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.

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