The Economist is running an interesting debate about the energy crisis (by which they mean climate change, not energy security or peak oil), for those arguing for and against the proposition that:
We can solve our energy problems with existing technologies today, without the need for breakthrough innovations.
My first reaction was that this was a bit of an empty discussion, like arguing about which is more important – eating or breathing? Obviously we need both, and relying solely on one or the other is a recipe for failure. Why must we think one-dimensionally? Reality is rarely so simple.
The other limiting aspect of this debate is the embedded and unspoken assumption of purely technological solutions and innovations. This is a dangerous fantasy. The reality is that social and cultural factors must be part of any coherent solution to the energy crisis. Our attitudes to the way we consume energy, transport ourselves, organise our economies and arrange our cities are just as important as the technologies we use.
Fred Steward, one of my favorite academics, points out in this paper that we need a much broader concept of innovation than pure technological advancement. The challenges of environmental sustainability are vast and complex are we cannot make the complacent assumption that some entrepreneurial inventor or well-funded research lab will deliver us a quick fix. Steward argues for a more integrated approach:
Policy and research attention has traditionally been limited to profit-oriented science-based innovation with a consequent emphasis on generic technologies such as machine tools or microelectronics pushing change upon society. Sustainability policy has been divided into two camps: one promising a breakthrough technical solution that will allow us to continue to live as ever before; and another that suggests we all change our behaviour, boiling only half a kettle and cutting down on flights.
However a new model of ‘sociotechnical’ transition has emerged, giving greater weight to the interaction between many actors in achieving such large-scale changes. In this, technical developments and social change combine to displace the incumbent companies, principles and priorities with a new arrangement.
This kind of nuance is conspicuously absent from most debates about innovation and the future of energy.