Tag Archives: innovation

Future fuels and fuel futures

A commendable long essay by Iwan Rhys Morus at Aeon, which should perhaps be added to the list of works that have something to say about #solarpunk, even if it isn’t talking directly to that genre-complex: it’s in part a call for an understanding of “innovation” as a collective endeavour, rather than something individual entrepreneurs (might) do (when suitably incentivised). Definitely repays reading in full, but these were the moneyshot paragraphs for me:

We have been imagining the future of energy and the worlds it will generate for more than two centuries, and the cross-fertilisation between inventors and their literary counterparts continues to shape our imaginings, more often than not by invoking a pervasive individualism. It’s as if we struggle to get away from the notion that energy technologies have a single origin point and so these origins have to be located in specific individuals. Such individualism is often accompanied by the suggestion that only one fuel, be it hydrogen, wind or solar power, will dominate our futures, real or imaginary. Just as coal and steam powered the 19th century, or oil and electricity the 20th century, our stories about future fuels assume that one principal form of energy – solar, wind, nuclear – will monopolise the future. too.

If we want to overcome these imaginative limitations, we need to rethink the sorts of stories and histories we tell about energy, its origins, and its cultures. Though we’re conditioned to see energy revolutions coming about through individual rather than community action, the danger of this narrative – seductive and potentially useful as it is – is that it presents the future and its energies as belonging to someone else. To overcome that, we need to recognise that the expertise needed to make sure that the future is powered how we want is collective.

Here Morus seems to be working in a space where my obsession with the persistently heroic nature of innovation narratives collides with my interest in using narrative writing (and in particular the tropes and tools developed for, but no longer exclusive to, science fiction literature) as a practical and interdisciplinary method for exploring and critiquing potential sociotechnical futures, whether of energy or anything else [external link to an academic paper, but it’s open access, so anyone can read it].

As an almost-but-not-quite postdoc, I’m frequently asked “what is your discipline?”, to which my usual response is “I’m not sure what it’s called, as it appears to be a discipline containing only one scholar, but I can describe it if you’ve got ten minutes to spare”; this piece points at pretty much the space where it resides, though I’m probably coming at it from somewhat more of a bastardised and interdisciplinary STS/sociological perspective than is Morus, who is a proper historian.

(Of related interest would be Karen Pinkus’s Fuel: a Speculative Dictionary, which I reviewed for New Scientist a while back.)

Hype cycles, heroic journeys and the wizards of innovation

I think of the Gartner Hype Cycle as a Hero’s Journey for technologies. And just like the hero’s journey, the Hype Cycle is a compelling narrative structure. When we consider many of the technologies in use today, we tend to recall that they were overhyped when they first arrived, but eventually found their way to mainstream usage. But … is that really how technologies emerge and gain adoption? After analyzing every Gartner Hype Cycle for Emerging Technology from 2000 to 2016 – all seventeen years of the post dotcom era – I’ve come to believe that the median technology doesn’t obey the Hype Cycle. We only think it does because when we recollect how technologies emerge, we’re subject to cognitive biases that distort our recollection of the past…

I normally wouldn’t link out to L*nkedIn, but on this occasion it’s worth it: a bona fide hi-tech vencap who, after crunching the actual data, reveals that technology forecasting is about as scientific as cosmic ordering, and arguably even less effective.

Not at all incidentally, the Hero’s Journey is ubiquitous in the narratives of innovation studies and corporate foresight, and dominates the discourse in sociotechnical systems research. To quote briefly from my (very nearly finished) thesis, on the matter of the innovation model known as the Multi-Level Perspective:

… the MLP is, in effect, a generic story-form that relies on pre-established permutations of certain archetypal characters, set-
tings and events. Much as with an airport thriller novel or superhero movie, you always end up with the same basic arc of plot: in the case of the MLP, that generic story is known as “transition”, and it follows the journey of a hopeful young innovation on its adventures through the sociotechnical landscape, struggling against the incumbent regime until it finally achieves the “market dominance” which was its destiny and birthright.

In other words, every new gadget is Frodo, setting out to disrupt the oppressive sociotechnical hegemon of Sauron. The corollary is that every “change agent” and “innovator” sees themselves as bloody Gandalf.