Category Archives: technology

Technology to the rescue? #HybridWorldAdl

In 1759 the English essayist Samuel Johnson had some wise words about techno-hype.  He said

“When the philosophers of the last age were first congregated into the Royal Society, great expectations were raised of the sudden progress of useful arts; the time was supposed to be near, when engines should turn by a perpetual motion, and health be secured by the universal medicine…..”  

Johnson, like many sceptics of technology, struggled to keep his schadenfreude under control-

“… improvement is naturally slow. The society met and parted without any visible diminution of the miseries of life. The gout and stone were still painful, the ground that was not ploughed brought no harvest, and neither oranges nor grapes would grow upon the hawthorn.” (see video here)

Johnson would have in equal parts bamboozled and enthralled by a two-day conference Hybrid World Adelaide where new promises of technological solution for economic, environmental and social problems were propounded, alongside quite but powerful words of caution.

Hype-ridden or hybrid world?
Adelaide has (outside of “Mad March”) a sleepy image – “the streets are so wide, everybody’s inside, sitting in the same chairs they were sitting in last year” – which the state and city government are understandably keen to challenge.  They provided significant support, arguing that it is an“opportunity to extend South Australia’s reputation as a key tech destination for international visitors and businesses alike.”  This argument – that cities are competing to attract footloose global capital, is known in academia as ‘the spatial fix’  (first propounded by Marxist geographer David Harvey.  But broadband, stable tax regimes and an educated workforce is not on its own enough. In the words of one presenter, Anton van den Hengel   “ a lot of places [smart people] are asked to work by their companies suck. Adelaide doesn’t suck.”

There was an impressive range (and gender balance) among the speakers. The conference proper began with an overview of ‘five technologies that will shape your future’ from the conference’s creative director, Robert Tercek  (author of ‘Vaporised’ ). Over the course of the two days the various presenters spoke to each other’s work, raising questions elided by others, and occasionally fruitfully disagreeing.  Topics included empathic computing, machine learning (not to be conflated with artificial intelligence), space archaeology and, inevitably, smart cities.

There were a series of intriguing factoids thrown out.

  • In four years the number of Australian space start-ups has gone from one to…  eighty.
  • The price of monitoring a cow (handy for proving provenance) has tumbled from a thousand dollars to a few cents
  • Be careful with v-signs on social media – photo resolution is getting so high that your fingerprints could be scanned and used to open your devices
  • The medical advances around software and diagnostics mean photos of your retina taken with an adapted mobile phone will be able to spot heart disease and diabetes, while Chest CT scans can give a good indication if you’ll be alive in five years

The two most compelling presentations (and there was stiff competition) came on the first day.  An anthropologist- Professor Genevieve Bell had even hardened mining engineers sitting up and take notice.  Having pointed out that many of the new technologies relied upon enormous electricity consumption, and that therefore there might be times when AI was not the sustainable option even if it promised’ efficiency savings’, she argued that underlying the enthusiasm for information technologies were differing sets of assumptions and cultural goals. In the west, companies like Google and Facebook are hoovering up information ultimately to sell you things, while in China the focus is more on the creation or maintenance of ‘social harmony’.  Having interrogated the origins of the term Artificial Intelligence, Bell ended with a riff on Arthur C Clarke’s line that any sufficiently advanced technology was indistinguishable from magic.  Instead, Bell said, our technologies should be about making magic.

Soon after, her suggestion was met.  When Marita Cheng , a young tech entrepreneur, founder of Robogals /and much else, demonstrated a mobile phone app   that announced what it was ‘seeing’ at eight objects a second, you could hear jaws hitting the floor.  Cheng followed this up with demonstrations of ‘telepresence’ robots,  which, among other things, would enable sick children to still ‘attend’ school.

The conference itself, bigger and better than last year’s effort  was itself a kind of hybrid – not ‘critical’ enough to be academic and  too broad-ranging to be a trade show (you don’t often get anthropologists and archaeologists on the stage).  But it’s this sense of daring, and of ‘ecosystem building’ – of creating the conditions for lateral thinking and serendipity, that the organisers constantly invoked.

As such, it wasn’t a space for interrogating the darkside of tech.  The dominant way of thinking about this was that ‘bias’ (a deviation from the ‘reasonable’ Gene Rodenberry-esque future) might happen, but active malice was ignored,  This was also a feature of the recent Adelaide Festival of Ideas: these events recruit their speakers from universities and start-ups, and  both tend to be relatively uncritical about technology. There are honourable exceptions.

Venture capitalists don’t give money to people who think tech will make the world worse (or poorer) Ask questions that are too awkward too awkwardly and you won’t be invited… A speaker warning of the panspectron,  of the power of autonomous weapons, might have darkened the mood a bit too much…

The gigabit economy?

Adelaide’s mass manufacturing base (never strong) is in poor shape.  Will the unfolding effort  to wire up the city centre for superfast connectivity provide an alternative economic base? Who gets left behind in this economy?  How do people retrain for a very different future? Might the ‘lucky country’ end up – as someone once warned – a banana republic?

There’s a lot to play for.  It will be interesting to see if the Liberal State government – represented at the conference by the newly-minted minister David Ridgway – can get past the fact that this sort of ‘attract the techies’ work was associated with the Weatherill government, and reach not just for current Liberal prime minister’s enthusiasm for ‘innovation and agility’,  but hark back to the state-building vision of a legendary (Liberal) premier- Thomas Playford.

Time will tell. Samuel Johnson might yet be proved right.


