At our meet-up on Friday, we watched and debated VPRO’s documentary De Doorbraak van Duurzaam from the Backlight series. The focus of the documentary is the point we have reached with regards to the financial and technological status of renewable energy: we’ve hit the moment when producing energy from renewable sources is cheaper that producing it from fossil fuels. Therefore, the various interviewees argue, we’ve come to a tipping point, a breakthrough moment. While they stop short of crying out Hallelujah, the language used is jubilant: now that technological efficiency has hit the necessary level, the green breakthrough is inevitable and we are heading the way of renewables. The bottom line, if you’ll pardon the pun, is that the calculative logic of the market creates an irresistible force that will bring about the energy transition: it would be too financially too stupid to do otherwise!
Yet, next to this dominant narrative, there are whispers of other dynamics emerging through the cracks of this narrative. For example on El Hierro, one of the Canary Islands, we hear of the importance of sustainability and of the creation of opportunities for the local community. And it’s precisely the relative importance and consequences of what might drive the energy transition that was at the core of the discussion, after the viewing, moderated by Jaap de Wilde (University of Groningen). To briefly summarize a large number of diverse and lively interactions, the energy transition can be the result of
“push” by market forces (it’s the logical thing to do, financially)
“pull” by political will (the Chinese, able to put forth long-term and top-down plans)
an “imperative” to avoid ecological catastrophe (we have no choice if we want to survive)
or “growth” of community (there is a range of benefits in creating a new local energy system)
Each of these potential motors of the energy transition results in different configurations of what an energy system based on renewables might look like and on who its beneficiaries could be–with very stark contrasts between the different scenarios. In the discussion, even the ecological advantage of using renewable energy was not seen as a given–there are unsustainable ways of deploying solar panels, batteries and smart grids. As such, the inevitability of the economically-driven transition was considered more than debatable.
For a useful handle on different scenarios driving the energy transition, I recommend looking at After Oil, especially the chapter ‘Energy Impass and Political Actors’.
Each year, the summer school holds an event that is open to the public, with the aims of giving something back to the city that hosts the school, of having an opportunity to connect to our summer school alumni, and to create interaction between the specialists-in-training attending the summer school and members of the public. Such bridges between expert knowledge and collective concerns are a crucial weapon against fact-free politics and a useful way of making knowledge relevant.
With regards to the event itself, this evening was a successful collaboration between the Energy Academy, Tegenlicht and its dedicated representatives, and the Groningen Energy Summer School. We are grateful to the many people who contributed to the meet up, with particular kudos to Tris van der Wal for making this meet-up happen.
A troublesome ‘list’ has been circulating on Facebook lately, variously taking on the shape of a meme, coffee mug or t-shirts. It’s meant as a defense of science in the face of post-truth Trumpianisms and of recent waves of media attention to anti-science activists and extreme deniers.
Here is the pic in question, in one of its many forms:
Posted by many esteemed friends and colleagues these past couple of weeks, it is an image that I struggle with each time I come across it. This repeated and deep discomfort lies in both inability to endorse it, (knowing why others are posting it and agreeing with them that there is a fight to be fought) and with the dynamics it creates (its frame pushes us into the wrong fight).
This is an attempt to explain why I can’t ‘like’ this post.
In very broad brushstrokes, there is currently a growing tension between two poles. On one end, this is characterized by the dominance of technocratic knowledge, highly abstract knowledge based on calculations and a whole metrics instrumentarium, where data is closely entwined with modelling and simulation. This is the kind of knowledge that is embraced by major global institutions–from the World Bank to the WHO–and enabled by state-supported bureaucracies. It is how we know about world economies, the refugee crisis, global warming, epidemics and many other crucial issues. This kind of knowledge is held by the ‘elite experts’ we are supposedly tired of–to paraphrase some of the recent commentary to the Brexit and Trump’s election. The other pole of this tension is the populist appeal to common sense and to the evidence of one’s eyes–imagine Trump speaking on an icy day and stating that we just have to look outside to see that global warming isn’t such as issue. This (and much worse) happens and gets broadly tweeted, reported and broadcast.
I wish this tension were a caricature, but it’s not, this is the repeated and dominant framing of discussions about science in the mainstream media.
