Message to utilities: your competition might not look like you

Sophie Hackford is clear that she doesn’t see her role as a futurist to be one where she makes predictions about the future. Instead, she tries to force people to think about how technology that exists today — but is in use in other industries — could soon impact their operations.

“The future of the utility industry won’t look like today’s utility industry,” she said in an interview. “It will look like something completely different. And the point is it’s very difficult when you are in that space to look at things that don’t look like you because your everyday is stuck in your everyday,” she added.

Hackford is a keynote speaker at the upcoming DISTRIBUTECH International, set to take place in San Antonio, Texas, U.S. at the end of the month.

Robotics, artificial intelligence, the private space industry (i.e. rocket ships and planets) are just some of topics that she likes to mine, she said, but she added that she keeps her talks on the cutting edge.

But to understand how she thinks, she offered the example of satellite imagery. Today, there are companies already exploring how utilities could use satellite data for vegetation management. Hackford said that the opening of satellite imagery to the general public happened very quickly and it now allows, for example, retailers to spy on each other.

“You can watch your competitors’ parking lots from space,” she said. “You can see how many people are driving in and out of McDonalds if you are, say, KFC,” she added.

“So these are all espionage tactics that you can now use because this earth observation data is incredibly real and again, not innovation that has happened in retail or that has happened in energy, that innovation is happening in space, and yet, that has tremendous impact on those two industries.”

She said she sees her role as one in which she points out innovation in other industries that “I think will have a tremendous impact on the [energy] industry that you don’t think you need to know about,” she said.

How does she do it? For one, she has clients from across many different sectors, so she is forced to stay on top of innovation in every single sector.

That’s quite a hefty proposition she acknowledged but said that it is her duty to make sure that she is as up to date as she can be on data or AI or robots or space or whatever the case may be.

“I don’t know what’s going to be interesting for that client, and in fact when I go and do a talk, often 10 people will come up afterwards and each say that a different part of the talk was very very important to them,” she said.

Don’t miss Sophie Hackford at this year’s DISTRIBUTECH International! Register for the event today.

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Jennifer Runyon is a Content Director at Clarion Energy, writing, editing and posting content on POWERGRID International and planning conference sessions for DISTRIBUTECH's live and virtual events. She as the conference advisory committee chair for DISTRIBUTECH International. You can reach her at

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