“Stop building coal-fired power stations” say green groups. In 1988. #auspol #climate ffs

This species. I mean, seriously.


1988 11 07 greenhouse switch

Anon, 1988. Greenhouse Switch. Australian Financial Review, 7 November, p.4

Australian governments should stop building coal-fired power stations as a start to combatting the greenhouse effect, conservation groups said yesterday. A group of 25 conservation, consumer and other community organisations said brown coal was the “dirtiest” of the fossil fuels and produced higher levels of carbon dioxide than black coal, oil and natural gas. Increased emissions of gases, such as carbon dioxide, have been blamed for a forecast gradual warming of the earth’s atmosphere. The group said Australia should start switching power generation to the cleanest fossil fuel – natural gas.




Generosity and conviviality in the age of algorithmic oppression: #Manchester #odmnoble

algorithms of oppressionThis was a superb event. A diverse audience of somewhere between 80 and 90 attended a truly excellent event on ‘algorithms of oppression’ yesterday in Manchester. The event, hosted by Open Data Manchester  with the support of The Federation and Manchester School of Art, was centred on a lecture and q and a with Dr Safiya Noble   of USC Annenberg. This blogpost is an attempt to appreciate the richness, breadth and generosity of her talk, and also provide links and ‘bookmarks’. It can’t be a blow-by-blow account, but the event WAS live streamed and the organisers hope to get it up on a video sharing platform soon enough. Comments on the blog welcome, especially if I have mangled something, their are tpyos and that sort of thing…  Stuff in [square brackets] is me editorialising/suggesting additional lines of enquiry/books – I wouldn’t want you to get the impression that Noble has arcane and weird taste in anecdotes.

The event began with generous amounts of alcohol, fruit (grapes! Nom nom. Apples! Nom nom nom) and nibbles, with time for people to catch up with old friends and make new ones.  Julian Tait of Open Data Manchester opened proceedings explaining that ODM, which has been going for about 8 years is a community-led organisation that tries to take a critical look at (open) data and what it might mean for democracy, participation, sustainability and all those Good Things.  (The tagline says it best – Supporting responsible and intelligent data practice in Greater Manchester and beyond). They have a bunch of events coming up, including the brilliantly named ‘Joy Diversion’  (scroll to the bottom) and he then asked if anyone else had events. There was on – this Thursday, 10 May Meet Amazing Data Women, open to anyone who identifies as a women.

A representative of the host building, The Federation gave a short talk, mentioning that it’s a newish community led business with free desk space for tech  businesses that are trying to do useful things around sustainability.  They also have events coming up, including something on May 30 on technology and slavery, with Mary Mazzio, the director of the documentary ‘I am Jane Doe’, and the launch of a report about images and disinformation/misinformation and the recent UK and French elections on June 5.

Then it was on to the main event. Professor Farida Vis, from Manchester School of Art, introduced the speaker Dr Safiya Noble.   She is (not yet) well-known to British audiences I suspect, but if tonight is anything to go by a) she should be and b) she will be. FT  readers may have read the article about her typing in ‘black girls’ to google while looking for things to take her niece to in New York and the results being, well, NSFW [that’s ‘not safe for work’, for any of reader who isn’t quite as down wiv da yoof as the 47 year old middle-class blogger who has to be told off by his wife for quoting The Wire as if it gives him urban(e) cred. Truedat.]

Noble works on the ways in which information technology, while seeming ‘neutral’ [the best trick the devil ever played…] actually perpetuates (intensifies) pre-existing prejudices. She’s been working on this for years and she knows a hell of a lot, but wears it lightly.  Noble has an engaging and charismatic stage presence. She clearly knows her stuff, knows why it matters and is keen to communicate it, but also to engage with questions and critiques.  She began with an anecdote about her new book.  When she first got the contract with NYU Press  her editor there (whom she praised – Noble is generous at giving ‘shout outs’ to colleagues) said that there was no way the word algorithm could be in the title – “nobody except you nerds knows what an algorithm is.”  Well, now, with bots crawling all over our minds like spiders hatching from an egg sac in a wound, everyone knows differently.  Noble said that even her father-in-law is saying “what’s up with those algorithms?” Noble then pointed out that while her research – and her talk – would be about the USA, what she is studying [warning about] is happening globally, at different speeds in different ways.

This of course is part of a broader ‘techlash’ – a backlash against the utopian promises and hype [see Gartner Hype Cycles for more on this].  As a Wired article Noble referenced put it “2017 was the year we fell out of love with algorithms.”

The next thing that happened was a recurring theme: Noble enthusiastically cited the work of another academic (in this case Wendy Chun, and her 2006 book “Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fibre Optics“.  Two things here – firstly this is a super-helpful habit, sharing your overview of an issue and its back history. Secondly , she wasn’t citing other scholars merely to say their work was incomplete and she had the missing pieces of the puzzle. This wasn’t an alpha (male) academic exercise in the swinging of, er, citations, of the type that those of us privileged to live in the ivory tower so often encounter.

