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Emerging technologies

This is the second meeting in the series and the three witnesses will help us explore how existing bio-energy technologies linked to photosynthesis can provide a sustainable or a rapidly-deployable solution.

At the Forum in May, Prof Christopher Howe, Department of Biochemistry, University of Cambridge will join Edgar Blanco, R&D Manager at AnDigestion Ltd and Dr John A J Mullett, Director of SOWTech. 

Wicked problems and questions generated by the open discussion

There is a danger that climate change, although it is a key challenge, is obscuring other significant problems that humanity faces. Escalating fuel starvation, global soil degradation and issues concerning competition for land and resources are being neglected. These issues need both research and action.

Can more be done to combine renewable energy solutions with other major development projects? It may be possible to combine biophotovoltaic technology and similar schemes with other large-scale projects, such as agriculture or water treatment, making them more attractive for business investment. Combining different technologies provides the opportunity to reduce waste and use materials more efficiently.

Is it possible or realistic to get energy to densely populated, off-grid conurbations? Understanding how to get energy into such areas is one of the most challenging issues faced by humanity. Technological solutions (roof panels, urban agriculture, waste recycling, etc.) will only go so far, and behavioural practices, such as cooking methods, need to be changed. Technological solutions, such as wired grids, can be materially valuable and thus are vulnerable to theft in economically deprived areas.

How important are technical solutions to solving global energy problems? Technological solutions can have unintended consequences or simply shift the problem to another area. Therefore the entire system needs to be examined through a multidisciplinary lens, with social sciences playing an important role. Research Councils and other funding sources need to fund more interdisciplinary work. Novel and potentially unconventional policy solutions should be explored, such as carbon passports/pricing or waste taxes to make people more aware of the impact of their energy decisions. 

How can we better understand the local context? Talking to people who understand the populations and their needs is extremely valuable. Efficient ways of bridging the gap between scientist and consumer helps ensure you find the right place to intervene with appropriate technology in a way that is appreciated by the local population. In many ways the biggest barriers to change or technology uptake are social issues. Having young researchers from the relevant country could offer greater indigenous, sociological insights but this requires basic education. Community engagement and improving education in the area is fundamental to a successful technological intervention.

How can we encourage serendipity in technological progress? Often solutions appear in counter-intuitive ways and initially technologies may even be perceived as unnecessary. Identifying what populations need – when they themselves may not know – requires deep sociological research. As it stands, market research is largely focused on incremental change which can hinder innovation. Social attitudes and public perceptions of necessity and harm significantly affect the development of technology, policy and our understanding of what may be considered as progress.

 To find out more about this theme or the meetings, please e-mail Dr Konstantina Stamati (ks712@cam.ac.uk)