Accelerated Technological Diffusion: My new research project, and why Bill Gates should give me some money

Bill Gates is trying to save the world again. Last December, he announced that he was getting involved in the climate change game. He has invested $1 billion of his own money, and persuaded a few other billionaires to do the same, to fund energy innovation to radically decrease carbon emissions.While we should be critical of the fact that one man can have so much power in solving big global problems, I think that Gates should be applauded for getting more involved with climate change.

I also think that maybe he should think of giving a little bit of that $1 billion to me, for my project on accelerated technological diffusion.

It’s a big ask, I know. But Bill, if you’re reading this, hear me out. Here’s the problem with your plan: We can’t invent our way out of this mess. You need a lot more than innovation to get real technological change. To demonstrate that, let me show you a graph of the uptake of the auto mobile in the United States:

USA cars.jpg

The first recognizable car was built by Otto Benz in 1886; more than 30 years before the x-axis on this graph even begins. And yet it takes until the mid 1920s before even a tenth of the American population owns cars. That’s four decades between the invention of the car technology and anything that can plausibly be called widespread use. Meanwhile, we have to make radical cuts in our carbon emissions by 2050: Just three and a half short decades from now. So inventing new technologies is, at best, half the battle.

In addition to innovation, we also need technological diffusion, which refers to the process by which a technology becomes widely used. The fact that diffusion often happens very slowly, as demonstrated above, doesn’t seem to bode very well for Bill Gates’ plans to save the world through innovation. What’s the point of inventing some radical new energy technology if almost nobody uses it until the 2080s?

The good news is that that doesn’t have to be the case. There are examples of accelerated diffusion, in which new technologies, including energy systems, diffuse in a decade or less. Benjamin Sovacool’s recent paper on the subject provides a useful list of these, including liquefied petroleum gas stoves in Indonesia, which went from 1% to 25% use in just three years! The fact that liquid petroleum stoves aren’t exactly green is besides the point. The point is that if gas stoves can diffuse quickly, then maybe solar panels and wind turbines can as well.

Unfortunately, Sovacool doesn’t say too much about how this rapid diffusion occurs. Others have already done research on the mechanics of technological diffusion; most of which is based on adoption models,  which see technological diffusion as a kind of viral spread. If your neighbour gets a rooftop solar panel, then you are more likely to do so as well. And so like the flu or a Buzz-Feed article, rooftop solar panels gradually diffuse across the whole neighbourhood.

The nice thing about these adoption models is that they are easily modelled mathematically. The problem with these models, however, is that they were originally developed with institutions and business such as public health agencies, agricultural extension services, and marketers in mind. These groups all have the same basic goal: Get a population of potential users (doctors, farmers, and consumers respectively) to use a new innovation. The problem is that because these institutions were typically quite powerful, there is no account in adoption theories of how powerful interests might block the diffusion of the new technology. Also, it was never the job of any of these groups to build the infrastructure, production capacity, or technological systems to support the diffusion of these new technologies. That was somebody else’s job, and so most adoption models say nothing about the construction of technological systems, much less socio-technical systems.

That’s where I come in. My new project is on accelerated technological diffusion, from a socio-technical systems perspective. That means that I’m going to be trying to understand not just how the users of a technology can be persuaded to use it, but also how businesses can be persuaded to manufacture and sell it; how politicians can be persuaded to subsidise it; how engineers can be persuaded to devote their time to improving it; and even to how celebrities and other cultural leaders decide to say good things about it. I’m also going to be trying to understand how these different groups influence each other. You can have the best new technology in the world, but unless you have a plan to make all of these things happen, it isn’t going to be going anywhere very quickly.

I’m going to be working on this using historical case studies. I’ll be looking at how technologies have gathered a lot of support from a lot of different kinds of people and institutions very quickly in the past, and trying to explain how that happened, and how it could be made to happen again with sustainable technologies. This is going to be essential if any of Bill Gates’ innovations are going to get out of his well-funded research labs and onto peoples’ rooftops, roads, and power grids. So Bill, if you’re reading this, I’d be happy to accept some of your foundation’s money to support my work. A few hundred thousand should be a good start. I accept cash, cheque, or paypal.


A Review of Sanders and Clinton’s Climate Change Platforms

It’s hard not to get excited about the year-long circus that is American Presidential primary campaigns. This time around it’s particularly interesting. If you’ve been paying any attention at all, then you won’t need me to tell you that this is a banner year for anti-establishment candidates in both the Democratic and Republican parties, in the form of Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and, to a lesser extend, Ted Cruz. It’s also an interesting election cycle for anybody interested in climate change, because for what feels like the first time ever, climate mitigation is taking centre-stage in the Democratic primary debates. Both Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton have prominent sections of platforms devoted to the problem, and at the most recent debate, candidate Martin O’Malley repeatedly mentioned his pledge to get the United States to a 100 percent renewable energy system by 2050.

O’Malley is out of the race now, so in this post, I’m going to do a brief, transitions theory based evaluation of Clinton and Sanders’ climate policies. Transitions theory, if I can boil it down to its most fundamental facts, would go something like this:

  • Even if the new technologies are better than the old ones, they will still face an uphill battle to replace them.
  • Technologies are embedded in socio-technical systems, which encompass not just technical elements, such as consumer devices and infrastructures, but also social elements, such as policies, cultures, user habits, and business arrangements.
  • Established technologies are entrenched in socio-technical regimes. For example, a transportation system based on the private automobile is very difficult to change because it is embedded in a regime that includes all the roads, traffic laws, drive-through restaurants, and all the other car-centric institutions that are typical of western society.
  • New technologies need sheltered niches to survive, where they are protected from competition with the regime, but are unable to challenge it very seriously.
  • The socio-technical landscape, which encompasses big events such as wars, economic and political shifts, or new cultural movements, can play an important role in destabilising regimes and allowing niche technologies to break through. Unfortunately, it is usually too big to influence directly.