[Btw- strangely many of the authors working on digital oppressions  are African-American or BME. Very odd that that African Americans might have the most acute and penetrating perceptions about the ways that power works. It’s almost as if they have been on the pointy end of oppression for centuries. But anyway…]

She also mentioned Ann Everett, but I can’t read my scrawl to get the context.  [Ah, the irony – google helps out-  In Digital Diaspora; A Race for Cyberspace – “Deftly interweaving history, culture, and critical theory, Anna Everett traces the rise of black participation in cyberspace, particularly during the early years of the Internet”.  Noble had by this point already reminded us just how revolutionary and useful Google was when it arrived in 2000, making it actually possible to find stuff…]

Anyway, Noble’s thesis, in her book – omfg I haven’t linked to her book yet-  is that black bodies are ‘data disposable’ , upon which technology is practiced and perfected  [And for those of you who think ‘conspiracy theory’/chip on shoulder, why don’t you check out the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male  [the clue is in the name] and how the pill was tested on Puerto Ricans. To back this up she introduced Vilna Bashi Treitler and a book called The Ethnicity Project: Transforming Racial Fiction into Ethnic Factions, which says that there is a ‘core binary spectrum’ (white and non-white), with immigrants striving to become white (think the Irish and Italians)  [the same thing happened in Australia, – whiteness is such a freaking fiction].

Noble mentioned a backlash against talking about race since the 1990s, with the rise of so-called ‘colour-blind ideology’, a favoured phrase of venture capitalists looking to fund projects. It has the odd effect of rendering white and Asian men invisible [so ‘normal’ as to be unseeable]

Two more academics working on this got a shout out – Michael Brown [can’t find – perhaps a reference to Ferguson victim?] and Helen A. Neville.

In the one moment that, for me, was questionable Noble pointed out that the rise of ‘computer knows best’ ideology grew in the 1960s at the same time as Civil Rights legislation was being passed and participation in decision-making became at least thinkable for minorities [that said, the use of technology to deskill and suppress workers power is indisputable – see David Noble Forces of Production  I just think this was a slightly long bow to draw…]

What we are seeing now is analogous to ‘redlining’ (where banks refused loans to entire categories of people – a practice now outlawed).  Profiles of individuals are being built on a mass level – what does it mean to have a data profile about you that you can’t intervene on?  For Noble, AI is going to be a massive Human Rights issue in the 21st century, and it is one we don’t have the legal/political frameworks for yet.

More fellow academics and thinkers then got a shout out

[Noble says that this list is just ‘scratching the surface’, and that we need to mainstream the discussion of tech ethics)

Noble told an amusing story about having been on twitter for so long that she actually has the @safiya handle but can’t use it because it gets flooded with mis-tagging  (the same thing happens to a guy called @johnlewis, who has great fun with people’s mis-tagging while looking for the store).

Searching questions
Moving on to the question of how trusted search engines are, Noble pointed to a 2012  Pew Centre study which showed that most Americans are satisfied with search engines, most use Google (thus, Noble says, that’s what she studies!, and most use it often.  Search engines are therefore seen as a ‘trusted public good’, the people’s portal.  The cost of this is that we’ve lost the art of/respect for content curated by an expert.

Noble then shared the experience by which she might be known to a general UK audience – she googled ‘black girls’ (having been told by a colleague not to do it from a university computer.  And sure enough, it was pages and pages of porn.  Noble wrote an article on this for Bitch magazine, published in Spring 2012. By autumn Google had suppressed the porn in the search results [a pattern that would continue  – individual problems dealt with on an ad hoc reactive basis]

Noble then asked if anyone had heard of a UK band called Black Girls, which still appears in the searches. One of the 90ish present had, leading Noble to observethe band was better at search engine optimisation than it was at music distribution…

Next up Noble gave a shout out to an online collection of Jim Crow memorabilia at, before going on to recount how, in 2015,  DeRay Mckesson  (with leverage acquired from having been followed by Beyonce) showed that when you googled the ‘n-word’house Google Maps took you to the White House.

Again, Google’s response was to talk about ‘glitches’ (in otherwise perfect systems.

Another example – the following year chap called Kabir Ali was livestreamed by his friends googling ‘three black teenages’ and ‘three white teenagers’.  The former gave mugshots, the latter healthy non-threatening sportsballing folks

[This stuff matters. Somewhere (Malcolm Gladwell?) there’s an anecdote about someone regularly doing the Implicit Association Test, which furtles out the links you make ‘unintentionally’ and not being able to figure out why his results were improving –then realised he was watching the Olympics, where black athletes were doing well/being praised]

Anyway, the following day, it was tweaked.

Next up – googling “unprofessional hairstyles for work” came up with lots of black women, while “”professional hairstyles for work” came up with white women with pony tails.

See also Jessica Davis and Oscar Gandy 1999 Racial identity and media orientation: Exploring the Nature of Constraint. Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 29, (3), pp.367-397.

[I mentioned this to the brilliant Sarah Irving and she mentioned the ‘if anyone needs to know that orientalism is still a thing, google ‘sheikh’ – still loads of images of kidnappy/rapey men on camels and their insatiable appetites for white flesh]

So beyond being offensive and demoralising, what are the broader political implications, if any?  Noble pointed to a 2013 study that showed that the types of results which came up on the first page when someone googled a candidate could influence who people would vote for, and that search engines need to be regulated. [I haven’t got this totally]  This is the article I think – Viability, Information Seeking and Vote Choice.  (Of course, googlebombing is nowt new – see what Dan Savage did to Senator Santorum, way back in the day).

Skip forward- after the 2016 Presidential Election, if you googled ‘final election result’ in the US you got taken to a lying site, that said Trump won not only the Electoral College vote, but ALSO the popular vote.

Further links

Neoliberal co-optation

So, the response has been predictable, and probably effective.  Google has come up with ‘Black Girls Code’ – in this narrative the main problem is not structural racism but that 5 year old black girls haven’t been getting involved enough… Noble cited Heather Hiles as noting that less than one per cent of venture capital goes into projects led by black women.

