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Designing Smart Grids with People in Mind

Doctoral candidate Ehsan Sabaghian is a big-picture thinker and passionate advocate of collaboration. He knows that when people bring diverse perspectives to work toward a common goal, they solve real-world problems.

Ehsan Sabaghian poses in a hallway

When Ehsan Sabaghian G’20 explains the complexity of the electric grid, he emphasizes an aspect that particularly fascinates him: the social side. “Society and technology shape one another. Technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum—it’s always embedded in culture. How it is adopted, used and developed depends on how it’s perceived,” he says.

Sabaghian, a doctoral candidate in Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies (iSchool), focuses on helping organizations and communities integrate information technologies into the electric system for a more efficient, reliable and resilient energy grid. Some of Sabaghian’s work aims to help electric utility companies adapt the massive grid infrastructure—which evolved over more than 100 years of piecemeal expansion and change—to new circumstances posed by emerging distributed energy resources like rooftop solar panels or “smart” thermostats. Other research explores social and cultural issues surrounding energy use.

Finding an Intellectual Home

Sabaghian’s interests in technology and its role in society stem from childhood. He was born and raised in Tehran, Iran, and his mother, a schoolteacher, encouraged his intellectual curiosity—even providing him one of the earliest models of computer available for general use, the famous Commodore 64. Growing up, Sabaghian read copiously, preferring books on history and social movements that changed the course of nations and cultures. It was in Iran that Sabaghian first encountered writings by iSchool professor Steve Sawyer and was introduced to theories that describe the interrelatedness of technical and social systems.

Soon after earning a bachelor’s degree and his first master’s in information systems in Tehran, Sabaghian began researching graduate programs in the United States. Syracuse University stood out from the beginning. “Syracuse has the original iSchool—the first of its kind established in the country. It is the most well-developed and broad program,” he says. But what really impressed him was the welcoming culture, which he sensed on his visit to campus. “I felt it immediately. Everyone was so warm and open,” he says. “I knew I was among friends, and I knew this is where I wanted to be.”

At Syracuse University, Sabaghian contributed to projects in the iSchool’s Smart Grid Research Center, where researchers from across the University engage in multidisciplinary study of the modernization of the electric grid. For a National Science Foundation-funded project led by Professor Jason Dedrick, Sabaghian worked with a team to develop a model for collaborative energy generation and use for a community in Texas. The goal was to help households shift their energy use to more renewable sources. The challenge, Sabaghian explains, is that “for people to see results in the form of savings on their bill or meaningful environmental impact, they have to work collectively. Behavioral changes in electricity use must happen at community scale.” The model Sabaghian and his team developed pools the savings from individual households, creating a fund available for projects of communitywide benefit. In part, the model tests whether collectively generated rewards, and systems designed in collaboration with the communities they intend to serve, might inspire increased use of power-saving technologies.

The electric grid is going through unprecedented change, Sabaghian says. It powers every aspect of modern life every single second, and in an era of finite resources, we are inevitably moving to more efficient processes and sustainable power sources. The technologies for these transitions have outpaced integration. “It’s exciting to be doing work that’s so relevant and important right now,” he says. “We will be a part of this change over the next couple of decades.”

Fostering Global Connectivity

Ehsan Sabaghian works at a computer
In the Smart Grid Research Center, Sabaghian collaborates with experts across diverse academic fields on issues related to integrating smart technology into the electric grid.

One of the most valuable aspects of the Smart Grid Research Center, Sabaghian says, is the collaboration among colleagues from many of the University’s schools and colleges, including Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, the School of Architecture, the College of Engineering and Computer Science and the College of Law. “Working with other people—especially when they approach the subject from a very different angle—helps you discover so much that you wouldn’t see if you were just looking from your own perspective. It grounds work in reality, which makes projects more likely to succeed.”

This is a value he tries to impress upon his students in the courses he teaches. In one course he developed, Globalization: Collaboration, Culture, Systems and Data (based on a course taught by Professor Carsten Østerlund), students work on a joint research project with peers in a university in Copenhagen, Denmark. In the process, they learn to navigate challenges of different cultures, time zones and technologies. “‘This is real life!’ I tell them,” he says. “Almost every job in every industry is going to involve working with people remotely, and often with people from other cultures. My hope is to give them hands-on experience of how global collaboration really works.”

Another of Sabaghian’s principle values was inspired by iSchool Professor Murali Venkatesh. “I learned to ask not just ‘What does this technology do?’ but also ‘What is the good of it?’ Does it contribute to the public good? Is it just? Is it fair? We have to think not just about what we can do, but also consider if we should.” Sabaghian encourages his students to study broadly and learn about a wide range of topics so they can think critically about the ethical impact of technology from diverse perspectives.

A love of learning has served Sabaghian well in his journey pursuing a Ph.D. “You question yourself many times,” he says, “and it can be quite isolating, working very hard on a very narrow thing.” In difficult times, an appreciation of the process sustained him. “In academia, you’re never done—you can always make what you’re working on a little better,” he says. “I learned to enjoy the success of incremental improvement. Each of us is only a small piece in an enormous puzzle. If I do my part, and others do theirs, all the pieces will add up and hopefully we’ll make a better world for future generations.”

Supported by a Welcoming Community

International politics have prohibited Sabaghian from returning to Iran to see his parents and siblings for nine years, but he found a warm and supportive community in his colleagues and peers in the iSchool. “Syracuse University became home and in the iSchool I found family,” he says.

That sense of family is at the heart of Sabaghian’s love of Syracuse University. It was here he met his wife, Shirin Jouzdani, while she was a doctoral student in the College of Engineering and Computer Science, but the Orange bond extends more broadly, too. “For me, being Orange means being part of a global family. We share an experience that shapes our lives, and we honor common values of excellence, innovation, integrity, diversity and, finally, being a global citizen—being someone who cares for our planet and for others.”

Sarah H. Griffin

This story was published on .


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