In early June I attended an innovative dialogue in Brisbane that brought together the public, scientists and other ‘informants’ (of which I was one) that was organised by the Federal Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education (DIISRT). The dialogue is one of many being conducted for a new community engagement project that is part of the National Enabling Technologies Strategy. (NETS). The dialogue was a mix of open discussion (especially about different ‘problem definitions’ regarding the big-picture energy challenge), information sessions (about nanotechnology and ‘artificial photosynthesis’), and small group work. It’s a signal of potential new approaches to innovation and energy policy in Australia.
Two major aspects of the discussion at this event stood out to me. First, the major divergence (and no convergence) regarding participants preferred energy futures. Most of the public wanted to discuss rapid transitions to renewables and energy sources available now (and didn’t see a need for emerging technologies such as nanotechnology) and mainly wanted to discuss politics and government policy (which was seen as an impediment to this future). Another smaller segment wanted to focus on current local Queensland issues. This was in contrast to the stated focus of the dialogue on nanotechnology and related national ‘energy security’ issues and potential future energy technologies. There were a mixture of futures being discussed and no sense of shared preferred future emerged. Indeed, my sense was that each of the different “camps” ended-up more set in their views as a result of the dialogue. But perhaps this is an unrealistic goal for a one-day event addressing such complex issues to aim for covnergence on a shared future!
Second, the broader-ranging discussion of the major challenges that need to be overcome if we are to transition towards a distributed and renewables-based energy system. I was struck by the views and admissions of senior scientists that current small scale shifts to decentralised systems are already causing major headaches for energy firms, and the related views that we don’t yet have all the technologies that we need – nor do we know how to use them most effectively – in order to create this future, smart energy system. This all gets much harder if you also throw plug-in electric vehicles into the mix. Where this led to was a very interesting discussion on the various ‘change management’ challenges, especially how – and to what extent – orderly ‘energy transitions’ might be possible. The new governance models emerging in Europe might be of relevance, along with the “e-Lab” model being championed by the Rocky Mountain Institute. Perhaps this is something that NETS and its ‘expert forum’ activities (e.g. the foresight workshops) could usefully evolve into.
Also notable the community engagement project has a (for some radical) broader goal of facilitating public input into decision-making about new technologies such as nanotechnology. Although, it must be said, exactly how – and to what extent – this is envisaged to occur was unclear.
Nonetheless I left the dialogue thinking it gave mixed messages at times in relation to the desire of the organisers to broaden “a topic beyond the usual focus on technology as problem solver and to consider technology in social context”. Some of the discussion achieved this, but the rapid fire presentations by scientists were more along the lines of ‘technology to the rescue’.