Presenting a poster at ERSS 2022

It has not been the first time I presented a poster at a conference, though it has been the first time I presented a poster I have created myself. I find the creation of posters difficult. Maybe this is because of lack of experience. Presentations provide much more room for expression than a one-pager. Similar to creating good presentation slides, there are laws on how to make a good poster. Since the purpose of a poster is different compared to slides, the creation of a poster needs to be approached differently.

Maybe it is a presumptuous comparison, but I compare a poster session to an exhibition in an art gallery. You walk through it having shorter glimpses at the art, but every now and then there is a piece of art that captures you, you get stuck there, look at it closely, and engage with it. When creating a poster, you have to aim for that piece of art that makes people stop. People get attracted by different things, so you will not be able to attract everyone’s attention. Color, font, text, structure, illustrations, all flow together in a masterpiece. Many thoughts are related to each of the components. Furthermore, it is not always easy to have good illustrations to describe one’s work and it is not always easy to limit the text to the most important information. Given all of this, I am not a fan of creating a poster.

Having said that, I have to state that my experience in creating the poster was good. It helped me to put my ideas into graphics, which was anyway necessary for the project I am working on. The development of illustrations has indeed been a struggle and I think without the pressure to present a poster I would not have progressed. Elsewhere I have described the whole process of creating this poster.

Poster sessions are awkward.

Get back to the art gallery example. Imagine next to each piece of art, the artist would be present to provide more information about the creation. As a side note, I have pursued an artistic career for a bit, and I think artists despise questions about the meaning of their creation. Anyhow asking an artist for additional information might not be that strange. Though imagine the poor artist who hardly gets approached, compared to those who attract the attention of the crowds. It is a bit humiliating… luckily my poster attracted some attention. More attention would have not been good anyway, because when one wanted to explain the poster one had to talk so loudly due to the noise level in the room. I was happy when it was over.

I was also not happy about the distribution of posters in the room. Too many posters on too little space. This had the effect that people were constantly blocking the view on other posters (if you have ever been say, in the Uffizi trying to see The Birth of Venus, you know what I mean) and that the “corridor” between the posters were hard to pass. I am troubled by crowds, so I do not voluntarily go through a corridor congested with people. Thus, even if there would have been an interesting poster, I would not approach the creator due to the deterring circumstances. Hence, I think this could have been organized a bit better.

The poster session was still useful to me.

Apart from it forcing me to create illustrations that describe my ideas, I also got feedback that made me think. I was asked a specific question about my transition concept, and I could not answer it. I brushed the question off, stating that the illustrations are not meant to show this particular thing. The question remained in the back of my head. The following day, I read a paper I had already read some time ago. Out of a sudden, I had a response to the question. I could make the first ugly sketches and some notes to not forget my thoughts. Hence, the poster session did exactly what it was supposed to do (I guess). I find this fascinating. If I would have forced to find a solution, I probably would not have found one. But just letting it be there in the back of my head, the solution came naturally. I am looking forward to making nicer illustrations asap.

Inspiring posters from other researchers.

There have been quite creative posters, which I appreciated a lot. My favorite one is still the interactive one. The creators hid parts of the text, so that people had to think themselves to provide an answer to a posed question. After guessing the text could be revealed. Another one which was maybe a bit too full still used a nice means to guide the reader; a thread. Others used funny storylines combined with a catchy layout, others used funny images to catch attention, and others again convinced with beautiful simplicity. Two posters specifically were relevant to my research or research conducted by master’s students I supervise. Talking to the presenters was insightful in this regard. For example, on poster revealed the use of Theory U for interdisciplinary research, which I found very intriguing.

To conclude my poster experience.

Although it was a good means of forcing me to be concise and provide good illustrations and although I got feedback that helped me to further develop my concept, I am not sure if I would go for a poster soon again. I find the position one is put in as a presenter just too awkward. I prefer the 10-20 minutes (of shame in case the presentation is bad) to standing over an hour next to a poster like a saleswoman, screaming over the voices of others and struggling with an overcrowded room.

Coping with new values in the energy transition

Technologies and values

Ethicists tend to view values as enduring or long-lasting beliefs about what is good or desirable. Examples of values are sustainability, affordability, and fairness. Technologies are considered to be value-laden; they shape the actions and decisions of people and can therefore never be truly dissociated from the values that they infringe or help to realize. Approaches such as Value-Sensitive Design help evaluate the impact of technologies on values. Technological designs can be adjusted, or new technologies can be invented to ensure better consideration of values. This is the basis of technological innovation; the smart meter was introduced to decrease the tension between supply security (i.e., maintaining the electricity grid’s reliability) and sustainability (i.e., increasing the share of intermitted renewables).

