Words by Susan Krumdieck
Let’s explore a thought puzzle: Can you change the future?
You are transported onto the deck of the RMS Titanic, the largest ship ever built and designed to be unsinkable. It is midnight 13 April 1912. There are 2,224 people on the ship, which is under full steam on the fastest ever crossing of the Atlantic. You know what will happen, what will you do?
You know that at 11:39pm on 14 April the lookout will spot an iceberg, and by 2:20am the ship and 1,517 people will be gone. The ship was launched with lifeboats for less than half the number of people on board. You could take a self-sufficiency strategy and make sure you are near a lifeboat, but you know they will be allocated according to class and you might not get a spot.
Clearly, the best solution is to slow down, change course and not hit the iceberg. You know that the wireless operator will receive numerous warnings from other ships about large icebergs in the direct path. You could seek out the operator and help him communicate the danger to the captain. But the captain has hit icebergs with other ships, and the Titanic is unsinkable, so he may not think caution is warranted. Neither will the captain and senior officers want to contradict the owners. You could try to convince the first-class passengers to ask the captain to slow down. But they are not convinced of danger in such a comfortable and luxurious ship, and they don’t want to hear about problems when they have parties to attend. You could go below decks and organize the lower-class passengers to occupy the bridge and demand action to slow the ship and change the course. But the passengers don’t want to worry, they believe in the technology of the ship and that if there was a problem, the captain or the owners would do something.
“You know that at 11:39pm on 14 April the lookout will spot an iceberg, and by 2:20am the ship and 1,517 people will be gone. Can you change the future?”
You are running out of time. How can you slow down the ship, enabling the captain to avoid the iceberg? You could go to the engine room and explain to the men shovelling coal into the boilers that they need to reduce the use of coal by 80%, providing the chance to change course in time and safeguard the journey. They would probably be afraid for their jobs. Could you convince them to change the future?
Transition engineering is the work of innovating and delivering the redevelopment of energy-consuming systems, which we must do to accomplish the 80% step down in greenhouse gas production required to avoid runaway climate change. Ingenuity, resourcefulness and creativity are the best resources for achieving change. However, innovative thinking is stifled if we focus on catastrophic failure.
For example, modern buildings, cities, and the entire economy would fail if coal, oil and gas supplies suddenly dropped by 80%. A rapid reduction in energy supply would be a disaster — but rapid reduction in energy use is the only way to mitigate climate risk. The risks of unsustainable fossil energy use are exacerbated without immediate change, but imminent collapse due to energy shortage is unlikely. This dissonance between the problem and the possible actions can be referred to as a “wicked problem”.
Transition engineering is an approach to wicked problems. The approach starts with defining a specific system, learning the history and knowing the future. Energy use and emissions have grown beyond sustainable levels because the utility, energy return on energy invested, and net surplus to the economy from coal, oil and gas are colossal. Engineering and technology provided access to these benefits at bargain prices. We now refer to this unsustainable activity as business-as-usual (BAU), and it is difficult to imagine changing course or slowing down. Society and its leaders expect that technology will provide new sources of green energy, and keep the economy growing with minimal inconvenience. The transition approach includes honest assessment of green technologies and whether they actually can change or slow the BAU course.
The innovation phase of the approach is an interdisciplinary discovery of the future, 100 years from now, where the wicked problem has been resolved and the energy system is managed sustainably. For example, when we explored Christchurch 100 years from now, we discovered a city with redevelopment of much of the paved land into productive uses, several electric trams and all buildings incorporating passive design and very low energy use. There was some reorganization of the land use, and the dominant travel mode was bicycles and electrified cargo cycles.
The back-casting phase uses this 100-year discovery model to interrogate the present and identify the key players in changing course. In all instances, the technology used in the 100-year discovery is known today, but projects to bring about the necessary change are few. The problem is the economics of short-term perceived risk. For example, the design tools and materials for near-zero passive buildings are already known, but the business of low-energy redevelopment is not growing fast enough.
The next phase is to develop shift projects and new business opportunities that improve energy performance through holistic measures. These shift projects must be beneficial and profitable. For example, From the Ground Up is a new social enterprise in Christchurch that forms partnerships between electric tram manufacturer Alstom, the city council, retailers along a main avenue, student volunteers, the local community and property developers. The aim is to redevelop an area of old, substandard low-density suburb near the university into higher density, transit-oriented development along a tram corridor into the central business district. The enterprise has developed the base data and business case for the redevelopments.
Another example is the redevelopment of old buildings in old areas of cities. Many are in locations that could become vibrant, walkable and transit-oriented urban eco-villages, but the projects must be done one at a time in each city. The shift project will develop a new renovation business that invests in old buildings in the right locations, becoming the owner of the improvements, taking over the energy, utility and waste contracts and charging clients rents. The return on the investments is in both capital gains and in improved rents and lower energy costs. The shift project includes an insurance product that de-risks investment in redevelopment by guaranteeing a minimum energy savings return for fully modelled and reviewed renovation designs.
The transition engineering approach is about creating projects that shift energy use to 80% less fossil fuel while realizing social benefits and making profits. The Global Association for Transition Engineering can provide consultation and training for companies, councils and organizations to take on their wicked problems and change course.
Susan Krumdieck is professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, and founder of the Global Association for Transition Engineering