My PhD – what’s it all about?

I’ve given LOTS of answers to that question over the past few months. I used to start by talking about socio-technical transitions. I quickly realised this was intimidating and a rude thing to do, unless I had time to “unpack” it.  The shortest version is “I’m looking at exactly what coal companies have done over the last 25 years to stop countries taking climate action.”
Anyway, after doing the whole (25 minute?!) spiel on Saturday to a friend of my wife’s, I realised it might be worth writing down. So on the train down from Edinburgh, I gave it a bash…

What’s my PhD about? How long have you got? The short, medium or long version?
You want the long version? Wow, that’s masochism. Okay, just feign death when you’ve had enough, or kick me.

I’m looking at sustainability socio-technical transitions.

Yeah, I know! Let me unpack that all for you.

Let’s start with sailing ships. If you looked at how a sailing ship was made say 200 yeas ago, it wasn’t significantly different from 400 years before that. Sure, there were innovations and changes, but someone from 1400 would recognise what was going on. You’ve got the forests where people look after the trees, picking which ones are going to be masts, and the hull and so on. You have the people who chop them down, the people who transport them. You have the workers at the ship-building yard who build it. You have the sail-makers, the rope makers. The sailors, the people who train them, the navigators. The insurers. The people who supply the food, the barrels.

What’s that? You get the point but you don’t know what the point is?

Well, a sailing ship is a technology, yes. But it’s embedded in a a social system, in which different groups are getting their financial, cultural and social needs met. There are hierarchies, knowledge and all that. So the sailing ship is part of a “socio-technical system.”

Now, along come steamships. And you can put boilers inside wooden ships, but it’s obviously not such a great idea. And so you have to get metal hulls, which involves different workers and different supply chains. And the coal fired ships are only any use if there are big piles of coal dotted all around the place so they can refuel. So you have skills around getting the coaling stations going, keeping the coal safe, preventing theft and damage, invoicing etc. And it’s a different socio-technical system to achieve the same goal – of moving goods from point A to point B, C and D.

And of course, those people whose whole lives – economic, social, psychological – are wrapped up in the existing socio-technical system. And they won’t usually be big fans of the new and disruptive technology. They’ll fight it tooth and nail. They’ll highlight accidents, they’ll try to get the state to regulate it out of existence et etc. But eventually – usually but not always – the “better” technology wins out, and you see a “transition” – a “socio-technical transition” from one system to another. And you can look at the horse and cart being replaced by the motor car, or candles and firewood being replaced by gas and electricity grids, or digging a hole for your shit versus sewage systems.

You with me? Not dead of boredom yet?
Right, so all of those changes I mentioned are from low carbon to high carbon, yes?
So the European Union is really interested in what are called sustainability socio-technical transitions.” Historically, they “got” climate change a bit earlier than everyone else, in the mid-80s. Partly because the scientists who grokked it were Swedish, German and so on, and the important meetings were in Geneva, and in Austria. Partly because Europe is so crowded that it has usually been harder to ignore environmental problems – the Australians and Americans and so on perhaps don’t have the same mentality.

And also, the European Unions bosses think that “low carbon” is going to be the competition ground for a new round of competition between nations and corporations. They think there will be a big old market-share battle and they want “their” companies to be well-placed.

But you can’t just say ‘right, we’ll build some nuclear fusion plants. Or masses of off-shore wind turbine, and solar panels and then everything will be okay.’ That ignores the fact that the people who are sitting on billions of dollars of existing infrastructure – coal, oil, gas- , and doing nicely out of the status quo, aren’t going to be so happy about going out of business because they are unavoidably high carbon.

So they EU wants academics to be looking at under what circumstances existing “regimes” can be destabilised and perhaps replaced by niche actors

What’s all this jargon I am using about regimes and niches? I was hoping you’d ask me that….So, there is, as you’d expect, an entire academic industry looking at “socio-technical transitions.” Questions about why do they happen? When, how? When DON’T they happen that you’d think they should have? It’s a lot more complicated than one guy coming up with a better mousetrap and the world beating a path to his door. Socio-technical systems can be incredibly stable for hundreds of years, absorbing incremental changes as they go.

So there are a few ways of looking at Socio-technical transitions, but the one I like best, the one I am convinced by and will be using is known as the “multi-level perspective.” One of the main guys behind that is gonna be my primary supervisor, btw.

You’ve got three levels.

At the landscape level, you’ve got the big picture stuff, global changes and so on.