New values in the energy transition

Ideally, we would want to design technologies that consider all relevant values from the start. However, this is more the exception than the rule. Next to the fact that the realization of some values might be in conflict (sustainable products often tend to be less affordable), we often only discover the true impact of technologies after they are deployed in society. Case and point are justice and fairness issues caused by energy transition technologies and policies. The yellow vest movement in France emerged as a result of new green taxes imposed by the government. The burden of increased fuel prices is heavier for the working classes and households living in rural areas. Similarly, the deployment of electric cars could reduce the number of gas stations, making refueling more difficult for households that do not have the means to purchase EVs.

How new values are picked up in science

Science has a crucial role in picking up new values and translating them into new, improved technologies. At the Energy Transition Lab and the ERC project ‘Design for Value Change,’ we are developing a text-mining tool entitled ValueMonitor that helps trace values in text corpora. We have created a dataset consisting of energy transition-related research in a number of scientific fields, including philosophy of sustainability, environmental biology, and environmental economics. Next, we have explored how frequently the values economic viability and justice & fairness have been named in the different scientific fields over time.

Figure 1 shows the frequency of economic viability and justice & fairness in the entire dataset. The figure shows that, while economic viability is a value considered since the beginning of energy transition-related research, justice & fairness seem to be a value that was only discussed later in time. The fact that economic viability is mentioned much more frequently also raises questions about the adequate prioritization of both values in research.

Figure 1: Value change in energy transition-related literature.

Focusing on specific fields can help understand how new values are picked-up in science. Figure 2 to 4 show values change in three distinct fields: philosophy of technology, environmental biology, and environmental economics. In philosophy of technology, economic viability and justice & fairness appear at the same moment in time in this literature, already in the 1990’s. In environmental biology, both values seem to have integrated the field over time, although discussions about justice & fairness are still fairly new. Justice & fairness issues seem to be still relatively absent from the environmental economics literature, although there has been a slight increase starting from 2020.

Observations of value change in the three fields seem to suggest a certain temporal order in the way ethical issues are addressed in the different fields. Philosophy and ethics of technology research have a essential role in discovering new ethical issues caused by technologies. A substantial number of articles in this dataset are indeed about tensions economics and fairness aspects of the energy transition. Moral concerns are then progressively integrated into other fields, who potentially provide new regulatory and technical solutions to these concerns. This perceived temporal order however has to be somehow nuanced. Some justice and fairness issues already seem to have been discussed in environmental economics before they were addressed in journals of philosophy of sustainability. On the other side, philosophy of sustainability journals are also more recent.

The need for interdisciplinary research to timely address new values

A concept central to the Energy Transition Lab is the one of interdisciplinary research. While multidisciplinary research limits itself to collaboration between scientific fields, interdisciplinary research goes a step beyond by trying to integrate knowledge and methods from different disciplines. Clearly, anticipating all values relevant to new technologies seem utopic. Therefore, it is crucial that science responds to unforeseen societal challenges in a timely manner, some fields uncovering new moral problems, others providing technological and regulatory solutions. Similarly, there is also a need for tools that can help us evaluate and support the scientific community’s response to these new challenges. A prototype and more information about the ValueMonitor tool used to perform this analysis can be found on the following website: http://valuemonitor.eu/

Hosting conference sessions

I arrived at this beautiful hotel close to the center of Graz. It has been a while since I attended a conference offline. Not being the most outgoing person, conferences are always quite thrilling to me. Nevertheless, I love to travel, to hold a talk, to meet other people. I got my badge, went straight to the coffee machine, and joined a gentleman at one of the high tables in the lobby. The first offline talk with a stranger at a conference. The usual small talk. The gentleman was an experienced STS Graz conference attendee. He stated that he is always organizing a session which gives him a good reason to come to the conference. This time the same was true for me.

It was the first time I organized a session. When I submitted the session call, I was 1) not sure if it would be accepted, and 2) if I would get any submissions. Luckily both worked out. I am a researcher and thus a curious person. I like to learn from others and see what is going on in the field that I am working in. Thus, organizing a session seemed to be a logical step. For my current work, I attempt to investigate the relationship between human behavior and the energy transition. Both topics are vast. Anyone who works in these two fields knows. For example, on the human behavior side, one may either look at behavior from a strictly psychological perspective leaving out the context, or one may focus more on contextual factors affecting human behavior. Both are not sufficient. I am a systems thinker, and thus I know that the decision of what to include in an analysis is key. It is impossible to include everything. Pertaining to the context one may wonder how the individual is connected to other stakeholders and to existing structures. Understanding the individuum within this contextual field, one may then further wonder if individuals are only subject to the energy transition or if they are initiators of the energy transition. These are the questions I wanted to be discussed in the conference session.

I was quite surprised seeing how many submissions I got. It is hard to judge quality by an abstract, so one has to go by the potential the abstract promises. All submissions were interesting and focused on particular aspects of the above-outlined questions. The first step required from my side was to read the extended abstracts and give feedback. A quite time-consuming process. However, I hope I provided useful feedback to the authors. The next step was to accept or reject. Due to the amount of the abstracts, I first clustered them into sub-themes. I thought I either have a completely mixed session or I have a session focusing on a sub-theme. I went for the latter as this would also help me reject or accept contributions. The rejections were thus not based on a contribution being good or bad (since that is hard to judge by an abstract), rather the decision was based on the session fit. I communicated with the conference organizers on how to proceed since I got three sub-theme clusters and still some that would not fit in any of the sub-themes. I suggested that I was willing to host three sessions if there is enough time and space during the conference. I tried to suggest alternative sessions for the abstracts that I had to reject right away.