Noble then moved on to the deeper question of who makes the tech, and what damage is done in the making  of it (the subject of her next work – following the production and value chains).  All these techs are “resting precariously on extraction in the Global South” with enormous amounts of hidden labour [and ecosystem devastation] “in I-phone 12 or whatever we’re going to be on in a week” – all part of the (story of) infinite linear progress of technology [ah, the hedonic treadmill, donchajustlove it]

This sense of technology as our (submissive because female) friend is there in the new personal digital assistants such as Microsoft’s Ms Dewey, Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa.  Noble mentioned that a few weeks ago she was talking with robotics professors at Stanford who had not thought through the implications of children learning to bark commands at women’s voices…

[There’s a great Onion story “Congress Demands to Know How Facebook Got people to Give Up their Civil Liberties without a Fight” in which they quiz Mark Zuckerberg on how he convinced people to let bugs/spies into their houses in a way the FBI could only dream of. ]

Other problems include so-called “predictive policing” and embodied software (Robocop Lives!!) Simone Browne and racialized policing.  A concrete (in every sense) example – in Champagne Illinois there are [were?], in the poor neighbourhoods, virtually no sidewalks.  So, what do kids do? They walk in the street. And what do the cops do? Write them up for jaywalking.  As the Violent Femmes once sang ‘this will go down on your permanent record’….   [A neat example of how, as per critical realism, we have to think about material constraints, not just ideologies and ‘rules’ – see Sorrell, 2018:  “Explaining sociotechnical transitions: A critical realist perspective]

Final example – even videos of atrocities (Eric Garner dying, saying ‘I can’t breath’) attract advertising revenues because, well – lots of people watch them.  [We monetise our own catastrophes, whether we like it or not…]

What is to be done?

This was the last, and by far the briefest, section of Noble’s talk. She had five suggestions

  • Build repositories and platforms that belong to the public. (Noble noted that the convergence of states and multinational companies made it hard to imagine platforms that were not based on advertising revenues)
  • Resist colorblind/racist/sexist technology development (sex dolls got a mention)
  • Decrease technology over-development and e-waste
  • More info and research visualisation for the public
  • Never give up


Noble closed by observing that the prediction is that by 2030 1% of the population will own 2/3rds of the world’s wealth. There will be intensified datafication, more devices, with more promises of seamless and frictionless liberty.  But we can’t eat the digital. We can’t make an iPhone sandwich….


Question and Answer

There was time for some questions.  What was interesting here – besides the info itself – was that Noble gave quick and detailed answers, without waffle or using the Q and A as a chance for a thinly-veiled continuation of her lecture (we’ve all seen that happen, right?)

Please do NOT take anything I’ve ascribed to Noble as gospel. I may have got stuff wrong. I don’t do shorthand.  Check the recording!

Question 1: Is Capitalism an algorithm of oppression?

Noble: Yes, of course… goes on to point to the racialized element of this.  2008 financial crisis as the biggest wipe out of black wealth since the Reconstruction [e.g. here and here]

Cites Cathy O’Neil Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy.

Question 2 Audre Lorde said that the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house.  Does this mean that we should be encouraging people to ‘disconnect.?

Noble:  No. It’s cute to tell people to delete facebook, but we need collective solutions, not individual ones. If I stop paying my rent, I’m not taking down capitalism.We need to strengthen our position in the situation we are in.  For example “fair sourcing”, and design where nobody dies [a challenge she put to comp sci students who had to take her class recently.  We need a more powerful public response.  We used to have 80% unionisation after world war two.  Need that back.  That’s not easy.  In retrospect everyone was at the 1963 March on Washington, but  of course it was no more than 10 percent making the change at the time. We need to find that 10% again

[And keep them for the long haul.  Best book on the Civil Rights Struggle I ever read was ‘And We are Not Saved’ by Debbie Louis. Extraordinary.]

[I asked that question.  What I MEANT to say was ‘in your opinion, are there inherent properties within the technology that mean it will never be effective as a weapon of liberation. If so, what then?’ but I bollocksed it up.  I am sure there is a broader lesson in this – perhaps something about about letting smarter-than-me black women speak for themselves and staying out of the way, but I can’t quite see what it is….]

Question 3:  (from a biracial woman).  Was searching for home insurance with a white friend. They have same financial profile, and asked for two quotes on the same house.  Guess who was quoted the cheaper premium…

[At which point TV Smith’s ‘It’s expensive being poor’ sprang to mind.]

Noble:  That’s what we call code data discrimination, which we can’t see.  We have to have public policy on this.  And most discrimination laws are about proving intent – we should be looking at outputs and impacts.  There is this very powerful ‘tech is neutral’ idea which we have to contest.

Noble then gave the example of a (black?) guy who was the son of a financial planner, and a financial planner himself i.e. ‘responsible adult’ had his Amex card declined. Eventually, after multiple calls it emerged he’d once bought something in a Walmart in the Wrong Part of Town and the algorithm had ‘decided’ he was credit risk.

Question 4: to what extent are Silicon Valley executives oblivious to the problem?

Noble: They’re largely underprepared. If you’re designing tech for society and you don’t know anything about society, you’re underprepared.  The kind of people who end up in Silicon Valley mostly went to the top five universities and will have been able to transfer out of their humanities components early. For some the last humanities course they took will have been high school English.  But even if by some miracle they’d taken ethnic/women’s studies, that wouldn’t necessarily help, since they are coding/designing within a set of institutions/beliefs/paradigms [my paraphrase/word salad].

And there is defensiveness/hostility in some companies about all of this.

Question 5:  How much of this is unconscious bias?

