseen how it would impact air travel.

Even electricity itself has gone down this road. It started out as a natural phenomenon that people like our own Ben Franklin studied to death. When it was harnessed, some honestly wondered why you needed to go to the expense of wiring homes and businesses just for lightbulbs—which were super expensive, of course—when gas lamps do the same work easier.

Not even Edison and Tesla could have predicted how electricity has made our world more interconnected.

As we look forward with the utility industry overall, we have to understand that sometimes planning for innovation doesn’t cover all the innovation that’s to come. So, it’s important to move ahead two-fold: first, laying a foundation for leaps ahead we know we can do and, second, allowing those leaps flexibility and elbow room for new innovations we don’t know anything about just yet.

We call this the dual foundation for innovation, and it was the center of a report we recently did with Navigant. You can read the details on how utilities are putting dual innovation into action in the report here.

But today we want to dream about those new undiscovered innovations that may come from today’s foundation laying. While we know that we can’t predict the future, can we figure out what areas may change the most—even if we can’t fully know the end result? Let’s try.

We have two big candidates that come to mind that may be the most changed when today becomes hindsight and innovation becomes history:

1.) Demand management and energy efficiency: It’s a broad category, yes. It encompasses a lot of territory. So, let’s dive down further. We expect innovation in this arena to explode on the personalization front—getting customer information front and center to utility customers and insights into not just what those customers are doing but what they can do, what they should do and what ways their utility can help make those goals happen. (That last one, especially, is ripe for exciting and unexpected hindsight.)

 To get some solid details on the foundation possibilities that utilities are focused on today, check out the webinar we recently did with MEAA, Columbia Gas of Ohio and ComEd. You can get the full replay here. (Two notes: 1.You do have to sign up, but it’s free and the replay starts immediately. 2.There was a sound tech problem at the beginning. Speed ahead to about 4 minutes in.)

2. Real-time data insights and actions: Whether on the customer side or the operations side of your utility, all this data has got us thinking longer and harder about possibilities. And while we may have started with the possibilities of facts and stats, we’re thinking less about terabytes these days and more about timing. What could that mean for the future of the grid and the future of the customer? What if we could know about outages, problems and power quality issues instantly and fix some of them nearly as fast by sending a set of AI-programmed, self-healing nanobots right down the line (nanobots potentially powered by the line itself)? What if customers could “order” audits of not just their overall energy but by appliance by, say, asking their smart home device for one, and you could supply that immediately (with data history and analysis included) and even have a customer service chatbot follow up through the same device? We can see the start of this world today in sensors and cloud use. But what excitement will it bring tomorrow?

To figure out the first steps to a cloud path and the journey to an AI-filled, nearly-instant world, read through our latest blog on the cloud here.

So, we started out this hindsight-on-innovation conversation talking about the after-the-fact leaps and bounds of aluminum and electricity. In the end—at this end—we’d predict that most of you have seen the foreshadowing: that aluminum and its innovations and electricity and those innovations have come together, as the benefits of aluminum now make it a popular replacement for copper in electric wiring.

You think Charles Martin Hall (the American engineer that helped figure our large-scale production with aluminum) or Paul Heroult (the French engineer who figured out the same) or Edison or Tesla saw that particular dovetail coming?

Probably not, though, the smartest innovations always do seem to come together in the end.