Futures thinking in the recent past

Windmills: the future of energy?

The summer break is a good time to look back on issues that have emerged in recent months and reflect on the trends visible.

Unsurprisingly, many recent projects have a link either to energy supply/saving/efficiency or environmental sustainability. Be it a chemicals firm that realises it needs to change radically its energy sources (and then its production process), a city that is identifying the skills needed to ensure a green transition for heating or cooling of buildings, or an economy ministry wanting to explore what carbon neutrality in 2050 would imply, the realisation is clear: we need to change. This – during 40° C heat in many parts of Western Europe – may seem obvious to many, but if I compare with just a few years ago, it is a massive change of psychology. A second interesting feature is that the change welcomed by many. Even in corporations, who for reasons of competitiveness and lack of finance, were not able to think greener before, it seems as if many feel relieved to do what they (morally) think is right.

But the warning signs are also blinking red. Not just energy shortages being blamed on “too much renewable energy” (an excuse given for the blackout in Texas in January). There is a large group of citizens who are untouched by this change of psychology. They believe that they will have to pay the extra costs of a green transition, whilst “the rich” (a very loose term here) will get away Scott free. It will be a big challenge to make sure that the green transition is succeeds with popular support. It is not just in France that the “gilets jaunes” are waiting in the wings, ready to be fired on by a Donald Trump like figure.

As antidotes, there is a lot of thought going into new ways of involving citizens in decision making – for instance with the creation of a citizens consultative panel to make recommendations on climate change in France.  Furthermore, it seems the key is to show how individuals and corporations can benefit from the change (the carrot), although sometimes the clarity of the consequences of not acting need to be spelt out (e.g. in the Netherlands, the Dutch Carbon Tax means companies can calculate exactly how much they will end up paying if they do not shape up, whereas the ETS involves a guessing game, as the price has varied wildly over the years).

Looking forward from here, everybody is expecting an uncertain and difficult Autumn. The good news for us – this is precisely the kind of world that foresight projects are designed to deal with…