At some point, I got the ok for three sessions á 90 minutes. I have to admit, although it was quite time-consuming, I loved it. It brought me back to my time as PhD when I did a lot of project management. I had my excel-lists and my to-do list, and I enjoyed working through them. I assume I was an annoying session host sending out reminders to the researchers to send me the info I needed for the smooth operation of the sessions. I knew who was attending online or offline, who presented, I had their presentations ready, and I knew how much time they had to present and to answer questions (obviously).

Hosting the sessions was a multi-tasking job. Making sure that everything is in place (together with the technical staff), having my excel list, keeping time, being impolite and reminding presenters that time was running up, writing down notes to have questions ready in case the audience was too stunned to ask questions, then switching to the next presentation, handling at least two microphones, the online and the offline situation at the same time,… Afterwards, I understood why most sessions were hosted by two people.

I hope that apart from some technical problems in the beginning the researchers enjoyed being part of my sessions. I am sure there are things I could have improved and done better, but for the first time hosting conference sessions it was a success. I was also happy to see that at least two of the contributions that I had to reject found another session. I was truly happy to see this, as their contributions were good, and it would have been a pity if they would not have gotten the space to present.

For the rest, I tried to interact as much as possible, reply to e-mails and send out e-mails to those who have not yet sent me their PowerPoint, prepare for the next session, work on a new exciting project, attend sessions, have a lot of coffee, get some ice cream and visit the local boulder gym.

These three days were jam-packed, but I would not want to miss a bit of it.   

Why do scientists fear media interviews but do it anyway?

One of the goals of our TPM Energy Transition Lab is to promote open science. Open science is the movement to make scientific research and its dissemination more transparent and accessible to all levels of society. Our lab is part of this movement because we feel obliged to share our insights with taxpayers that indirectly fund our research. We perform open science in numerous ways. We write blogs (as I am doing right now), give presentations, masterclasses and guest lectures, and even make vlogs. Furthermore, we offer media interviews in different forms: TV or radio shows, newspaper and magazine articles, and podcasts. And let me share with you some news: giving media interviews is outside the comfort zone of many scientists!

Dutch journalist Winfried Baijens interviews Gerdien de Vries at the opening of the 24/7 Energy Lab at the Green Valley (TU Delft) 14.01.2022.

Why are many scientists not very fond of media interviews? Because it comes with a couple of fears. It is often said that scientists need to be five-legged sheep. We need to be excellent researchers, writers, teachers, collaborators, and networkers, but we also need to be good at public speaking. In general, we have learnt to deal with the fear of speaking for a large audience. We practice with that a lot, and it becomes easier when you master your research topic over time.

Speaking to journalists is somewhat different. Other anxieties rear their ugly head. The worries scientists feel when being interviewed are numerous. We feel out of control, are afraid nuances get lost in translation, get imposter syndrome, and fear that others find us narcissists that love self-promotion. Finally, we are scared to become memes on the Internet because we are having a piece of spinach between our teeth, tripping over our own feet, or saying something stupid by accident…. Well, those are my anxieties. There might be many more!

These fears are valid. Integrity and reliability are fundamental to scientists, and we want to safeguard that. But does that imply that our fears should hold us back? I do not think so. I have been giving – and still give – interviews regularly despite my anxieties. I find open science necessary and have the mission to inform the world that psychology is essential for a successful and fair energy transition. Even when fears become reality, I plan to continue.

Actually, I have had bad experiences. I got nasty remarks on the Internet, my credibility (and earrings) were questioned, nuances got lost, and I am sure some scholars find me vain and overexposed. But those bad experiences do not outweigh the benefits of societal visibility. The public promotion of my scientific field, the Energy Transition Lab, our research, and my university are paying off. Being visible has both scientific and societal impact, leading to better research, technologies, and policies that help achieve a fair and successful energy transition. And when journalists do not quote me well, or I think nuances are lost? I share a blog or vlog on social media to give additional background information.

Having said this, I realize that it helps to have a supportive communication team. Our university takes much effort into media training, and communication officers guide and coach scientists that gain public visibility. Furthermore, these officers take measures if we feel attacked after media appearances. This strategy is entirely in line with our university’s value of open science!

What do people think of flying ‘wind turbines’?

Airborne wind energy is an emerging renewable energy technology that harvests higher-altitude winds (300–600 m above the ground) with automatically controlled kites. Like other renewables, airborne wind energy will impact people and nature. These impacts will shape the social acceptance of the technology and influence its large-scale deployment.

