This update is shared in SEG’s autumn 2020 newsletter. Join our new mailing list to get the latest updates about our research and events on transitions to sustainable, low-carbon energy systems.
SONNET brings diverse groups together to make sense of how social innovation can bring about a more sustainable energy system in Europe. SONNET is supported by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme.
Six cities and six research institutions in Europe are using techniques – like ‘City Labs’, case studies, citizen surveys and more – to figure out how we can help make sure that social innovations accelerate the transition from the use of fossil fuels to a more sustainable energy system.
Publication.SONNET Energy Read #1: About the social dimension of energy transitions. SONNET aims to understand and show the diversity of social innovation in energy transitions, going ‘beyond only energy cooperatives’. In this Energy Read this diversity is portrayed in a typology and illustrated with examples, putting an emphasis on the six cities that are partners in the SONNET project. Ultimately, we see that energy transitions have inseparable social and technological dimensions to them.
Event. On Friday 2 October SONNET took part the solutions session “Social Innovation in Energy Transitions” at the 9th European Conference on Sustainable Cities & Towns: Mannheim2020. Notes from the event will be shared on the SONNET website.
Event.SONNET at the 18th European Week of Regions and Cities. SONNET is taking part in the Social Innovation for Energy Transitions – Participatory Lab at the European Week of Regions and Cities on 22 October 2020. The lab, co-organised by Energy Cities and ICLEI Europe, will offer a chance to discover new tools and processes for accelerating the energy transition, rooted in the experience of cities participating in three EU-funded projects (SONNET, TOMORROW and UrbanA). Please note registration is now full.
Event. Watch Mari in a Fuel Poverty and Climate Chang Panel Discussion from NEA’s Warm Homes Week, following a ministerial address by Rt Hon Kwasi Kwarteng MP, Minister of State for Business, Energy and Clean Growth. Mari and the other panel members discuss the huge opportunity to end fuel poverty created by the UK’s 2050 net-zero commitment, and how fairness and equity can be hardwired into policies – as well as the tensions, challenges and pitfalls of doing so, possible models and examples of where people are getting it right.
Event. In May 2020 Mari also took part in the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology Ministerial briefing session on retrofitting homes, with Energy Minister Kwasi Kwarteng (notes from the meeting are not yet public).
Consultation. In July 2020, Dr Max Lacey-Barnacle responded to the Wales Transport Strategy Scoping report, urging the Welsh Government to recognise transport poverty in their anticipated Wales Transport Strategy for the coming decade. Members of the FAIR project, alongside SEG members, also highlighted the need to recognise transport poverty in policy through responding to the UK governments ‘Decarbonising Transport’ policy paper consultation. The link to the full consultation response can be found here.
Event. Following the success of our November 2019 Innovation Forum on Energy Service Business Models, the Greater Brighton Energy Working Group is undertaking a series of innovation forums for the Greater Brighton region, which SPRU will lead. Starting in November 2020, the forums will bring regional actors together to learn and collaborate on the delivery of the Greater Brighton Energy Plan, ultimately contributing to the future energy security and sustainability of the region.
New projects. We’ve launched two new projects exploring the energy demand implications of technologies that Covid-19 has brought into the public eye: The Energy Impacts of 5G Technologies, and Teleworking and UK Energy Demand.
This blog explains how our researchers identified the characteristics of these powerful messages using tools from the analysis of rhetoric and folktales, and summarises some findings on the role these visions play in determining the shape of low carbon transition to come.
Talk of visions and fantasies may sound detached from reality at first glance. Yet these imaginative processes play a valuable role as descriptions of a possible future, offering a coherent narrative or even a performance that can be developed or contrasted with alternative perspectives. As the paper defines them, they are no less than capable of revealing “fundamental patterns of human reasoning, and how humans communicate their thinking to others, in a future oriented context”. Alongside this, they can map out a possibility space, provide a framework to understand the issues to be resolved, and produce powerful symbols that draw disparate groups into unified coalitions capable of focused action.
The many possible futures of freight trucking
One of the most vivid examples of the varied possibilities a single subject can generate is that of the uptake of a new innovation, automated mobility, and its application to the freight industry. The paper identifies seven distinct futures for the sector:
Effortless freight: The introduction of AI driving removes obstacles to maximum productivity, leading to quadrupled profits in a new world of computers replacing the antiquated human drivers at the (now metaphorical) wheel.
