He explores possible futures for new technologies

​Is it even possible to foresee the environmental consequences of upcoming technologies? Duncan Kushnir, researcher in environmental systems analysis, believes that constant monitoring and assessment of new materials and technologies is a necessary part of societal technology oversight.

“The first part is monitoring what’s happening in the foreseeable future and the second part is doing environmental assessments on immature technologies, for example carbon nanotechnology and new battery materials for electric vehicles”, says Duncan.

Which are the most important aspects when you look at environmental implications of a new technology?
“It is necessary to have earlier and more relevant discussions regarding the environmental effects. If you want a real impression of what the technology might mean, it’s not fair to look at what we use them for just right now.  You can´t just look at small scale laboratory production process, because in the future they will be produced at a scale perhaps a million times larger. As the production scale goes up, the possible applications and environmental impacts will change.”

“You can also get a lot of information regarding immature technical processes by studying new patents. These ideas are sort of one level further from the products that exist on the market now and perhaps one step ahead of being real”, Duncan continues. 

Can you evolve?!
“When you look at patents it´s important to have tools that rapidly collect data and draw useful pictures of where patenting in technology is going. In my thesis I suggest applying a new technique called topic modeling to patent data to achieve this. This model produces instant analogs of many traditional patent indicators and offers the possibility to follow broad technological tracks”.

You have taken a closer look on new battery materials for electric vehicles. What can you foretell?
“A switch to electric mobility will strain the flow achievable from lithium resources.  There is a lot of lithium in the world and electric mobility needs efficient lithium batteries, but the rate we can get it will be a constraining factor. On the other hand it does not mean that electric mobility isn’t possible. It means that we might have to think about other solutions like smaller batteries and sharing cars, or taking a longer time to get there”.

“In summary 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”, says Duncan.

Duncan Kushnir defended his thesis on December 7, 2012. Title: Foresight and Feedback: Monitoring and assessing the environmental implications of emerging technologies.

Contact: duncan.kushnir@chalmers.se   

Text: Karin Ljungklint

Page manager Published: Wed 27 Feb 2013.