(At this point, I should state that my own intellectual and professional investments as a science and technology studies scholar have been to explore the professional production of knowledge, to show the diversity of kinds of knowledge and the important variations in what experts are telling us, how they come to their conclusions, what counts as evidence and how these claims are validated. So in no way am I dismissing the importance of expertise, on the contrary, a proper characterization of this kind of knowledge and of its metrics, is a crucial matter that can feed the necessary measures I describe below.)
There are basically two problems with the ‘list’:
First, it contributes to polarisation and simply isn’t going to help the place of science in the public discourse. If anything, it’s making it worse. This list is as much of a potshot as Trumps claims: look out the window. It is just an appeal to common sense, perhaps one that has a ‘rationalistic’ or ‘scientoid’ flavour to it. Furthermore, the ‘controversies’ the list refers to are highly diverse in their scope and nature, and in their social contexts. This list tars all kinds of objections by a diversity of groups with the same brush.
Second, I can’t help but yearn for sub-clauses in these statements. For example: Vaccines work, yes, most of the time for most people if they are properly manufactured, stored and administered, and only if we collectively embrace them, and while they do bring some risks in a very small number of cases, this risk should be weighed with the risk of not using vaccines.
The earth is not flat and we’ve known this in various parts of the world at different times, based on different kinds of research and evidence.
Chem trails have not been widely measured and neither have their purported effects at population level been documented.
And so on…
I want to bring in these sub-clauses because they take us out of the potshot dynamic. Most importantly, they are a first step in getting some motion going. It’s essential for science and for public discourse to have a dynamic between the abstract and the particular, between expert and collective knowledge. Rather than potshots, we need circulation. I don’t long for a perfect, modernist cycle of interaction, but for modest moves between positions. We need a framing that leans towards interaction, translation, and conversation as an essential first step to grounded knowledge, to a science that matters and to a better public discourse on knowledge.
In one week, 25 PhD students from all over the world will gather at the University of Groningen for ten intensive days of learning on the topic of Global Energy Transition from Local Perspectives.
The programme for this summer school is diverse, from lectures to excursions. Central to this programme is an active involvement for participants and organisers: presentations, discussions, feedback are all part of the deal!
Speakers and participants to the summer school have already co-created a shared and annotated bibliography on ‘YIMBY’ (yes in my backyard) that can be consulted at the Zotero website.
Not only does this interactive approach create a deeper link between participants, but is also helps participants develop skills that are essential to the energy transition.
These skills will help them
More on this next week, for now, I’m enjoying delving into the materials participants have submitted: two dozen delicious dissertation chapters-in-progress or papers reporting on their ongoing PhD work.
From Peru to India, from electric vehicles to atomic energy, from participation to obstruction, from citizens to corporate incumbents… Material that will enrich my understanding of the energy transition and stretch the scope of my knowledge.
When local energy initiatives take on complex projects: Insights from research on governance, networks, and socio-technical innovations
Over 25 scholars attended this one-day event that was marked by the diversity of approaches to the study of local energy initiatives. In the course of the day, it became clear that the intricacy and layeredness of these energy intiatives require us to sharpen our conceptual tools. Forms of organisation, dynamics of governance, the diversity of meanings attributed to participation and the complex legal and economic playing field in which these projects develop were all brought into the spotlight by the various speakers.
A follow-up event aimed at stakeholders from the projects and at policy-makers is planned for the Fall.
Topic of the conference:
The event brings together scholars from different disciplines around the topic of how energy initiatives take on complex projects. Around this central topic, a number of issues and lines of research are relevant, among them the following:
You can find the full programme details here.
Since I put forth the idea of combining energy behaviour, social norms and tipping points in September 2017, a team of students has been working on the project Dichte Deur, Warme Winkel.
Guided by Wander Jager and myself, four bright young minds from the University College Groningen, Hanne Oldenhof, Roos Walstock, Guido Kinds and Jack Dingham have done fieldwork, delved into the literature and contacted stakeholders.
The project had as a starting point the concept of ‘tipping points’ and the desirability of shifting shopkeepers’ practices of keeping doors open in the winter months, in order to decrease energy use and ultimately achieve reductions in CO2 emissions.
