onsdag 11 maj 2022

Event Horizon Counterfactual Workshop


I have been interested in counterfactual scenarios for quite some time but I notice I haven't written a single blog post about our current research project "Beyond the event horizon: tools to explore local energy transformations", despite the fact that it's been going for over two years. And despite the fact that my and Elina's interests in counterfactuals currently are focused on that project. So I 1) searched for all my previous blog posts with the tag "counterfactual", 2) looked up other linked posts that are relevant and 3) list a few events that should have garnered blog posts but for some reason didn't - so here is a blog-centric and quite complete history/summary of my (our) interests in the area during the last six years:
  • Consider Half - greatest project idea ever? (June 2016). The basic idea of a rich counterfactual scenario (that I originally though of two years earlier) is spelled out in this blog post.
  • On the effects of the early 1970’s global peak in oil production (July 2016). This is our "Coalworld" proposal/abstract (based on "Consider Half") for writing an article to a special issue on "Narratives and storytelling in energy and climate change research" in the journal Energy Research and Social Science (ER&SS). The title was later changed.
  • Coalworld: Envisioning a world with half the oil (paper) (Nov 2016). A conference submission. Can't remember what happened, it could have been rejected or accepted-but-withdrawn, but I anyway didn't go to the conference.
  • Shifting away from oil (article) (Jan 2017). The proposal for a second Coalworld article was submitted to an ER&SS special issue on "Energy and the Future" (while we were still working on writing the first article). This proposal was rejected, the article has since been revised, but despite the fact that little work remains, the article lies in the drawer for now (other things have come between, see below).
  • What if there had only been half the oil? (article) (Sept 2017). Our article was published in ER&SS. YES! Our first article about counterfactual scenarios describes the peak oil Coalworld scenario.
  • My intellectual breakthrough (Dec 2017). I had a great idea and tried to convey the excitement but still be secretive about the content. This idea later turned into the article "Looking backward to the future" (below). 
  • Studying the future with counterfactuals (application) (Feb 2018). This blog post describes our bid to do a one-week workshop at the Lorentz Center. It was approved and we held a one-week workshop in The Netherlands one year later.
  • Petrocultures (paper) (Feb 2018). Hastily written submission to the Petrocultures conference. The submission was accepted, but I had to withdraw as the conference clashed in time with another conference (on Degrowth).
  • Turning black swans white (application) (Feb 2018). A research grant application that was submitted to the Swedish Energy Agency's call "Humans, energy systems and society" but that was rejected.
  • Looking Backwards to the Future: Studying the Future with Counterfactuals (Feb 2019). Our week-long workshop on counterfactual scenarios with invited academics from various disciplines (as well as the Science Fiction writer S.M. Stirling)
  • Narrative science (workshop) (June 2019). Based on our article "What if there had only been half the oil?" I was invited to the workshop "Does time always pass? Temporalities in scientific narratives".
  • Using counterfactual history to imagine computing futures (paper) (March 2018). Elina and me submitted this "What if there had only been half the oil?" spin-off paper to the Fourth Workshop on Computing within Limits. It was later accepted and presented and is available online here.
  • Beyond the event horizon (application) (March 2019). Based on last year's failed application, a new research grant was submitted to the Swedish Energy Agency's call "Humans, energy systems and society".
  • Looking backward to the future (article) (August 2020). "My Intellectual Breakthrough" (Dec 2017, above) had been turned into an article that was submitted to the journal Futures.
  • Beyond the event horizon (approved) (September 2019). Our project was approved! The project will run between 2020-2022.
  • Imagining Alternative Futures (application) (Jan 2020). I was part of an application that was led by principal investigator (PI) Michael Boyden (associate professor of American literature at the Department of English at Uppsala University). Distinguished Professor Emerita Katherine Hayles (University of California/Uppsala) was also part of the application.
  • Minna Laurell Thorslund is our new phd student! (April 2020). We hired Minna to work in the project "Beyond the event horizon". She was a bit unlucky and started as a phd student at KTH just after Covid restrictions hit Sweden.
  • Looking backward to the future (article) (December 2020). The article we submitted to Futures was finally published (16 months after it was submitted). It is available online here.
I have unfortunately not blogged about many of the most important events in the list above. But we have by now worked for more than two years with the project "Beyond the event horizon: tools to explore local energy transformations". The persons working in the project besides me are: Elina Eriksson, Minna Laurell Thorslund and Mia Hesselgren (KTH), Mikael Höök (Uppsala University) and Pella Thiel, Martin Hedberg and Amanda Martling (The Transition Network - our civil society project partner). Much has happened since the project started, but it's not until now that we have started to write articles for real and we are currently writing two articles in parallell about the project. 

The most important thing we have done in the project however is to develop a workshop format; a three-hour workshop that takes the participants on a co-created journey to an alternative and more sustainable Sweden of 2022 where we only use half the oil, and where we figure out how life has been transformed. We present the scenario and it's up to the workshop participants to figure out how it came to be. Here's a short description of what we do in the workshop:

The fundamental benefit of counterfactual scenarios in this study is to make the future more present in the present. If there are goals and targets we should reach 20 years from now, it is possible to develop ambitious plans and roadmaps and settle for having these goals, targets, plans and roadmaps. It’s as if the difficult part was developing the roadmap - rather than the long, hard, thankless job of making it all happen! If decision makers perceive that they have already done the heavy lifting by formulating ambitious goals or plans, they might easily feel less inclined to follow through. This is on top of already feeling less inclined to act as concrete action can be expected to meet resistance in the present, and the benefits will happen in a far-away future where the decisions makers have left their positions of power (or might indeed not even be alive). 

We have solved this thorny problem by stating that the goals and targets in question were in fact formulated 20 years ago (in a counterfactual scenario) and today, 2022, we have in fact reached those goals! We thus start an exercise (workshop) by authoritatively stating that we have indeed reached our targets. This sets the frame for the workshop and it also means we will not and indeed can not fail to reach our goals (it is thus impossible to participate in our workshop and fail to reach the targets that have been set). After presenting the scenario as a (non-negotiable) “fact”, we then spend the remainder of the workshop ferreting out 1) what it actually means to have reached the target (in what ways are society and everyday life different from our world?) and 2) what the “journey” between then (20 years ago) and now (an alternative 2022) looked like. 

We held a workshop in Örebro (200 km west of Stockholm) during the weekend (see image above). We were forced to change our plans and develop a digital workshop format during Covid but have now, post-Covid, developed a workshop format that works for physical workshops. The workshop in Örebro was the second physical project workshop and the first physical workshop I myself have attended. The workshop was run by Elina Eriksson and Amanda Martling and I was more of an observer and note-taker. It was great to attend the workshop and much more could be said about it but this will have to do for now. This blog post doesn't describe a lot about the just-held workshop or our workshop format, but it's a much-needed update about our activities around counterfactual scenarios during the last six years.


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