Noble: I don’t like that phrase. UB let’s everyone off the hook.  Get’s us back into intent questions, where we need to look at outputs and impacts, and then use public policy, HR policies, hiring etc.

What kind of world do we want? One were people can’t afford to eat?  How do we do things differently.

Question 6: Thanks for opening my eyes about search engine bias: beyond moderation of search engines, what?

Noble: we must separate advertising content from knowledge. If you’re looking for somewhere to eat, fine, but if, as Dylan Roof (the 19 year old who murdered 9 black churchgoers in Virginia), well, he was doing ‘sense-making’ on Travyon Martin (murdered by George Zimmerman) and was led to lots of white supremacist sites.  There’s a chapter in the book on this.

We need to demarcate better, and realise that google should not be a ‘trusted public good’.


Further reading [my suggestions’


What I would have done differently

I have been to (and blogged) about some truly appalling events.  This, mercifully was not one of them.  Huzzah! Still, it’s usually possible to offer unsolicited advice. So here goes:

One of the (largely) false promises of social media is that it will decrease our sense of loneliness/anomie. When we organise “meatspace” events, we should take actions that reduce that loneliness. I would have had people turn to someone they don’t know at the outset and introduce themselves for a couple of minutes. Who are they? Why did they come? What are they hoping to get.  No wider feedback, just that. (It works- see here).

I would have challenged Noble to talk slightly less about the problems (though it was incredibly eye opening) and at greater length about the ‘solutions’ and how they might be implemented, and by who.

During Q and A mostly men’s hands (about 4 to 2, when actual gender balance in room was roughly 55/45 male to female).  (Fwiw, I think meetings are institutionally sexist). Have people turn to the person next to them to compare notes, and get help honing their question. Then ask for a show of hands and pick male and female hands-  or on other metrics- an obvious one in this case would be race)
Upcoming events

Sat May 19 Joy Diversion

“Calling all ramblers, explorers and meanderers. Surveyors, cartographers and inquisitors – people who look up to the rooftops and down into the culverts. Join us for an afternoon of mapping, exploring and wandering in Central Manchester and Salford.”


Maps, territories, landscapes and moonscapes: three brilliant guides to the transformations

It’s easy to get lost, to feel lost, especially when you’re diving into new literature(s). Your supervisors can do just so much (mostly tell your thesis is not up to scratch (yet), or point you in the direction of some really good literature (institutional work, much?)

But for the bigger/biggest picture? Well, who has the time to keep abreast of all the stuff that’s out there. By luck, twitter and (cough) “good judgement” I’ve recently come across three superlative explanatory papers that tackle the “how are we supposed (to believe that we might still be able to) to get out of this mess” question.

They are, in order that I read them (drumroll please)

Lorbach et al. 2017. Sustainability Transitions Research: Transforming Science and Practice for Societal Change. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, Vol. 42, pp.599-626.

de Gooyert et al. 2016. Sustainability transition dynamics: Towards overcoming policy resistance. Technological Forecasting & Social Change, Vol. 111, October, pp.135-45.

Patterson, et al. 2016. Exploring the governance and politics of transformations towards sustainability Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions Vol 24 Sept 2017, p.1-16

Loorbach et al do a great job explaining the intellectual origins of transitions (see my recent blog based on a Florian Kern seminar), and then walk the reader through socio-technical, socio-institutional, and socio-ecological transitions, which have in common notions of path dependencies, niches, experiments and governance. They point to three ways of dealing with agency (fancy academic speak for “who can do what to what effect”) – analytical, evaluative and experimental. They close out by trying to connect to Real World impacts, and “sustainability transitions research and its challenges.” Oh, and there are 172 references. Should help anyone needing something to procrastinate with from drafting their discussion chapter. Cough. Cough.

De Gooyert et al want to help with the problem of Power, something that transitions has a bit of a problem with.

“Despite these efforts, many implemented transition policies have not been able to meet expectations. This tendency of systems to defeat the policies that have been designed to improve them is known as ‘policy resistance’. This paper addresses the question how we can explain the persistence of policy resistance in the context of sustainability transitions, and aims to bring us a step further in the direction of identifying policies that support overcoming policy resistance.”

So, they’re making use of system dynamics and doing something rather clever – getting “experts”
in a room and asking them the Del Amitri question why “nothing ever happens”.

The methodology is novel, and limited – they know they will also have to ask the (un)civil society types. Whatever papers emerge from that will also be worth a very close read.

Btw, another paper on this that is worth a very close read is
Smink, M., Hekkert, M. and Negro, S. 2015. Keeping sustainable innovation on a leash? Exploring incumbents’ institutional strategies. Business Strategy and the Environment, Vol. 24, pp.86-101.

Patterson et al do a similar thing as de Gooyert et al, but on a bigger, hairier and more audacious scale. They take a theory/framework/whatevs and smash it up against transitions studies. But rather than systems dynamics, they plump for Earth Systems Governance.