If the industry ignores people’s concerns about the technology and the public starts showing resistance to airborne wind energy, it could increase implementation costs, decrease political support for airborne wind energy, and minimize the industry’s contribution to meeting renewable energy targets. Other low-carbon energy projects, such as wind turbines, carbon capture and storage facilities, and biomass power plants, have been slowed down and even hindered in the past due to strong negative responses from the public. Therefore, it is important to understand how people perceive and respond to this new technology. In my PhD, I am investigating the social acceptance of airborne wind energy.

Before conducting empirical studies, I first wanted to get an overview of what is currently known about the acceptance of airborne wind energy, so I did a systematic review of the existing literature. Of the 362 records that I identified, only 40 peer-reviewed publications turned out to be relevant. These publications discussed five major impacts of the technology on social acceptance: safety and related aspects, visibility, sound emissions, ecological impact, and the siting of airborne wind energy systems.

Most publications were authored by engineers (83% of authors), and none of the papers were written from a social science perspective. In total, 34 out of the 40 publications had mainly a technical and/or economic focus and mentioned the social acceptance of airborne wind energy only in passing. As a result, the literature’s claims about how the technology will influence people’s responses were only based on authors’ assumptions and not on scientific evidence, such as interviews, surveys, or experiments. I could not identify a single study that empirically assessed the social acceptance of airborne wind energy.

Furthermore, the review demonstrated that most researchers in the field seem to be quite optimistic about how the emerging technology will be perceived, especially given the current lack of empirical evidence. Specifically, the reviewed literature assumed that the expected low visual impact of airborne wind energy due to its high operational altitude, the absence of a tower, little shadow flicker, and the possibility of retrieving the kite in low wind conditions would influence the social acceptance of airborne wind energy positively. The expected low acoustic and ecological impacts were also assumed to impact people’s responses to the technology positively. The only anticipated acceptance issues were certain siting decisions (e.g., onshore rather than offshore developments, sites in densely populated regions) and potential public safety concerns about the technology (e.g., regarding aviation safety, currently lacking regulation and proof of reliability).

It can be concluded that currently the literature overlooks that the impact of technical aspects such as noise emissions on people’s responses to airborne wind energy will partially depend on the deployment context and people’s personal attributes. For example, locals’ evaluation of the decision-making process and distribution of benefits as (un)fair, their trust in the project planners, and their attitude towards the energy transition overall will likely influence how they experience and evaluate a local airborne wind energy development.

Thus, the findings from the literature review suggest that there is a need for empirical social science research on the acceptance of airborne wind energy, such as through surveys, interviews, focus groups, and lab or field experiments. My PhD project can, therefore, add new and relevant knowledge about the topic at hand.

If you are interested in reading the entire literature review, you can find it open access under https://www.mdpi.com/1996-1073/15/4/1384. For updates about my ongoing research you can follow me on ResearchGate: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Helena-Schmidt-3.

SkySails’ airborne wind energy system (courtesy of the SkySails Group).

The Behavioral Perspective

I do have an interdisciplinary background and I enjoy an interdisciplinary setting. At times this means that I am embarking on a new research journey, and I virtually have to start from zero. This can be quite tedious, but on the other hand, it is also rewarding.

When I started working at The TPM Energy Transition Lab I had no background in behavioral science. Yet my task is to connect human behavior with the energy transition. Human behavior is a vast research topic and after spending some time exploring this topic, I know that I still have only scratched the surface. Others spend years studying this field. Thus, by no means am I suggesting that I have become an expert. Though, that is never my goal.

I am a sustainability scientist. Sustainability is a broad field and thus, sustainability scientists need to be able to understand many different topics, and understand how those connect to other topics relevant to sustainability. Thus, part of my profile is not only the ability to get acquainted with different scientific fields, but also to cooperate with scientists from different fields. Hence a sustainability scientist should embody interdisciplinary research.

Admittedly when I started exploring the connections between human behavior and the energy transition, I thought I would just build up my knowledge about behavioral science on the go. Though, this was not the case. More and more theories, concepts, approaches, and terms popped up and I was more and more struggling to make sense of them. After all, when I want to do applied research and choose a theory, I have to know why I made certain choices. The more I read, the more I knew that I would not be able to defend any choice, as I had no context. The lack of a foundation in behavioral science became apparent and a barrier to progressing in my research endeavors. I decided to overcome this barrier by writing up a working paper summarizing the main concepts, theories, approaches, and terms that I have come across since starting my postdoc journey at the TPM Energy Transition Lab.

The result is this somewhat short and long working paper. The little perfectionist inside of me thinks it is a short working paper as I could really just gloss over many relevant topics. When I was presenting parts of this working paper to the TPM Energy Transition Lab, I spent some minutes highlighting what this working paper is not covering. Thus, I need to emphasize this is not a complete compilation of behavioral (change) models. It is a starting point.

