While it is widely known that sustainable development is the only sound and viable pathway for humankind’s future, its attainment remains elusive despite intensive efforts and some successes. The current industrial society approach based on product and process innovation in a variety of fields is not providing the expected results in addressing this important issue. A pathway may lie in an integral and dynamic innovation system that adopts a highly solution-driven approach that makes use of backcasting techniques based on long-term visions and mid-term strategic goals.
There is a broad classification of future scenario design: whether the scenario is a forecast or a backcast. Both procedures have similar objectives – a future state and a path by which to reach it – but the process for generating that scenario is very different:
- The forecast approach starts with the current situation, identifies paths into the future and chooses one path for the scenario.
- The backcast approach starts with the current situation and a desirable future state based on defined parameters, and then deduces possible future paths.
Since a backcast involves some judgment about a desirable future state, it is called a normative scenario, while forecast scenarios are called descriptive or exploratory scenarios. In other words, scenarios can be developed in an exploratory fashion, i.e., as interim developments that are not constrained by a predetermined end vision, or they can be developed in a backcasting fashion, i.e., as interim developments that are driven in part by the desire to reach such a vision. The backcasting approach seems to be more reasonable and practical for envisioning transition to a sustainable society as an end vision, i.e., the sustainability goal.
Discussion: transition principles
In order to propel the management of technology transition towards sustainability, eight transition principles can be identified (Figure 1, Table 1). Designing scenarios towards a sustainable future provides the basic framework of transition (principle P-1). Technology development and innovation are essential to improving sustainability (P-2), and we can identify six types of technology transitions (P-3):
- Type 1: Upgrading and Upscaling,
- Type 2: Downscaling and Downsizing,
- Type 3: Replacing and Substituting,
- Type 4: Coupling, Combining and Synergizing,
- Type 5: Networking and Linking, and
- Type 6: Enabling Wise Management and Use.
These types can be mapped using two differentiating axes (Table 1). The first axis relates to whether change is promoted by the invention of technology or by the selection of technologies. The second axis concerns whether transition requires high coordination, or whether technology change is tightly or loosely coupled to the system. The innovation and evolution process of the photovoltaic (PV) cell is a clear example of how a technology has to go through the different types of technology transition until it reaches a level of maturity and enjoys widespread application, as shown in Figure 2. Since the discovery of the photoelectric effect and the invention of the semiconductor, the PV cell has passed through five of the technology transition types proposed in this article and now has many and varied applications for the benefit of everyone.
The management of technology transition also acknowledges the potential of such foundational technologies as nanotechnology, biotechnology, information and communication technology and cognitive science. On the one hand, the unification of science is based on its unity in nature; and an holistic approach could lead us to technological convergence while being a more efficient societal structure for reaching human goals. On the other hand, health and safety, environmental, ethical and societal risks or uncertainties could also arise from the use of these technologies.
Demand-side principles emphasize sustainability-driven technology research and development (R&D) (P-4) and knowledge and value transformation to sustainability (P-5). Knowledge and value transformation can work as drivers of transition as well as the results of transition. The principles for institutional design relate to sustainability assessment and management. The former involves developing indicator systems for the transition of production and consumption (P-6) while taking into account uncertainty, which is not only a matter of probability distributions but also is characterized as ignorance in the face of novel events. Reconsidering spatiotemporal scales and the socio-communication sphere is another principle of institutional design (P-7). The concept of the socio-communication interface works as a medium for the transmission and interaction of knowledge for sustainability. Moreover, a sustainable industrial society should be resilient, adaptive and restorable in response to unpredictable future changes and events (P-8). In this sense, it requires vulnerability analysis, adaptive management and human capacity building.
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