torsdag 8 februari 2018

Studying the future with counterfactuals (application)


We handed in an application last week (January 30) for organizing an international workshop, "Looking backwards to the future: Studying the future with counterfactuals", at the Lorentz Center (Leiden University, the Netherlands). The workshop will be held sometime during the first quarter of 2019 if our application is granted and our preferences are for mid-February.

I attended (taught at) a summer school at the Lorentz Center this past summer and our (now-accepted) paper "Undesigning the Internet" is in fact a spin-off from that summer school. The Lorentz center is an excellent place to organize a workshop. It's an international center for scientific workshops and their slogan is "you do the research, we do the rest". Organizing workshops (with economic support from the Dutch state) is their core business and they organize no less than 80 workshops per year at their two facilities on the campus of Leiden University. Here's the 2018 program for the larger Oort facility (55 persons) and for the smaller Snellius facility (25 persons).

I got the idea of organizing this particular workshop back in August when I attended the summer school and I already back then took the opportunity to look up and pitch the idea of this workshop to the Lorentz center's scientific coordinator. He encouraged me to submit an application and he was also interested in our then-not-yet-published (in press) article on counterfactual history, "What if there had only been half the oil? Rewriting history to envision the consequences of peak oil". This workshop is basically a spin-off from the project that generated that article, but the workshop has been reframed to be of more general interest, i.e. it's a workshop about the scientific use of counterfactual/counterfactual history rather than a workshop on our particular counterfactual scenario (called "Coalworld"). Three of the six workshop organizers are also authors of the article "What if there had only been half the oil?" but three aren't (see the short bios below. Here part of the summary that states what this workshop is about:

"The purpose of this workshop is to explore the novel application of counterfactuality and counterfactual history (allohistorical/retroactive scenarios) as techniques for exploring probable, plausible, possible and preferable futures. Building on the co-organizers experience of working with these or with related issues (see the presentation of the organizers below) and on a diverse set of invitees, we aim to develop an approach to futuring that would benefit the social sciences, the natural sciences and the humanities. The basic idea behind allohistorical scenarios is that since the future is wildly unpredictable (e.g. who foresaw the turn to populism in Europe and the US only a few short years ago?), it could be both useful as well as (comparatively) practical to explore the future by creating and exploring the effects of positing “what-if” scenarios/alternative pasts that would have led to alternative presents and futures. The topic of the workshop is well captured by the title of a recent journal article (by some of the co-organizers, e.g. Pargman et al. 2017) that was published in a special issue on “Narratives and storytelling in energy and climate change research”, e.g. “​What if there had only been half the oil? Rewriting history to envision the consequences of peak oil​”.

The scenario that is presented in that article, “Coalworld”, explores an alternative present that diverged from the history of our world some 45 years ago. The main instrumental utility of exploring such scenarios is to add to our readiness to act intelligently in the present by extending the repertoire so that we, besides “lessons from history”, also can draw from “lessons from alternative histories”, “lessons from alternative presents” and “lessons from alternative futures” when we here-and-now plan for the future - including for difficult-to-predict futures that can be characterized by disruptive change.

This groundbreaking workshop will bring together researchers from diverse disciplines (natural sciences, social sciences, engineering, design, humanities) to discuss theory and methods of using counterfactuals (and related techniques such as counterfactual history, futures studies, scenario analysis etc.) to study the future. The workshop will be focused on two areas of application: “energy” and “sustainability”, and will include practical (hands-on) exercises meant to make the subject tangible and concrete. At the time of the workshop, we aim to either have lined up a special issue on counterfactuals in a scientific journal ​or have secured additional funding to publish an edited book on the topic."