Often researchers get asked what the benefit of some research is. So why this working paper? Who is it useful for? From a rather selfish perspective, I have to state that this is the result of me trying to understand behavioral science. However, if I am in this position, someone else might be too. Therefore, I decided to not keep this as an internal document but to share it so that others can read it and use it as starting point. Accordingly, this working paper might not be insightful for someone with a degree in sociology or psychology. In fact, someone with a degree in sociology or psychology may find many blind spots in this working paper. Nevertheless, I still want to highlight that I am also summarizing some newer approaches and that I am cross-referencing quite a bit. Thus, even for those who have a degree in behavioral science, this document might be of some use.

I suggest for a working paper, this document is long. The interested reader may however not need to read the whole document. Those who are interested in models may focus on Chapters 2 and 3 that expand on behavioral and behavioral change models and approaches. Chapter 1 is of course a short introduction, also providing some cues for why we should even care about the behavioral perspective. Chapter 5 is the attempt to link some of the approaches that have been discussed in the previous two chapters. In this chapter, the reader will also rediscover the graphic that is featured on the cover page. Chapter 6 is called behavioral levers and attempts to summarize factors that support or hinder behavioral change. Thus, motivation, heuristics, as well as defense mechanisms, amongst others, are covered. Finally, Chapter 6 is the closing chapter. This chapter is not summarizing all the information that is provided within each chapter. Rather it summarizes the lessons learned and the insights that were gathered preparing this working paper. It is up to the reader to decide which parts of this working paper might be useful.

In the spirit of interdisciplinary research, I am hoping that researchers who aim at including behavioral science perspectives within their research find some usefulness in this working paper.

Biely, K. (2022): The Behavioral Perspective. Working paper 1. Delft University of Technology, TPM Energy Transition Lab. https://doi.org/10.4233/uuid:0f0a5234-ec1f-44b1-88d5-49d703814c2c.

Are you a student interested in the energy transition? Join the pitches from the Energy Transition Lab PhD Group!

When? March 23rd, 2022 at 15:45 – 16-45.
Where? TPM Hall C

NO REGISTRATION NEEDED

Join the PhD group of the Energy Transition Lab!

As the Energy Transition Lab (ETL)  of the Technology Policy and Management Faculty at TU Delft grows, researchers working on energy topics are coming together. The ETL directives extend this effort across the PhD candidates in the TPM faculty. And we, the PhDs, could benefit from it.

Towards the end of 2021, twelve PhD candidates gathered for the first time to start building the Energy Transition Lab PhD group. What does bring us together? Initially, our research interests and focuses on the energy transition from diverse perspectives. For example, energy justice, values change, market designs and policy regulations, framing and social acceptance, public responses to renewables, energy communities, consumer acceptance, and imaginaries in governance. We all come from different engineering and social sciences backgrounds and do interdisciplinary research. There is a diverse level of expertise among the group members. We can find PhD candidates in their first, second, third, early fourth, and fourth year and from different cultural backgrounds. Another bond between us is the interest in building a support community. Especially during these pandemic times, doing a PhD can be even more isolating. Hopefully, this group will help make our journey smoother.

We are starting to formulate our views, goals, and interests in the group. Here are some of our ideas:

  • Overall, building a community to support each other throughout our PhD journeys
  • We are planning on having regular meetings to share our research topics between the group
  • Events to share research findings with stakeholders
  • Pushing forward our ideas with the support from the TMP ETL

I am truly excited to be part of this group and look forward to building projects together.

If you (or someone you know) happen to be a TPM PhD candidate with energy-related interests, do join us! Look at this announcement: https://intranet.tudelft.nl/-/doe-mee-met-de-phd-groep-van-het-energy-transition-lab?redirect=%2F. Or, you can email me at a.martinezreyes@tudelft.nl, and I will add you to the group.

 

Happy 2022!

Energy Justice in a World in Flux

At the recent COP26 in Glasgow, Kadri Simons, European Commissioner for energy, said the following:

When we talk about the energy transition, we are talking about radically changing our way of life – for the better […] This will be a transition of hearts and minds.

We can’t forget that some people, some communities, will face greater challenges than others.

If the only livelihood you or generations of your family have ever had is based on fossil fuels, then the transition could be a rather frightening prospect.

We believe that the just transition is a key issue of the climate fight: we must leave no one behind.

This is why the EU has made just transition a key pillar of the European Green Deal – our energy and climate strategy.

This speech illustrates that the question of justice is gaining prominence in the domain of energy policy. And it should be, because after all the goal of the energy transition is to make the world a better place to live in.

Also in academic research, the topic of energy justice is given more and more attention. Especially the tenet-based approach is popular. This approach provides a framework by which energy policies can be evaluated on: the way they distribute benefits and ills; the fairness by which decision-makers engage with the people who are affected by these policies are executed; and the remediation of the section of society that are ignored or underrepresented.

