What does it take to achieve radical societal change?

Try to imagine a person writing the following words:

“Preponderance in aviation may give way to equality; planes may become as commonplace and unimportant in the balance of war and peace as rifles are today. The only possible superiority in the air may depend on morale, flying skill, strategy, and a ready supply of petroleum. If peace lasts until plastics planes are as much a reality as Fords, their sheer quantity may help to keep the peace.”

The picture I get is as follows: male (obviously), exhibiting an excellent if somewhat stiff posture, would like to demonstrate the aforementioned posture by riding a stallion to work but unfortunately it conflicts with his unwavering belief in the wonders of modernity (so automobile it is then), having moustache at least one foot long and – mainly because of the moustache – brimming with self-confidence of the highest order. This person was Forrest Davis, the article appeared in Scientific American in July 1939 and as we know now he was spectacularly wrong. World War II started in September, airplanes were mass produced, they did play a key role in the war and the introduction of plastics would have done next to nothing to change the overall picture.

These exciting but ultimately mistaken visions are part and parcel of the history of industrialization. For example, in the 19th century cars were seen as environment-friendly technologies as, contrary to horses, vehicles did not poop on the streets. Or, to take a more recent one, for quite a while information technologies have been seen as a means to increase energy efficiency. These promises sound less exciting today when transport emissions continue to be one of the most critical sustainability problems and bitcoin’s energy consumption equals that of Switzerland. All this seems to suggest that we simultaneously overestimate the promises of new technologies and underestimate the factors that direct its evolution onto unsustainable paths.

The Deep Transitions framework is an attempt to understand how these constraints have been created during the 250 year long process of industrialization. It starts from the premise that industrial societies are based on socio-technical systems: bundles of interrelated actors, technologies and rules for the fulfilment of various societal functions such as energy, mobility, communications or healthcare. The interactions of these systems have led to constraints on three levels:

  1. Single system: think of the ease with which you can switch on the light powered by fossil fuels or drive your gasoline-based car to work. These actions require very little effort and are supported by the very design of current energy and mobility systems. One could say that this is unsustainable behaviour made automatic and routine.
  2. Connections between systems often reinforce unsustainable trajectories. Here one could think of the mobility-housing feedback loop after World War II. On one hand, car ownership enabled to travel further from the city centre thereby facilitating suburbanization. Conversely, the design of American suburbs assumed individual car ownership leaving the latter as the only practical choice for transportation. It is easy to see how this situation contributes to pollution and congestion.
  3. The third category, “industrial modernity”, refers to the most durable lessons of industrialization, beliefs and norms so wide-ranging that they have become part of almost every socio-technical system in every industrial society. These include the separation of society from nature, belief in the limitless substitutability of resources or equating technological progress with societal advance.

Prior attempts to deal with these constraints have focused on particular issues. For example, Strategic Niche Management advocates the creation of protected spaces for nurturing radical innovations, Transition Management tries to facilitate shifts in single systems, whereas neo-schumpeterian scholars call for using the information technology paradigm to initiate a “green global golden age”, potentially modifying existing connections between many systems. According to the Deep Transitions thinking we need all that. But we also need to go further to tackle the very foundations of industrial modernity. In the words of Jared Diamond, an American anthropologist: “Perhaps a crux of success or failure as a society is to know which core values to hold on to, and which ones to discard and replace with new values, when times change.”

As daunting as this challenge may seem, in many ways the unlearning of the fundamental assumptions of industrial societies is already taking place. For example, the post-WWII era gave rise to a belief that the long-term outcomes of basic research and development are inherently unpredictable. However, with that being the case the policy-maker can only deal with harmful consequences of innovation when they have already occurred. Responding to these concerns Karl Popper once proposed that engineers should take a Hippocratic oath. A more recent framework of Responsible Research and Innovation is an attempt to govern emerging science and innovation. Yet another example is the Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium, a global alliance of countries devoted to developing new ways of doing science, technology and innovation policy.

So what does it take to achieve radical change? In a nutshell: a combined and systematic attempt to support new niches, transitions in single systems, a new surge as well as the transformation of industrial modernity. It is the mission of our team to ensure that in 2050 no one would have to quote Victor Chernomyrdin, a former Prime Minister of Russia: “We wanted the best, but it turned out like always.”