What’s that. Well, they explain  -“The Earth System Governance (ESG) framework (Biermann et al., 2009) is highly relevant to the challenge of understanding and analysing the governance and politics of transformations towards sustainability. It comprises a matrix of key governance problems, and cross-cutting themes that are inherent to dealing with global sustainability problems.”

esg from patterson et al
Source:  Patterson et al

They smack ESG up against socio-technical transitions, social-ecological systems, sustainability pathways, and transformative adaptation.  And lots of interesting things “fall” out of that collision, (i.e. are the result of serious thinking and intellectual firepower)

They close out with some mildly important questions. Here’s a selection

• What are the short-term and long-term dynamics of transformations, and how can we observe when (or when not) transformations are occurring?
• How can transformative change and its feasibility be understood and analysed in an ex-ante sense?
•What are the sources of agency and roles for both state and non-state actors in enabling and supporting transformations?
• What drives transformations towards sustainability over long timeframes, and how do these drivers arise?
• What types of institutions and governance arrangements are needed to enable and shape transformations towards sustainability across multiple scales?
• What kinds of innovation in institutions and governance arrangements are needed in different problem domains, and how might this innovation arise and diffuse?
• How might ‘battles of institutional change’ (Chhotray and Stoker, 2009) play out, particularly when change is disruptive and met with strong resistance?
• How can policy and decision-making that is anticipatory and long-term be encouraged over short-termism?
•How might new norms, ethics and values needed to underpin transformations towards sustainability arise?
• How can accountability mechanisms be developed to ensure that actors who ‘should’ be responsible, actually are, both in the short term and longer-term?
• By which mechanisms can power inequalities be productively addressed to allow actors who are poorly represented to meaningfully participate in shaping transformation processes?
• How can powerful opposing interests and forces linked to existing path-dependencies be addressed?
•More broadly, “how do global and regional political economies influence transformations to sustainability in different domains?” (Future Earth, 2014b).

Fortunately, my thesis and my activism provide the final word on every. single. one. of these.  Oh yes…

I can’t possibly do these brilliant papers justice, or offer any incisive critique of them (yet- that’s way above my current paygrade, maybe always will be). At the moment my only – and mildly unfair- criticism would be is why they didn’t all exist three years ago when I was starting this bloody PhD. All I can do is urge other transitions/transformations scholars, at whatever stage, to give all three careful consideration.


Some observations about their commonalities

  • they are all group efforts, which tells you that being able to synthesise all this is beyond the effort of any individual, or set of individuals within a disciplinary silo (#banal)
  • they all take a ‘metatheoretical’ level, and don’t fall in love with a single theory as The Answer. Nor do they play defensive hierarchical games about whose Theory should be Top Dog. They’re not necessarily saying that we must resign ourselves forever to kludges, palimpsests and interdisciplinarity congalines, but just that right now, the fertile thing to do is to try to hold multiple objects up to multiple lenses at the same time (and that this is bloody difficult) (#alsobanal)
  • any theory that doesn’t account for the messinesses of power is a waste of everyone’s scarce time
  • at the moment, each seems to exist in the Ivory Tower and its near surrounds; if someone wants to pay me and my cartoonist mate Marc to rectify that, please do get in touch…

There’s some question over that “any map is good enough” anecdote, (and an answer).. Fortunately you don’t need “any” map –  these three will do…

Oh, and grok this on the question of power and transitions!!

Sociotechnical transitions for beginners; of speed, stability and mixing it up

What’s a sociotechnical transition? Why should you care?  What does history teach us? Why might it be a false teacher? All good questions and they received good (though sometimes, by necessity provisional) answers yesterday as Dr Florian Kern of University of Sussex spoke on ‘Governing Low Carbon Transitions’ (see foot of this post for the abstract).

Kern, who is a senior Lecturer at the Science Policy Research Unit and Co-Director of the  Sussex Energy Group at University Sussex, started with a brief overview of energy – there are lots of different ways we (7 and a half billion of us) get energy – nuclear, coal, solar, burning wood etc) and each has consequences/sideeffects/costs (Fukushima, tar sands etc).  He touched on the Sustainable Development Goals (see here for a philosophical critique of them).  Energy dominates human well-being, and – crucially –  energy systems tent to be complex, long-lived and capital intensive. This means they involve ‘carbon lock-in’ . Businesses will be fonder of doing incremental ‘within the system’ changes on a business as usual trajectory.  You’ve got assets, you want to sweat them.  You’ve got core competencies, you don’t want to trash them…

So this leads us onto transitions of whole systems (rather than focussing unduly on shiny gadgets being invented and distributed).   How exacly do we think about these systems?  Technological infrastructure, user preferences? A mix.

Kern touched on the standard definition of a transition – scrutucal change in the way that societal needs are fulfilled (the thorny question of created needs – via advertising or destroying alternative provision – throwing people off the commons/accumulation by dispossession) was outside his remit.

The standard view (see below) is that they usually take 30-50 years, if not longer, that they involve both technical and non-technical change, that they are multi-level and co-evolutionary affairs that are non-linear and involve multiple actors.

At which point he threw up that Turner painting of a steam tug taking a sailing ship on its final journey…


So, transitions have various possible pathways, with questions around how they’re developed and supported.

There was then a rather snazzy and useful diagram of Jochen Markard listing some of the various intellectual (well, academic) disciplines which contribute to transitions studies – management, sociology, political science, natural science, , innovation studies, economic geography, economics (an incomplete list)

There are soooo many emerging topics within (sustainability) sociotechnical transitions, more than you could shake a thesis at.  (Deep breath): politics, power, agency, contestation; cities/urban sustainability’ beyond initial experiments (how to scale up/extend/mainstream); the role of social innovation.  [Fortunately my thesis (due by 2020, 2022 at the latest), will resolve ALL of these.]

Kern today was specifically focusing on three particular topics – the speed of transitions, whether/how sociotechnical systems can be destabilised and the appropriate ‘policy mix’ for transitions.