These facts suggest a few general guidelines for any President of the United States interested in reducing the carbon emissions of her or his country:

  • It is absolutely critical to put pressure on the regime. No matter how much funding you give to engineers working on solar panels or electric cars, these products will never make any meaningful impact on the market unless the massively powerful commercial, technological, social, and political influence of fossil fuel dependent industries is curbed.
  • Encourage the development and commercialisation of sustainable technologies. This is a more radical proposal than it sounds. It is not sufficient to just apply a carbon tax and hope that the free market takes its course. Nor is it sufficient to fund a few research labs and call it a day. You need strong incentives spanning from the most basic scientific research, all the way through the research and development process and to the consumers who will actually adopt these new technologies into their lives. In other words: you have to pick winners.
  • Take a systems perspective on the problem. Technologies rarely exist in isolation. An electric car won’t work if it doesn’t have charging stations, and those charging stations won’t work if there isn’t a good legal framework and financial arrangement to sustain them. Think about the problems that remain unsolved, the social practices that remain unchanged, and the infrastructures that remain unbuilt, and direct your resources at them.

With that in mind, let’s have a look at the climate change policies of the two Democratic contenders for President: Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

Clinton’s climate policies include heavier regulations for the fossil fuel industry as well as some support for renewable energy. She proposes a lot of the usual policies: Stricter pollution standards on coal-burning industries, an end to oil and gas subsidies, and stronger standards for methane emissions. Some of these are effective ways to challenge the fossil fuel energy regime, but there isn’t a lot there about transportation, agriculture, industry, or any other sector that emits carbon. One encouraging sign is Clinton’s commitment to reform the federal fossil fuel leasing laws to leave some fossil fuels in the ground, even if it is probably not radical enough.  Change “some” to “most”, and we might be talking.

One good part of Clinton’s proposals is her promise to support coal communities, which she says will be “an engine of US economic growth in the 21st century, as they have been for generations.” I hope Clinton understands that the only way that coal communities can continue being an engine of economic growth is if they stop being “coal communities”. If you leave that concern aside, however, this proposal shows some understanding of the political challenges of decarbonising the economy, and at least a token interest in engaging with them.

Clinton’s headline proposal is her plan for “500 million solar panels”, with which Clinton proposes to generate enough energy to power every single home in the United States. It’s a nice idea, but there isn’t very much detail mapped out. How, exactly, will she be ensuring that these solar panels get built? Subsidies? Favourable regulations? Will my Aunt and Uncle in Michigan wake up one day to find Hilary Clinton on their roof installing a solar panel herself? We need to know more.

Strengths: The ambition of the “500 million solar roofs” plan, and the political savvy Clinton shows in her support for coal communities. And the pledge to leave fossil fuels in the ground is a nice touch.

Weaknesses: It’s very light on the details, and seems to be almost entirely focused on energy. There’s almost nothing there about industry, and very little about transportation or agriculture.

Bernie Sanders’ climate policies are, predictably, framed in terms of his opposition to the 1%. The first thing listed on Sanders’ climate change platform is a pledge to suppress the fossil fuel lobby, most obviously through Sanders’ much-publicized proposal to repeal the Citizens United decision that allows private interests to make unlimited campaign contributions. Sanders also wants to ban fossil fuel lobbyists from the White House, end fossil fuel subsidies, and “bring climate deniers to justice”. Let’s hope that justice involves some new legislation roughly analogous with libel law, and possibly a prison sentence or two. The clichés are in there too: A price on carbon, and an end to fossil fuel subsidies. So Bernie clearly wants to put some pressure on the fossil fuel regime.

Sanders also has a few encouraging suggestions for what to on the clean energy side of the equation. He proposes lots of investment in wind, solar, and geothermal power, although unlike Clinton he doesn’t specify any numbers other than “billions of dollars in solar investments”. Sanders wants solar net metering, which will allow people with solar panels on their roofs to sell energy back to the grid. He’s also got some encouraging, and fairly specific suggestions for the transportation sector, including support for cellulosic ethanol and algae bio-diesel, as well as electric vehicle charging stations, high-speed rail, and walkable cities. Sanders has no suggestions for industry, however, and like Clinton, he does not consider agriculture at all.

Strengths: The technological and policy literacy evident in Sanders’ proposals. He has a pretty good understanding of the specific technologies and policy initiatives he wants to support. And he wants to get very aggressive with the fossil fuel sector.

Weaknesses: Perhaps too much emphasis on the power of the fossil fuel lobby. I get that that’s Bernie’s central issue and a huge part of his campaign narrative, but there’s a lot more holding back on climate action than just lobbyists.

All in all, their proposals are…not bad. Clinton demonstrates a bit more political aptitude with hers, but Sanders is a lot more aggressive. Sanders also has a much more specific plan, which shows detailed knowledge of the technologies involved in a transition away from fossil fuels, while Clinton’s only pro-renewable policy basically amounts to “build solar panels”. Sanders also gives detailed consideration to transportation; a subject on which Clinton says virtually nothing. So the official endorsement for President of the United States, from this Canadian living in England, goes to Bernie Sanders.

That being said, even Sanders’ proposals leave a lot to be desired. He needs more specificity, he needs to consider more sectors than just energy and transportation, and he needs to make it clear that he understands that climate change isn’t just another excuse to yell at the bankers. This is a complex problem that requires complex solutions, and to the extent that it is possible to talk about complex things in a US presidential election campaign, I hope we hear more complexity from both candidates.