Foresight and Feedback: Monitoring and assessing the environmental implications of emerging technologies
Doctoral thesis, 2012
The magnitude of the change required to approach sustainability indicates an effort that will have to be sustained over decades, during which vast new technology systems will have to be developed and deployed. Yet technological development is a double edged sword, and these efforts will inevitably incur unintended consequences. The timescale required for change is long compared to what may be required to meet environmental challenges and natural systems are already stressed. Reflexive guidance processes for technology will be required to minimize the chance of dead end development or unintended consequences. Scientific assessment must support this process but cannot determine it; the complexity of the issues and diversity of legitimate views on technology means that inclusion and learning in technology governance are necessary for a legitimate and robust societal response to grand environmental challenges.
This thesis aims to support the need to have earlier and more relevant discussions surrounding the environmental implications and long term prospects of new technologies. The capacity to achieve this will be affected by how well technological developments can be monitored and by how well early assessments can reduce the unknowns facing new technologies and influence the dynamics of technology development. Methods for improved monitoring of technological trajectories through patent data and for early assessment of technologies are developed and offered as contributions in this dissertation.
A new technique is explored to support monitoring of new technical applications through linguistic analysis of patent data called topic modeling. The dissertation includes a theoretical development and practical implementation of topic models to patent data as well as a case study applying it to carbon nanomaterials. The approach can produce instant analogs of many traditional patent indicators and provides the capability to follow broad technological trajectories and correlate them to external literature. In the case of nanotechnology, there are clear trends in patenting towards integrating carbon nanomaterials into complex artefacts, with many implications for how to assess their future potential. Implementation is demonstrated with publicly available tools and data, providing an avenue to widen participation in technological oversight. The method is general and could potentially be used and syndicated with any available data source to build links between diverse material such as risk literature, blogs and specific patents containing relevant techniques.
Methods to include the dynamic aspects of time and scale into early environmental assessments of new materials are developed and illustrated through studies of carbon nanomaterials and new battery materials for electric vehicles. Production of the materials is found to be energy intensive, but they also may enable artefacts with higher life cycle efficiencies as well as radically more efficient future energy systems. An assessment of the prospective resource availability of lithium indicates that the rate at which lithium can be extracted may limit the scope and rate of electric vehicle diffusion however. Further, the materials development that may enable viable batteries is also degrading the economic rationale for recycling them, yet recycling is critical to realizing a vision of large scale electric mobility.
It is very important to achieve better understanding of the trade-offs that future technological development will entail. Assessments that lead to an improved quality or timeliness of debates surrounding technology will mean that decisions regarding it will be better considered at a time when the scope for action is larger and the costs of action are less. Earlier and wider access to relevant information and increased participation means that more voices can be heard and ultimately that better and more legitimate decisions can be made.