Let’s take an example. Let’s take energy. So in the landscape you’d have things like population growth, and the rising expectations of people, who want to join the “middle class” lifestyles that they see on television. They want running water, clean electric lighting, a fridge, an air conditioner.

You’ve go the collapse of the Soviet Union and the centrally-planned economies at the end of the 80s, and the wave of privatisations, with companies becoming more and more keen on creating demand for their products. And you’ve got – theoretically – climate change, with the expectation that “low carbon” will become an important part of the equation.

One of the criticisms of the Multi-level perspective is that the landscape becomes like a garbage can where you can throw anything that doesn’t… Wait, are you feigning death? Am I off topic? Too theoretical? Mmm, ‘kay.

So at the second level, underneath the landscape, you have the “regime”. From an energy perspective, well, in the United Kingdom you have the “Big 6” – Eon, EDF, Centrica and so on. These are the big beasts. You also have the bodies that are supposed to regulate them, like Ofgem. You have the National Grid. And you have the Government departments that are supposed to be shaping the market and behaviours for the future – the Treasury, the Department of Energy and Climate Change. You still with me?

So, these big beasts don’t tend to do a lot of experimenting. They’re elephants, and elephants don’t tap-dance very well. Also, they don’t need to experiment – they’re doing very nicely thank you out of the existing set up, and are hardly likely to want it to change.

So if you want to see what the innovations might be, where the experimenting is, you need to look a the “niche” actors. These are the “little guys” who are trying to bring new products, new ways of doing things, to the market. And you could argue that their motivations fall into two broad categories, though that’s perhaps a bit simplistic.

Number one you’ve go the ones who want to save the world, who want all the big “regime” actors to do what they’re doing. Get out of coal and into wind or solar or whatever.

Number two you’ve got those who see that there’s an opportunity to carve out a market share doing something that the regime actors can’t do or can’t be bothered to do, make a nice living and perhaps even get bought out – patent, reputation, and customer list and all – by one of the big beasts.

Ooh, a question. Where do university departments fall in this? Are they regime actors or niche actors?
Well, am I allowed to say ‘it depends’? On how much funding they’ve got, what they’re researching, who their partners are, who they perceive their “stakeholders” and customers are? That’s a wishy-washy answer you say , one that can’t be proved or disproved? Well, thank you, I try! I’m in training to be an academic, after all…

So that’s the “multi-level perspective”, sort of. The tabloid version, anyway. You had enough yet? There’s a bit more if you want? Go on, you say? You’re doing penance for once having dodged a tube fare you say? Okay. So, the particular framework I’m going to be using is [deep breath]; Dialectic Issue Lifecycle Model.

Don’t panic. Don’t roll your eyes. This is clever, but it’s also pretty easy to understand.

It sort of starts with what is called the “Issue Attention Cycle”, which comes from a guy called Anthony Downs. He looked at the wave of environmental concern in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Initially, hardly anybody is paying attention to an issue – like say pesticides. There were adverts in the 50s “DDT is good for me” and all that. And there was this idea that the technology that had won the War was going to provide solutions to all the world’s problems. Vorsprung durch technik and all that. But then something happens – an accident, a scandal, a book, and something gets onto the agenda. In the case of pesticides it was Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring.” And at about the same time it was realised that the testing of atomic bombs in the atmosphere by both the Russians and the Americans meant that there were detectable amounts of radioactive material in mother’s breast-milk. And people started freaking out about pollution in their food. There were stories in the specialist magazines, and then in the newspapers, and then on the television. And the issue started getting attention from politicians. And social movement organisations – charities, citizens groups and so on – started pressing for action.

And what Downs said was that issues come to a peak of action, but then fade away. Either because the issue gets “solved” – a law gets passed, or else because everyone realises how much it would cost to fix the issue and is relieved when a politician stands up and says “hmm, complex issue. Multiple stakeholders, balancing needs of the environment and the economy… appoint a committee of experts… take three years to report…” And people are secretly relieved that their taxes probably won’t go up to pay for this issue, and the journalists are relieved too, because they have run out of “angles” to take on the story, and they are getting bored, and so are viewers.

But the issue doesn’t entirely fade from view, it doesn’t usually return to the earliest state. People have heard of it now, and new organisations have sprung up to tackle it, or existing organisations have expanded their activity to include that. You with me?