The educated trucker: Instead of widespread layoffs ejecting large numbers of unprepared truckers into a high-tech job market, truck driving is instead reimagined as a “highly skilled position akin to a ship’s captain or an airplane’s pilot” with opportunities to upskill.
Entrenched automobility: Noting the incremental nature of any automated driving revolution, this vision frames now commonplace features like lane assist, cruise control and automated braking as continuous developments towards a more normalised automated vehicle future.
Transformers: This vision emphasises the radical departure from the present a high-tech future represents. This vision heralds an imminent, pop culture infused future with breathlessly excited slogans like “science has well and truly caught up with fiction” “more Optimus Prime than human”, “R2D2-like”, and resembling “a scene from Blade Runner”
A perilous distraction: Does focusing on flashy technological advancements over uncertain timeframes draw attention away from issues we could solve now? This vision brings us back to the present, arguing many freight industry issues can be resolved through the mundane methods of improved pay and respect for workers.
Infrastructural overhaul: It is possible to take a broader approach, as this narrative does by acknowledging that the development of an automated vehicle is just one advance necessary before their widespread introduction to everyday life. Widespread infrastructural and legislative changes are needed before the road system is ready for the advent of automated freight fleets.
Mass unemployment: This bleak vision imagines a world where driverless freighting causes mass layoffs for truckers and related workers with the associated drop in social status, one participant fearing “the long-haul driver becomes more akin to cartoon buffoon Homer Simpson”.
These visions illustrate the dizzying number of possible futures that could lie ahead for a single industry. Truck drivers can be variously imagined here as elevated professionals, discarded entirely, ignored in favour of robotic novelties, or beneficiaries of incremental improvements in an otherwise not dissimilar industry.
Beyond the rhetorical tug of war over the nature of employment, vehicles and road infrastructure, this example can also illustrate the other factors at play. These differing narratives can be plotted at various points on a graph by their temporality, defining the range of timeframes these developments are anticipated to happen over, and by their radicalism, which determines to what extent they differ from the world as seen today.
Utopia or dystopia?
The form these future visions take can be seen as expressing ideographs (developed by rhetorical scholar Michael Calvin McGee) which place them on a spectrum between utopian and dystopian. Utopian visions, which present a positive picture of the future, have so far received more attention from academics than their dystopian counterparts – understandably so considering dystopias feature many undesirable themes such as oppression, injustice and disenfranchisement. But the dominance of these positive visions, showing the comforting triumph of a technology-enabled future that effortlessly maintains our expectations for abundant energy, consumer lifestyles and ever-growing economies contains its own risks of indulging in optimistic dreams. These effects can be seen in several of the technology-focused visions of the future of trucking, and the paper outlines this dynamic:
“The utopian elements of technological fantasies have therefore led proponents and sponsors to exaggerate potential benefits and downplay risks of many different technologies (Corn, 1986; Sturken et al., 2004). Marvin (1988) warns that technological utopianism can also promote a ‘cognitive imperialism’ where social and political relations become reduced and technologically determined. Hornsey and Fielding (2016) analyzed reactions to different messages addressing global warming and found that optimistic or utopian messages reduce the sense of risk from global warming, and its associated distress, and are less successful in motivating action than pessimistic messages.”
Heroes and villains
In order to understand the archetypal structures embedded in the narratives the researchers identified through their case studies, they turned to Russian scholar Vladimir Propp and his structural analysis of folktales. Given the brevity and technical reliance of these low carbon narratives, not all aspects of his framework apply – Cinderella has no need for EVs with the help of fairy godmothers and woodland animals. But despite the differences, the authors found two significant ways their visions conform to Propp’s findings.
Visions almost universally contained the core antagonistic tensions found in most stories. “They almost always have the presence of good versus evil in the form of heroes (kings, soldiers, unmarried bachelors, and eagles for Propp) pitted against villains (a dragon, a devil, bandits, a witch, or a stepmother for Propp).”
Another common theme was the degree of agency: the active and passive manner the actors in these stories engage with their narrative. The climate, non-human species, society and consumer groups can all be characterised, rightly or wrongly, as passive agents responding to more active agents including fossil fuel conglomerates, dictators and smart-grind hackers. And of course, actors are not fixed in either category, or even remain discrete actors, always at risk of conflation with others. One institute can be a laudable champion in one narrative, and a despised enemy in another; EV narratives can see consumers as a solution to a problem, or place them as the problem itself to be solved.