At the core of the tipping point dynamic is the visibility of behaviours, leading to social pressures (both positive and in the form of sanctions) to adopt particulat behaviours. This team of students developed a campaign plan, taking this element of visibility into account, by asking themselves, shopkeepers, the municipality and other experts: what would it take for shops to change their door policies in winter?
The answers were as diverse as they were interesting, and the team is currently preparing their final presentation, scheduled for the UCG Project Presentation Day 19 June. The students will be passing on the fruits of their labout to the Green Office of the University of Groningen, which will carry out the campaign in Groningen next winter.
Well done Hanne, Guido, Jack and Roos! This is only the beginning…
During the academic year 2017-2018, Energysense will engage in a collaborative project with the University of Lund on the theme “DATA: enabling us to better store, observe and understand what we measure”.
This weekend, Robbert Dijkgraaf, ex-president of the KNAW, was featured in the series ‘onze gids’ in the Saturday glossy of the daily newspaper Volkskrant. The format of the series is the selection of ten cultural artifacts by the week’s selected ‘guide’, followed by a short rationale for the selection.
‘Powers of Ten’ is a striking instance of a particular epistemic approach, a way of knowing that erases even as it reveals. It is a powerful statement about a specific view of the universe, and in that sense, it would indeed be a way of showing how we look at the world (more on this ‘we’ below).
The epistemics of “Powers of Ten” are conveyed through two visual conventions:
I’ve written about this topic, drawing on work of Donna Haraway (the God trick) and Smetlana Alpers (points of view in Dutch painting), and the argument is further worked out in this paper, presented a couple of years ago at an ESF event on visualisation (Imaging Technology, Truth & Trust, Norrköping, 17-21 September 2012).
That this visual esthetic is a long-time favourite of Dutch physicists is also noted in my paper –Dijkgraaf himself showed it in his episode of “Zomergasten”–a Dutch tv show which has much the same format as the Gids series, but based on television and film fragments.
What is noteworthy in this instance of Dijkgraaf’s selection is the framing in terms of ‘what aliens would learn about how we see the world’, if this film were put forth. This worldview is that of a kind of science that silences the messiness of the quest for knowledge, the arduous and pleasurable use of technology, the contextual nature of knowing, the crucial interaction between creativity and reason.
Photograph of the ‘making of’ Powers of Ten, showing the artifice and crafting that is otherwise cropped out of the shots.
Aliens would not get a sense of the friction between accounts of the world–nor indeed of the existence of multiple accounts. Aliens would be served an image of human knowledge as something effortless, seamless, translatable along a single axis of metric magnitudes, and available without having to notice or think about how we are able to see all this. A scientific “zipless fuck”, to extend Erica Jong’s powerful identification of a key motif in Western culture in the 70s, formative years indeed. Could aliens encounter a fleshier epistemology if the programme were extended from one documentary to a movie night?
Energysense is the context for innovation in research. Not only in the research that is conducted, but also in the way we enable research and shape the possibilities for creating knowledge. As such, Energysense can be seen as an instance of the ‘changing ecologies of knowledge and action’ that have recently come under academic scrutiny (see among others, the CEKA programme at Oxford). In this blogpost, I reflect on one of the lines of ‘innovation’ we have been developing, focusing on mutuality.
With the aim of making concrete the spirit of mutuality we hold dear, we recently organised an encounter with participants in Energysense. This was the occasion for us to experience a different kind of accountability, one that contrasts sharply with the metrics-rich way of working that now dominates the academic world. In this tense context, it is a true privilege to be part of such a pioneering alternative approach to research and to have the freedom to explore and develop alternatives.
Critiques of the current culture of metrics, for example, the powerful Leiden Manifesto, have provided useful tools for addressing accountability in science policy and in institutional practices. In writing about this event, I hope to show how concrete activities on the ground can further contribute to creating new frameworks for academic work.