Okay, but the issue attention cycle doesn’t talk about which issues “take off” and capture public attention. Why some and not others? How do issues move up the agenda through the stages? Why do some get stuck and die off? And crucially, what sorts of behaviour can you expect to see during each of the five stages, from the people who are trying to raise the alarm, the industry that would be affected if something serious was in fact done about the problem, and the bureaucrats and politicians of the “state.”

That’s what this “Dialectic Issue Lifescyle Model” – which was devised by the guy who is my primary supervisor and one of his previous PhD students – sets out to tackle.

So it’s “dialectic” because that refers to a struggle, a fight, a contest between the three groups mentioned, where each is trying to jockey for position, and outwit and outmanoeuvre the others. And sometimes the alliances and allegiances shift in odd ways. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia. Eurasia has always been our ally….

This all sounds horribly abstract and dry, you say? You’re worried that I will kill myself from boredom at some point in year two of the PhD, you say?

Now, one of the fun bits is that in public a company might be saying “no no no, it’s impossible”, while in private it is funding – or getting the taxpayer to fund – technical innovations. Take airbags in cars. They’re no good if they only deploy 99% of the time. You’d be left with that 1%, of survivors, or their relatives, saying “your product didn’t work and you are responsible for the consequences. Pay up big time, big boy.”

So airbags have to deploy very quickly – in hundredths of a second. They must be very reliable – working pretty much every time they are supposed to, but they also can’t deploy when they aren’t supposed to. So there are some significant technical challenges there, both in the prototypes and the mass-rollout of them.

Now, while your company is trying to sort all that out, you could be telling the public “yes, making cars more safe in the event of a head-on collision is our responsibility, but it’s a tricky technical problem, so you’ll have to be patient.” But then you’ve raised expectations, and people will be banging on the table, pointing at how many people died in the previous year. And if you bring a product to market that isn’t good enough, you’ll still be in trouble. So it makes a lot more sense to keep expectations low, and then, when you’re ready, and – maybe ahead of the competition – to bring a product to market and gain customers and credibility.

So, to recap. We’ve got the need for sustainability socio-technical transitions.There’s a “multi-level perspective” for how change does and doesn’t happen.

And you’ve got this “Dialectical Issue LifeCycle Model” for how some things capture the attention of the public and perhaps policy-makers, and makes predictions about how an industry responds. But so far the DILC has only been used to look at one country – the United States, and one industry – the car industry.

So they are giving me money – let me say that again – they are freaking giving me money – enough to live on if I eat baked beans and muesli for three years – to see how well the DILC model would explain the behaviour of the coal industry in Australia and the United States in response to climate change. Because if we’d taken climate change seriously in the second half of the 1980s, when the scientists first started saying “Wake up, wake up, shit just got real”, then we wouldn’t be in quite the horrendous mess we are now. And there wouldn’t be a coal industry. It would be shrinking and shrinking and the smart investment money would have gone elsewhere. But I reckon the coal industry saw the threat coming, and they’ve played a blinder. They used the same tactics – and some of the same personnel –  that the tobacco lobby played when the link with cancer became clear.

They’ve made sure that they captured and derailed the policy-making process wherever possible, delaying, deferring and watering down whatever plans got made. I call it bricking up the policy windows.
They’ve helped middle-class people think there perhaps isn’t a problem, that scientists don’t agree. I was on a train to Edinburgh the other day and the woman opposite me – mildly posh – was recounting a letter to the Telegraph as if it were a knock-down argument disproving global warming. That lack of firm social understanding of 19th century physics has meant that progressive politicians find it hard to take bold action. Again, pulling down the shutters on the policy windows.

And they’ve held out the promise of technological solutions for carbon emissions at some unspecified time in the future – “carbon capture and storage”. The idea is that you can put a filter on the chimney stacks, capture the carbon dioxide, liquefy it and pipe it to underground storage facilities where it will stay out of harm’s way. If you’ll pardon the pun, it’s a pipe dream. It’s simply not a feasible technical fix the way that airbags WERE. Of course, I could be wrong about that, and as a member of the human race I sincerely hope that I am. Unless it means I don’t get my PhD.

Yeah, did I mention they are freaking paying me for three freaking years to read and write and think and rewrite, and think, and cry and re-write some more. Three freaking years!!! Wooohooooo!!

3 thoughts on “My PhD – what’s it all about?”

    1. Thanks!

      So, what can we do about Greenland, or is it going to go the way of the WAIS?! (Or WAIS the way of Greenland, perhaps).


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