  1. Speed

“Speed” is not just a classic Keanu Reeves/Sandra Bullock action film.  It also matters given that we’re supposed to be decarbonising not just electricity grids but everything under, well, the sun.  Keeling Curve, Two Degrees, etc etc (#wearetoast)

The conventional view is this takes decades or centuries, but in late 2016 Benjam Sovacool (also SPRU) threw a very lively cat among the pigeons by arguing ‘How long will it take?’

It all might be quicker, he argues (and I am paraphrasing a paraphrase, not having re-read that paper!)  because … three things

  • there are lots of actors pushing,
  • lots of interesting international dynamics (from the global – IRENA, UNFCCC all the way through to local communities [Carbon Coop will save the world!!! I hope.]
  • Paris  (don’t talk to me about Paris).

Kern was interesting on the international dynamics thing, arguing (as have others) that German Solar PV policies got the Chinese interested in upping their manufacturing capacity, leading to oversupply, a price plummet and all sorts of gamechangery stuff. He cited also Peter Newell and Lucy Baker on emerging economies and possibly leapfrogging.  Suzlon instead of Vestas etc

Meanwhile, since (but not necessarily because of) Paris, renewable investment is outstripping fossil fuel investment.
2.  Destabilisation

We need to move beyond nurturing niches (What was that Vonnegut said about half the world’s problems being down to the fact at everyone wants to build, nobody wants to do maintenance).

So, what of incumbents?  Is Goliath motivated to innovate before David bullseyes him like a Womp rat? Can dinosaurs tapdance or do they just engage in state capture and buying/swallowing/crushing/controlling/retarding competence-destroying innovations?  It depends.

There are of course technological, economic, political and normative dimensions to all this.  And the incumbents toil at all of them, as do moral entrepreneurs like the divestors.

3. Policy Mixes

So (how) do various policies affect what innovation does happen?  Kern referenced Weber and Rohracher 2012 and Schot and Steinmuller 2016 here. What of both active and passive ‘protective spaces‘? There are no silver bullets (either policy or technological) and the direction of innovation matters too…

Can we honestly expect serious destabilisation through policy instruments? (I would argue nope, but I am one of life’s pessimists).  Kern pointed to the German Energy ministers attempted carbon levy and the pushback from mining companies and miners leading to companies being paid NOT to produce.  Great.  Then again, Norway and banning the internal combustion engine.  We. Shall. See. Quite soon.  (I’m writing of the Apocalypse here, y’all).

The empirical bit of the seminar came from a comparison of Finnish and UK policies for the Cinderella of energy policy, efficiency.  Kivimaa and Kern 2016 did some number crunching (with self-admitted concerns about the final validity of the methodology) and came to the conclusion that niche-creating activities were far more numerous than incumbent-attacking ones.  Then again, in the q and a it was pointed out that the latter, while fewer in number, might be more consequential.

This was followed by a vigorous Q and A session (but no chest-beatery nonsense) in which the relative lack of focus on individual firms was questioned (“in regimes they’re called incumbents, that’s it, but since Wikileaks we know Shell was ALL OVER Dutch energy policy”).

Kern agreed and lamented the lack of comparative political economy on the relative importance of policies and the nature of different states (esp fossil exporters)

The whole question of policy mixes got a further airing too (the lack of optimal mixes, the methodological trickiness of measurement, the fact that it’s always a snapshot in time and investors (aim to) take a long view.

Verdict: A great way to spend 90 minutes. Beats cutting cutting cutting my bloody empirical chapters.  And yes, Katrina, I have been doing that….


That abstract

“For a variety of reasons, current fossil fuel based energy systems are under pressure to change. Historical energy transitions have been slow processes, but in this seminar I will argue that there are reasons to believe that ongoing low carbon transitions can occur more quickly. The argument is that historic energy transitions were not consciously governed, while today a wide variety of actors is actively engaged in attempts to govern the transition towards low carbon energy, international innovation dynamics can work in favour of speeding up the global low-carbon transition and the 2015 Paris agreement demonstrates a global commitment to move towards a low carbon economy for the first time. I argue that supporting innovation as well as destabilising existing high carbon energy systems is required for a quick transition and that policy makers need to develop suitable policy mixes to successfully accelerate low carbon transitions.”

Technology as fetish? South Australia and the Social Economy.

A rather interesting event today, high above the mean streets of Adelaide.  What place might “technology” (we will come back to the scare quotes) have in helping Adelaide (and South Australia more generally) cope with the slings and arrows of deindustrialisation and globalisation?

The event was organised by the Dunstan Foundation (named for the last SA Premier to properly shake things up. He stepped down in 1979), and sponsored by “Connecting Up”. The Dunstan Foundation is revivifying the ‘Thinkers in Residence’ programme, which started 15 years ago with the late great climate scientist Stephen Schneider.  The theme these days is ‘Social Capital’, and it was this context which brought people together to listen to (and engage with) Suzi Sosa. Who she? She is  ‘Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Verb, a global social enterprise producing large-the competitions focused on pressing social and environmental issues.’
And she’s a pretty good facilitator, when it comes down to it.  There were twenty of us, apparently a younger crowd than the previous roundtables that have taken place over the last few days (Adelaide as gerontocracy? Who knew?). The specific question was “Social Impact and ICT.’

As the chair said in his opening comments explaining the re-birth of the Thinkers in Residence programme, the ‘social economy´ matters; in the aftermath of a major employer shutting down, a report revealed that it is a significant employer, and the Dunstan Foundation is interested how to make the social economy work for SA, how to speed it up (with technology).