Over the past three years, Energysense has striven to implement a number of values in its activities. For example, privacy-by-design is a guiding principle in developing our ICT and processes, we’ve implemente ‘informed consent as an ongoing relationship’ (rather than a single contractual moment). And in all our communication, we take a personal approach rather than a formal one. Another value is that of mutuality. So far, we’ve implemented this by systematically including an opportunity to comment or ask question or provide feedback in our data gathering. Concretely, this means that there are ‘text boxes’ in our questionnaires and that we always follow-up fully on all input from Energysense participants. This may seem banal, but it at an operational level it requires attention and dedicated staff time—something we’ve been careful to ensure, in spite of our rapid growth, and across times of peak busy-ness.
Last week, we took mutuality one step further: participants invite Energysense into their home to trace their energy use and behaviour, so in turn we invited participants to come and visit us in Energysense’s ‘home’.
Through our participants newsletter, we invited all current participants (close to 800 households) and received over 70 registrations. On Friday 10 March, we welcomed about 50 participants to our building, the new, award-winning Energy Academy Building at Zernike, the science campus of the University of Groningen. The programme was varied: mini-lectures from energy researchers, demonstration of energy measurements, a tour of the building and of the energy exhibition Re:charge, as session on participants’ views of privacy and security of Energysense data and a ‘meet and greet’ with the
Energysense team in our offices. A number of participants also took part in a research interview (q-sort) in the framework of Mufti Hasanov’s PhD project.We ended with a lively reception.
The afternoon was set up so as to allow participants to experience a diversity of aspects of Energysense. We also wanted to maximise the opportunities for interaction, so all activities took place in small groups of about 8-10 participants paired with a member of Energysense.
With this event, we did our best to show our participants how much we appreciate their input to Energysense. It was also a fantastic opportunity for us to work as a team, each one of us contributing their expertise and skills to make the event a success. As a team, we also ‘exposed’ ourselves to all the participants’ questions, to their inquisitive perusal of our offices, to their advice, (counter-)expertise and criticism.
At the end of the day, we were very pleased but also feeling a bit raw. Why did we feel more exposed, more vulnerable? In spite of how much we try to be open in all our communication about what goes in Energysense, this face-to-face encounter felt closer, more intimate. These activities were therefore precious in revealing what it is that we tend to keep backstage. Of course there is nothing wrong with work being in progress or in preparation, and we all like to put our best foot forward. But the presence and interaction with our participants created a particular kind of relationship to our research object that is not so present, not so tangible in our daily work–nor in most infrastructural projects for research.
Reflecting on this, I think that last Friday’s encounter with our participants created a particularly intense opportunity and obligation to provide accounts of our work, to be ‘accountable’. All these impressions, this intense experience of an encounter, form a basis for a different kind of accountability. The experience is a deeply enriching one that will stay with us and shape our work.
In the academic year 2017-18, I’ll be giving a course to Masters students in Computer Science at the Faculty of Science and Engineering of the University of Groningen. It will replace another elective course that focused on ethics, and I’m hoping that it will provide students with the opportunity to explore epistemological issues around Big Data using STS concepts and approaches. Developing the course is a lot of fun and a great opportunity to consolidate many of the insights we are developing in Energysense. Plus, one of the assignments will be doing an interview, so we’ll touch on some ethnographic skills as well.
Data seems to be everywhere in contemporary society. Precisely because of this ubiquity, it is important to consider how data is created and used, and how it circulates, so that we can understand the implications for business, for private and public life, and for what we know about ourselves and the world.
A new course at the Faculty of Science and Engineering, University of Groningen, will equip students to reflect and act on issues around big data. Big data is a phenomenon that affects all kinds of sectors, from energy to banking to sports to neuroscience. It has a history going back several decades and has been shaped by tools and institutions, with the result that ‘big data’ has its own biases and tendencies. It is therefore crucial to analyse how big data approaches are a specific way of creating knowledge and how this knowledge is used. In particular, we will trace how new forms of measurement yield data, that are then combined with particular kinds of statistics and database logics.
We will also cover the reasons underlying the hypes and hope around data, the new forms of ‘value’ attached to data, and the emergence of particular movements (‘open data’; neveragain.tech, responsible data science).
A number of skills will be integrated into the course, providing a basis for dealing with data issues as a researcher or professional working intensively with data. This course will enable students to reflect and act, when it comes to issues such as visualisations, design of privacy-enhancing technologies, or the value of correlation.