To engage with this emerging topic, the TPM Energy Transition Lab has set up a series of seminars in which the researchers from the faculty have shown their take on energy justice. The following themes have been addressed so far:

  • Reflections on the tenet-approach to energy justice
  • Energy justice in countries from the Global South
  • The role that modelling methods can play in normative issues
  • The inclusion of marginalised groups in the European transition policy

These themes most certainly deserve more extensive and in-depth investigation. Moreover, there are other themes that are still waiting to be explored, but what can be inferred at this moment is that our research reveals that the tenet-based approach works well as an evaluative framework for given policies, but it is also a framework that is very much static. This can be problematic given the fact that the energy transition is not so much the transformation of the economy, it is the transformation of the sociotechnical systems that underlie the economy. This implies that we are dealing with a situation that is fundamentally dynamic, and justice frameworks should account for these dynamics. We should consider justice for a world in flux. I think that at TPM, we are the designated group to take on this challenge, as I will explain below.

However, I will first introduce a number of deeply interrelated factors that are subjected to change in the energy transition that will have an impact on justice issues:

  • An obvious point is that technologies New energy systems will bring about new practices and routines. What these new practices and routines will exactly lead up to is highly uncertain, but they will surely have an impact on the distribution between ills and benefits. The changes in technology have an effect on many factors as well, as can be seen below.
  • The concepts with which we understand reality and measure progress change. For instance, think about the way that the energy transition is predominantly understood in terms of the decarbonisation of the economy. The speech of Kadri Simons already hints that this understanding has now come to include socio-economic issues as well. As the transition proceeds, we may expect more attention for material flows and the exhaustion of scarce metals. Other concepts that may change is our conception of climate change itself. Now the climate is seen is ‘nature’ that is being polluted by mankind, but for instance due to geo-engineering we may come to see the climate as a ‘manmade’ thing.
  • Values that we cherish today, may be replaced by values we do not have ‘discovered’ yet. Related to the energy transition, we now emphasise energy security, affordability and sustainability as key values. It was not that long ago that we did not know the value of sustainability was added. In fact, sustainability and ecological awareness are new values to start with, conquering nature by technical dominance has been a driving force to measure progress until at least the 1950s. Also energy security and affordability may change: black-outs may become obsolete or regularities; energy poverty a relic of the past, or accepted as a fact of life.
  • Not only values, but also the moral principles by which we asses justice may prove to be volatile. Currently most attention goes out to groups and communities who suffer from the energy transition in terms of recognition and well-being. Justice means that ‘everyone gets what’s due’, what that means however can be understood differently and will also be applied differently in different contexts.
  • Indeed, the people that are affected by the energy transition may change over time. In other words, those who are the winners and losers of the transition today, may not be the winners and losers in the longer run. In this respect it is interesting to see how fossil fuel companies increasingly picture themselves as the victims of the energy transition, while these are always seen as the epitaph of incumbency. For instance, Ben van Beurden, CEO of Shell, felt it was unfair to the company that the Dutch Supreme Court ruled that the oil company has to reduce its carbon emissions by 45% in 2030.
  • This volatility of moral issues has to do with the fact that energy transition policies form wicked problems. These are problems about which there is no agreement on the problem definition and the solution. Such wicked problems are dealt with in society in moral terms. Policies are not right or wrong, they are good or bad. And as society is characterised by moral pluralism, there will always be section who become angry with any policy.
  • If the distributive and procedural effects of policies are perceived to be unjust or if groups of people feel ignored they will not accept these policies and projects. They will come to protest the legitimacy of the energy transition, creating delay or even the termination of the decarbonisation policies. However, these feelings of injustice emerge as a reaction to proposed policies, from these societal reactions new values and concerns emerge that need to be taken into account if one aspires a transition that accounts for all relevant values.
  • Related to this issue is that policies and projects are usually seen as discrete events that can be evaluated as isolated processes, while energy controversies are characterised by spill-overs ­– they are inspired by conflicts that have taken place elsewhere. For instance, the discussion about shale gas exploration in the Netherlands has been motivated by debates taking place in the US and in the UK. It cannot be predicted whether and which type spill-overs will take place, meaning that decision-makers cannot anticipate the way in which society will assess a certain energy policy.
  • A just energy transition is not a mere European matter. History has a long tail and the injustices caused by colonialism tend to persist. On the one hand, this is manifested in transition that take place within former colonies which are too often still characterised by failing institutions, socio-economic inequality and corruption. On the other hand, and this is not often realised, the renewable energy system reproduces colonial patterns of the fossil-based energy system. One may only think of the materials that are mined under bad labour conditions in the global South, while rich countries enjoy the clean energy at the other end of the supply chain.

This tentative list of justice-related issues that are in flux means that a static framework does not suffice. So, what is so special about TPM that it is precisely our faculty can contribute to our further command of energy justice? I think this is because we are not afraid to break down silos between different disciplines, but we are ready align the attention for values, governance and systems’ engineering. Just to mention some strengths, there is expertise on participatory methods, controversy research, dealing with empirical and normative uncertainties, value change, energy democracy, and institutional economics. Bringing these strengths together will allow TPM to develop a unique approach to energy justice in a world that is in flux ­– and make the world a bit better.