If our bid is successful, we will be able to invite 25 persons to this week-long workshop. We have stated in the application that we aim for a third of the participants to be "juniors" (ph.d. students and post-docs) and two thirds (including the six organizers) to be "seniors" (assistant, associate and full professors). We have already been in touch with a bunch of researches and a number of them have expressed interest in participating (their interest also indicated support for our application):

Maarten Hajer, Professor of Urban Futures and Director of the Urban Futures Studio, Utrecht University,  NL
Mattias Höjer, Professor in Environmental strategies and futures studies, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, SE
Magdalena Kuchler, Assistant professor, Deptartment of Earth Sciences, Natural Resources and Sustainable Development, Uppsala University, SE
David Lambert, Professor of History, University of Warwick, UK
Betti Marenko, Research leader (industrial design) and studies programme leader (product design), Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, UK
Henrietta Palmer, Artistic Professor, Dept. of Urban Design and Planning, Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, SE
John Robinson, Professor in the Munk School for Global Affairs and the School of the Environment, University of Toronto, CA
Josefine Wangel, Vice-director for the platform SLU Urban Futures at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), Uppsala, SE

I think we have put together a very strong application and that the chances of getting our proposal accepted are good but we have to wait until mid-April before we know if our proposal has been accepted. What I can conclude though is that the Coalworld project (core team: Daniel Pargman, Mikael Höök and Elina Eriksson) is moving forward in exciting and relatively unexpected ways (more to come soon). Below are the six workshop organizers:

Daniel Pargman (main contact person, overall responsibility for the workshop) is an associate professor in Media Technology at the Department of Media Technology and Interaction Design (MID) at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden. His research interests are situated in the intersection of on the one hand computing and on the other hand sustainability and energy research. He will, during his 2018 sabbatical, visit the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA) at the Autonomous University of Barcelona to learn more about Degrowth and other social movements that work towards transformational change of society. Dr. Pargman’s academic blog (with 500+ blog posts) can be found at:
- Selected publication​: 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.

Mikael Höök (​responsible for focus theme 4, Counterfactuals and Energy) ​is an Associate Professor at the Department of Earth Sciences at Uppsala University. His research focus is on energy system transitions, fossil fuels and raw materials, such as lithium and so called ‘critical materials’ for clean/green energy technologies.
- Selected publication​: Davidsson, S., Höök, M. (2017). Material requirements and availability for multi-terawatt deployment of photovoltaics. Energy Policy, 108(12):574-582.

Roy Bendor (responsible for focus theme 3, Counterfactuals and Design) ​is an assistant professor at the Department of Industrial Design, Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands. A critical media scholar, his current research focuses on civic media and civic design, urban sustainability futures, and design for the political imagination.
- Selected publication​: Bendor, R. (2018). Interaction design for sustainability futures: Towards worldmaking interactions, in M. Hazas & L. Nathan (eds.) Digital Technology and Sustainability: Engaging the Paradox (pp. 205-216). London & NY: Routledge.

Mariana Todorova (responsible for focus theme 1, Counterfactuals and Futures Studies) is a futurist. Her interests are in building a new methodology for forecasting using counterfactuals as a futures research technique. Todorova was an advisor to the President of the Republic of Bulgaria between 2008-2012 and a Member of Parliament until February 2017. At present she is an Assistant Professor at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. She has specialized leadership in the US State Department, the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and the Chinese Academy of Governance. Currently, Todorova is a Head of the Bulgarian Node of Millennium project.
- Selected publication: Todorova, M. (2015). Counterfactual Construction of the Future: Building a New Methodology for Forecasting. World Future Review, 7(1), 30-38.

Gert Jan Kramer ​(responsible for focus theme 2, Scenarios) is professor of Sustainable Energy Supply in the Copernicus Institute at Utrecht University since 2016. Prior to taking up his current role he spent 25 years at Shell where since 2000 he was working closely with Shell’s scenarios and was responsible for technology outlooks and forecasting. His current work focuses specifically on the role of hydrocarbons in a world with net zero CO2 emissions.
- Selected publication​: Kramer, G.J., Energy scenarios - Exploring disruption and innovation. Energy Research and Social Science, in press (2018).

Elina Eriksson (responsible for focus theme 5, Counterfactuals and Sustainability) is an assistant professor in human-computer interaction and sustainability at the Department of Media Technology and Interaction Design (MID) at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden. Her current research projects concern ICT for urban sustainability, sustainable lifestyles, and exploring energy futures.
- Selected publication​: Pargman, D., Eriksson, E., Höjer, M., Östling, U. G., & Borges, L. A. (2017). The (Un)sustainability of Imagined Future Information Societies. In Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 773-785). ACM.

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