Ms Souza made some brief opening remarks – South Australia at fork in road, question of whether to try to entice a big employer or try for local entrepreneurship (that ‘endogenous growth that Gordon Brown used to talk about).  And meanwhile, Gen Y and Z types are restive – with 70% saying they are looking for purpose/meaning in their daily work.  There was a certain amount of buzzword bingo- cutting edge/going forward/DNA- but I think I detected a little self-knowingness in them.

We then had a name-go-round and brief self intro of the 20 of us.  I outed myself as a skeptic on ‘social capital’, saying at the time that my scepticism was down to the buzzword nature of it (compare sustainable development, participatory etc.). I didn’t say it’s because it’s part of the constellation of terms – resilience, continuous professional development/lifelong learning – which add up to the subjectification under neoliberalism, what Jurgie Habermas would call the colonisation of the life world. Why not? Time, cans and worms etc; see also.)

The conversation was relatively ahistorical, not-informed by sociology/ anthropology/ science and technology studies. The term ‘technology’ didn’t get thoroughly unpacked/critiqued, and there was uncertainty about who this ‘we’ was who was doing things, or planning to do so.  Nothing on hype cycles either. After a while, thanks to a couple of the women (especially the one sat opposite me) it picked up, with mention of participatory democracy.

At this point I pitched in and asked if anyone remembered the 1995 essay ‘the Californian Ideology’, which critiqued the rhetoric of empowerment around the coming of the World Wide Web and dotcom neoliberalism  (I might also have mentioned Clifford Stoll’s excellent Silicon Snake Oil).  I pointed out that each new technology – television, radio, newspapers, the printing press – came with expectations that it would solve social problems (poverty, ill-health etc) but that mysteriously they don’t, that questions of power and privilege cannot be buried under boosterism.

(I could have mentioned the Sustainability Fix,

but I didn’t want to give the (completely incorrect) impression of being an arrogant know-it-all.)

Ms Souza pushed me to explain what I thought about entrepreneurial ecosystems and how to help them along.  I suggested that there needed to be Devils’ Advocates and unusual supects  baked into the process, or else it would be a smart club which came up with some good ideas but didn’t reach its potential. I pointed out that there was a huge expat community of Adelaidians scattered around the world (not just in Sydney and Melbourne) who care deeply about the city, would like to come back, and that the technology surely existed to make them part of this conversation.

The conversation moved on in interesting ways; Adelaide is less staid than it was/young people no longer asking permission, there is still a braindrain, one of Adelaide’s advantages is that everyone knows everyone (1.5 degrees of separation), of the opportunity to something other than ‘catch up’ with Sydney, e.g. Austin’s “stay weird” slogan, human-centred design, volunteers as both asset but also inertial block, millennials wanting their superannuation to Do Good In The World., the problem of matching those with the skills and those who need them.

Ms Souza kept the conversation going in useful ways with a gentle nudge here and there. She told a good anecdote of having to switch a pitch from CSR departments (no money, risk averse) to HR departments, and the need to learn a new language and sell what was offering as talent retention rather than Doing Good in the World.  Her closing gambit was to do another systematic go-round of what should be in her report of recommendations of what is to be done.

Lots of useful ideas – including about the importance of business models, the risk-aversion of NGOs when their funding is on-the-line and much else. I pitched in the warning ‘if the only tool you have is a hammer, all your problems look like nails and that there might be space for a monthly ‘lek’ complete with skype/facetime/livestreaming for people in the provinces. It would need to be well-designed, facilitated and enforced so people can actually properly meet and connect If it’s not, if those with the greatest social capital dominate, others will quickly vote with their feet, and things are worse than they were before…

Thoughts on the event.  Nicely done.  Good format, input from some very smart people.  However, nothing on the downsides of Big Data, on the downsides of meritocracy, the risks of volunteering as downward pressure on wages, the old saw ‘Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.’  A touching faith in the power of our tools…

There was  a good practical focus on where is the money coming from/getting investment (and someone smart said afterwards, the impact of the State Bank collapse in the early 1990s has not been mentioned/understood).

There was, inevitably,  a game of buzzword bingo to be had-

Social imaginary, start-ups, tech savvy, siloed, entrepreneurial ecosystem, activate, leverage, hard infrastructure, soft infrastructure, technology as enabler (nowt on how technology can disable)

I’ve been to three things so far this week, (see this) and despite its silence on the pending ecological debacle,  this was by far the most interesting and fruitful.  It will be interesting to see what is in Ms Souza’s report, and what South Australia does next…


Weil’s disease – or ‘the internet is eating my brain’

When I was in Australia, I ended up with a smartphone (the handset was as cheap as the cheapest non-smart model, so I thought ‘why not?’).  There were two consequences

a) I met up with someone who I’d have otherwise missed because I was able to check email on the move

b) I freaked the wife out by emailing her from a coach between Melbourne and Adelaide (I only got a mobile a few years back, and she knows I am a luddite).

Actually, there was a third consequence, which I spotted early on and was the reason I haven’t used the smart phone since getting back to Blight(ed)y – that if I had a few ‘idle’ minutes I’d surf the web/trivia instead of read a few pages of a book.  And that is a baaaad habit to get into, and one that I knew I would if I didn’t remove the handset from my grubby paw.

All this sprang (well, slouched) to mind when I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s screed/jeremiad/argument about the (negative) impact of technologies.  This bit is pretty good…

Simone Weil wrote that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity”. By this definition, our relationships to the world, and to one another, and to ourselves, are becoming increasingly miserly.

Simone Weil? Frog philosopher, whom I first heard about from #thefirstonethatgotaway

I’ve just read that wikipedia page.  Holy fucking shit, is all I have to say.

See also: My poem!  ‘Does your device suffice