The case studies found “‘robots’ repeatedly mentioned in visions of automated automobility, ‘Big Brother’ and ‘spies’ mentioned frequently in smart meter visions, and shale gas constantly heralded as a ‘bridge’”. The recurrent themes and characters in these narratives are valuable indications of cues, providing a “cognitive convergence” to groups by invoking a range of shared meanings.
Can stories form solutions?
Ideographs may be persuasive, the “provocative force of fantasy” having many beneficial applications, but that is not to say that either themselves or the decisions they influence are necessarily rational. Powerful actors can draw on these visions’ energising power to cloud judgement and focus on a spectacular distant future, ignoring the unglamorous options available today, as we saw in the freight industry example’s relatively light emphasis on improving current working conditions. The motives of powerful actors drawing on these techniques deserve some degree of scrutiny.
These actors’ habits of rotating across multiple axes make for a complex dynamic to analyse. However, the shifting roles of these actors (across utopia/dystopia, good/bad, passive/active, proximal/distant and incremental/transformative) can actually provide a rhetorical strength, allowing a narrative’s message to connect with diverse groups: “They need to be broad enough to enrol actors but vague enough to withstand criticism.” And beyond their valuable ability to muster support through shared meanings, these visions present solutions to contemporary issues, “possessing a [more] functional utility than merely a symbolic one”.
Coalitions formed around these broad visions can create a motivating dynamic of “promise and requirement”, developing from a shared agenda to a firm mandate, a dynamic explained by Borup et al as “the freedom to explore and develop combined with a societal obligation to deliver in the end(2006: 290)”. These visions have a role to play in determining what decisions are to be made for a variety of industries, but it is deeply important to understand their influences and vulnerability to co-option by interest groups, while making use of the sense of hope, purpose and direction they offer.
This post was contributed by Delft University of Technology to mark the launch of LANDMARC.
What is the realistic potential for agriculture, forestry, and other land use sectors to enhance the uptake of CO2 from the atmosphere? This question will be answered by the LANDMARC research project, which officially started on the 1st of July. Funded by the European Commission, the nineteen LANDMARC consortium partners will spend the next four years (2020-2024) working to:
Estimate the climate impact of land-based negative emission solutions, for example in agriculture, forestry, and other land-use sectors
Assess the potential for regional and global upscaling of negative emission solutions
Map their potential environmental, economic, and social co-benefits and trade-offs
Land-based negative emission solutions are expected to play a pivotal role in future climate actions and policy scenarios. To date most climate actions have focussed on phasing out fossil fuels and reducing greenhouse gas emissions in, for example, industry, electricity, and transport. While zero emission trajectories in these sectors will remain a priority for decades to come, it is expected that some residual GHG emissions will remain. To be able to fulfil the Paris Agreement and meet the world’s climate goals research, policy and markets are increasingly looking at land-based negative emission solutions.
The LANDMARC project will enhance understanding in the area by providing better estimates of the realistic potential of land-based negative emission solutions in agriculture, forestry, and other land use sectors.
The research activities will deploy:
A mix of earth observation technologies, to be able to (better) monitor and estimate the effectiveness of land-based negative emission solutions
A suite of climate, land-use, and economic simulation models, to better estimate the true (scaling) potential of land-based negative emission solutions, both from an earth systems and human systems perspective
A social sciences-based approach for effective impact assessment and engagement with local and regional stakeholders – across 14 countries and 5 continents – that are already work on implementing negative emission solutions.
LANDMARC collaborations with science and society
The LANDMARC project is actively seeking collaboration with fellow research projects operating in our study countries and regions (see map). Collaborations can include:
Exchanging / sharing earth observations data and information (e.g. satellite, remote sensing, in-situ)
Climate change and land-use scenario development and modelling
Assessing climate resilience and climate sensitivity of negative emission solutions
Assessing generic and context-specific co-benefits and trade-offs of land-based mitigation solutions (environmental, societal, economic)
Engaging with local and regional societal actors such as NGOs, local governments, forestry/agriculture cooperatives (i.e. co-hosting events)
We encourage researchers to contact us to introduce themselves, their activity/project and express their area(s) of interest for possible collaboration with the LANDMARC team.