Presenting at Beyond Oil 2021

Beyond Oil 2021 has been the second conference I attended this year. I was happy that I could attend it online, as I had to travel to my home country for an emergency. This, clearly was another illustration of the advantages of online conferences. Though, I also admit I miss the feel of offline conferences. The conference had a hybrid format and I think this challenge was well handled. On two days researchers presented their work related to the much-needed transition towards a more sustainable society. The program was filled with case studies and conceptual work, the role of individuals, of institutions, of structures was addressed, power, justice and politics as well as innovations were themes of presented work. A great mix, that indicates the complex nature of the challenge humanity is facing.

I presented my ongoing research. Due to the format of the parallel sessions I had to squeeze content in an 8-minute presentation. Admittedly, I liked this format because it left much space for a long panel discussion. The slides of my presentation are below. As you can see, I had to keep it superficial. Nonetheless, I hope it gave an insight into what I am working on. The title of my contribution is a bit wordy: “Behavioral change for a socio-economic transition: linking system with individual behavior in complex systems.” However, I think it nicely summarizes my work. I am looking at a) how individual action or behavior connects with the system in which the individual is embedded and b) how behavior in conjunction with the embeddedness within the system can contribute to a transformation of our socio-economic system.

Slides of the presentation held at the Beyond oil 21 conference

My presentation started with a quote from Greta Thunberg from one of her recent talks at the youth4climate summit. There she said: “Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah blah blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah,”. I started with this quote as I was hoping to catch people’s attention, but more importantly Greta nicely brought to a point a finding of my own research.

Greta’s statement fits to the findings of what composes what I call unfortunate resilience. While I believe that I am the creator of this term, I have not invented the idea of this concept. Within socio-ecological systems theory it is understood that some system may not change, although it would be good if it did change. Olsson, Galaz et al. (2014) write about this concept, stating that others have called it “rigidity trap” or “bad resilience”. The former already indicates that unfortunate resilience is tightly connected to lock-ins. It is the idea that a system can get locked-in in an undesirable state. It is undesirable because in the long run it is not possible to maintain equilibrium and thus instead of slow adaptations, such lock-ins will mount in a system collapse.

To grasp this point one may look at the interconnectedness of systems and subsystems presented in socio-ecological system theory. Walker, Holling et al. (2004) discuss and illustrate aspects of resilience. One of these aspects is called Panarchy which refers to the idea that the state of a system affects the state of all other connected systems. For example, the socio-economic system (lower system) is embedded in the ecological system (higher system). The lower system can create an imbalance on the higher level, which at some point in time will also lead to an imbalance of the lower system. Burning fossil fuels has created an imbalance in nature. Nature’s way of dealing with this is climate change. Climate change in turn affects humans. When the imbalance in the natural sphere has reached a certain magnitude, the systems humans have created and even the very existence of humans are threatened and will collapse at some point. The systems created by humans should adapt or transform based on the information that human actions cause an imbalance in nature.

Without getting too far on the topic of adaptations versus transformation, I want to note that whether an adaptation is sufficient depends on how much something needs to change. If you want to read more about the difference between adaptation and transformation, I am referring you to the work of Folke, Carpenter et al. (2010). Adaptations are rather small changes. The ability to adapt is part of what constitute someone’s or something’s resilience. A transformation is however a large-scale change. Think of the caterpillar and the butterfly (transformation) compared to finches having different beaks (adaptation) depending on the environment they live in.

The concept of unfortunate resilience is connected to the idea of maladaptation. Olsson, Galaz et al. (2014) summarize maladaptation to a system being high in resilience. So high that it reaches a threshold beyond which it is actually no longer able to adapt. Thus, it is a state of excess resilience. It is a point where resilience becomes rigidity. Resilience often has this notion of flexibility (Walker, Holling et al. 2004), though is seems like the state of unfortunate resilience is one in which the sustenance of a status quo creates a rigidity, a lock-in, that at one stage will culminate in collapse.

What constitutes unfortunate resilience, though? I am sure I have overlooked many factors contributing to the unfortunate resilience of the current socio-economic system. I suppose that there need to be many factors to create a strong unfortunate resilience. However, the factors I want to list are 1) buffers, 2) narratives and 3) psychological defense mechanisms.

As I have mentioned during my talk, one important factor that I do not mention is power. Power as a factor constituting unfortunate resilience needs much more attention than I could dedicate it so far in my current research endeavor. Though, I want to highlight that it is relevant to reflect about questions such as who creates narratives and thus supports psychological defense mechanisms? It needs to be acknowledged that the power to create and steer a discourse is key in shaping the track human society got locked in (Biely, Maes et al. 2018).

