torsdag 30 januari 2020

Imagining Alternative Futures (application)

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Uppsala University - my alma mater and a possible research partner

We just handed in an application for research grants to Riksbankens Jubileumsfond (RJ "supports research in the Humanities and Social Sciences")x The application is called "Imagining Alternative Futures: Intersections of Models and Narratives" and the main applicant/principal investigator (PI) is Michael Boyden who is an associate professor of American literature at the Department of English at Uppsala University. The application is a cooperation between Uppsala University, KTH and the University of Helsinki and the cooperation and the ideas in the application came out of a visit of mine to Uppsala in October last year when I gave a talk at a one-day symposium (on "Ecological Narratives") that the Department of English organised.

Besides Michael, the Uppsala team also consists of Distinguished Professor Emerita Katherine Hayles (University of California/Uppsala). The KTH team consists of me and Eléonore Fauré who is a researcher at the KTH School of Architecture and the Build Environment (ABE). The Helsinki team consists of Associate Professor in English Merja Polvinen and postdoctoral researcher Hanna Roine. Out of these six applicants, three of us will work only 5% each in the project; the real work will be done by (in falling order of time/work effort) Michael Boyden, Eléonore Fauré and Hanna Roine.

What we handed in was only a stage 1 (short) application. If it passes the initial screening, we will get the possibility to expand it into a stage 2 (longer) application (the proposed project will run between 2021 and 2023). What is really exciting about this application is that:

  1. it's about counterfactual scenarios ("what would have happened if...?") and directly connects back to the weeklong February 2019 Lorentz Center workshop that I was part of organising, "Looking backwards to the future: Studying the future with counterfactuals".
  2. the research project partly builds on and plans to work with the "Coalworld" scenario that we developed in our 2017 article "What if there had only been half the oil? Rewriting history to envision the consequences of peak oil" (full reference below) and
  3. it would be totally exciting to work with/explore counterfactuals together with scholars of literature! Michael has worked with the cultural perception of climate change in American fiction, Katherine with the relations between literature and computing, Merja is one of the three principal investigators of the research consortium “Instrumental Narratives" and Hanna's (who works as a postdoc in Merja's research consortium) wrote about worldbuilding in speculative fiction in her PhD thesis. 
My colleage Eléonore is presented as this in the application: 

Eléonore Fauré is currently a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Sustainable Development at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH). She defended her Ph.D in 2018 with a dissertation entitled “Sharing the Doughnut: Exploring Sustainable and Just Futures.” This dissertation project came out of the “Beyond GDP Growth” program at KTH, which focused on modeling sustainable scenarios that are not premised on GDP measures. 

While it would be great to work with Uppsala University (from where I got my undergraduate degree), I have to point out that I am already cooperating Mikael Höök who leads the Global Energy Systems research group at Department of Earth Sciences, Natural Resources and Sustainable Development at Uppsala University. We and others did the original work of developing the "Coalworld" scenario and plan to continue to work since we got funding for a three-year project that started this month, "Beyond the event horizon: tools to explore local energy transformations" (I really should write about that project in another blog post). Anyway, here's the summary of the application we (Michael) just handed in:


Fossil fuels today constitute 85% of all primary energy that humanity uses. Our current use of oil, coal, and gas unfortunately threatens to lead to catastrophic climate change. Imagining alternatives to these non-renewable energy sources is one of the most pressing issues confronting twenty-first century world society. This proposal brings together two frameworks for the imagination of alternative futures that have seldom been combined in this fashion: modeling and narrative. Where modeling is mainly concerned with “what-if” scenarios that allow us to rethink our energy dependencies, a lot of speculative fictions instead imagine alternative future societies in which the current energy supplies have become depleted and replaced by other sources. Both models and narratives are powerful instruments for imagining alternative futures but they both have limitations. Models have the advantage of starting from real-world situations to which they make minor adjustments in order bring into relief other pathways towards sustainable energy use. However, by isolating single causes, they tend to flatten the complexity of social experience. Narratives, by contrast, while they have more dramatic appeal, often lack the empirical grounding of models. By bringing together models and narratives, this project aims to exploit the potentialities of each framework in order to arrive at a composite scenario for a global energy transition that could set us on course towards a more sustainable future.

I also think the Purpose of the application is particularly interesting:

1) To open new possibilities for our imagined futures by exploring how changing one parameter in a model can lead to radically different circumstances; this implies that unknown or misunderstood parameters in the present can jolt the world onto new trajectories, emphasizing how large-scale effects can emerge from small-scale differences.

2) To analyze the narrative techniques of speculative climate change fictions that focus on the depletion of energy sources such as oil. The project studies what gives these narratives their distinctive strengths in stimulating new imaginations.

3) To compare and contrast modeling as a methodology with narratives that create alternative futures. Each has its strengths and limitations; comparing them enables us to create composite scenarios that balance out the extremes and draw on the best both have to offer.


Pargman, D., Eriksson, E., Höök, M., Tanenbaum, J., Pufal, M., & Wangel, J. (2017). What if there had only been half the oil? Rewriting history to envision the consequences of peak oil. Energy research & social science, 31, 170-178.
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