At the Center for Energy and Society, our work begins with the insight that to design the future of energy is to design the future of society and the economy.
Carbon-based energy systems are the beating heart of the modern economy and modern societies. In England, in the 19th century, coal fed the furnaces, the factories, and the trains that launched the Industrial Revolution. In the 20th century, in the United States, coal powered the electrification of cities, and oil enabled both the production and movement of the automobile, the tank, the battleship, and the airplane. In the process, the very definition of what it meant to be a modern society and economy became tied up in having access to the fruits of carbon-fueled energy and electricity systems. Today, much of the world takes for granted access to electricity, automobiles, and industry, and looks down upon places without such access as backwards and in need of help.
It is increasingly clear that efforts to alter energy and electricity systems to remove the carbon-based fuels at their core will also entail substantial processes of social and economic transformation. We will reinvent both societies and economies as we reinvent energy.
The question is how. How will we redesign energy futures? And, how, along the way, will we redesign social and economic futures?
For it is also clear that we have a wide array of choices in front of us. The future is not set in stone. There are many pathways to a low-carbon future and many possible low-carbon futures. Which will we choose? What criteria will we use to judge which future to aim toward? What processes will we use to decide, and who will have meaningful voices in those processes? And, in the end, whose voices will determine the final choice?
Will diverse communities be allowed sovereignty over their own energy futures? Will it be possible to leverage energy innovation as a tool for social and economic justice and reconciliation? Or will the future of energy–and thus of society and the economy–be written by the hands of the powerful, or by the algorithms of energy experts, which can model accurately what makes energy systems hum but often give short shrift to the broader social, economic, and environmental consequences of energy systems design.
At the Center for Energy and Society, we are passionate about opening up the design imagination and the processes of energy systems design to both wider possibilities and a wider array of voices. This is the case in our work on grassroots energy innovation, where we work closely with communities and with energy businesses and regulators to open up energy systems design to community input and to help design energy systems that communities can leverage to create social value and more thriving futures. And it is also the case in our work to create and curate diverse solar futures, where we are explicitly concerned to understand the many different kinds of futures that might be possible powered by sunlight.
Image by Venkatesh Lakshmi Narayanan for Cities of Light.