The buffers I included so far are of economic and technological nature. Buffers do not address the root cause of a problem and have the effect that they reduce the perceived urgency of a problem. For example, a flood insurance may reduce a house owner’s perceived urgency of doing something against climate change, when the damage a flood has created is covered by an insurance. Farmers in countries where governments support them in case of natural catastrophes destroying their harvest may feel less urgency than farmers who do not get such financial support. Another example that is more indirect, are carbon offsets. I may not perceive the urgent need to quit flying, if I can monetarily compensate for the emissions I have created. The thought having planted some trees somewhere in the world with one click may make it much easier to enjoy a flight with good conscious. Technological buffers are those that maintain or increase human’s wellbeing or comfort despite deteriorating environmental conditions. I come from a country where air conditions were not common. With summers getting hotter more and more people install air conditions. This allows people to better bare high temperatures in summer, but it also reduces the perceived urgency to do something about the root cause of the problem.

The second factor, narratives, refers to the blah, blah. In a sense they also reduce the perceived urgency to tackle the problem and they neither address the root cause of the problem. All the green growth, green economy, green, tech, sustainable growth, inclusive growth, net zero, negative emissions, build back better talk fits to the weak sustainability blah blah which is based on technology myopia and a trust in market mechanisms (Biely, Maes et al. 2018). It deserves a blog post on its own, but narratives are the reason why despite working on a technology University, I am not a fan of the socio-technical transition theory. I promise I will write about this soon.

Before I turn to psychological defense mechanisms, I want to expand a bit on the connectedness of factors. Factors that constitute unfortunate resilience do not stand alone but build a mesh that connects factors with each other on societal as well as on individual level. The narrative that green tech and thus the green economy will save us is backed up by people experiencing how technology buffers the negative effects of e.g. climate change. Technology seems to have an answer to all the problems and the narrative of green economy tells us that we will be able to afford these technologies and that by creating a green economy we do not have to give up anything. Narratives are told on a societal level. We want to create a green, inclusive economy. A narrative proliferated by policy makers, businesses, private as well as public international conglomerates and institutions. Individuals are not living in a vacuum but are interconnected with their environment. And thus, individuals affect and are affected by society.

Psychological defense mechanisms are the last factor I want to mention. I love to refer to the infographic made by Mathew Adams (Adams 2017) because it illustrates the complexity of the matter. It shows at a glance that we are fighting against many defense mechanisms when we want to change our own behavior. The infographic provides little examples which show that these are (at least partially) based on general narratives. I also want to refer to the recent book of Weintrobe (2021) who connects denial (a defense mechanism) with trust in human ingenuity (I wrote about the book here). I suppose how and which narratives and buffers (and maybe other factors) fuel psychological defense mechanisms is a research project on its own. Though, it seems that those who have made the connection argue to replace the faulty narratives with others that are more realistic (see eg. Weintrobe, 2021).

Replacing an unrealistic with a more realistic narrative may help humans to invest energy in real solutions. Let me first go back to the unfortunate resilience, where I established that this is a state of rigidity. Adaptation is locked-in actions that do not really solve the problem. If humanity wants to omit a collapse energy needs to be invested into restoring flexibility. Thus, we need to free our mind and come up with innovative ways to handle the challenges humanity is facing. It seems that such innovation would call for transformation, rather than for adaptation. We would have to think about innovations in how we organize our economy, as well as our political system. Though, in order to free the mind we first may need to grief old narratives (O’Connor and Woodard 2021).

So far so good. Though, who is going to start this process of grieving old narratives? To answer this, one may want to consult the old but ongoing debate between structuralists and individualists. While I think both schools provide some insight, I think they need to be combined. The structure does not exist, without its parts, and parts do not exist in isolation. Given the fact that this blog post is anyway already way too long, I will just refer to the potential usefulness of practice theory to understand how individuals and structure are connected.

Much more needs to be stated, but I will stop here with the promise to write about the insights I got so far about transition processes.

References:

Adams, M. (2017). Climate change, sustainability & psychosocial defence mechanisms: infographic.

Biely, K., D. Maes and S. Van Passel (2018). “The idea of weak sustainability is illegitimate.” Environment, Development and Sustainability 20(1): 223-232.

Biely, K., D. Maes and S. Van Passel (2018). “Market Power Extended: From Foucault to Meadows.” Sustainability 10(8): 2843.

Folke, C., S. R. Carpenter, B. Walker, M. Scheffer, T. Chapin and J. Rockström (2010). “Resilience Thinking: Integrating Resilience, Adaptability and Transformability.” Ecology and Society 15(4).

O’Connor, J. and W. Woodard (2021). “Editorial: The climate crisis, clinical work and the work of mourning.” Ata: Journal of Psychotherapy Aotearoa New Zealand 25(1): 7-9.

Olsson, P., V. Galaz and W. J. Boonstra (2014). “Sustainability transformations: a resilience perspective.” Ecology and Society 19(4).

Walker, B., C. S. Holling, S. R. Carpenter and A. Kinzig (2004). “Resilience, adaptability and transformability in social–ecological systems.” Ecology and Society 9(2).

Weintrobe, S. (2021). Psychological Roots of the Climate Crisis: Neoliberal Exceptionalism and the Culture of Uncare. New York, London, Bloomsbury Academic.