We recently had a few readers suggest we cover Transition Engineering. It took me about an hour to figure out what they were even talking about, but once I got familiar with it, I can see why they suggested it. It’s an interesting methodology that combines futurism and engineering to help engineers find ways away from fossil fuels.
Global Association for Transition Engineering
At the core of this movement is an emerging professional organization, the Global Association for Transition Engineering (or GATE). “The problem is that we engineers are responsible for the change management of the current fossil-fuel dependent systems, and they didn’t teach us how to do that at university.” the organization’s About page states.
The main problem is that there are successful and profitable systems and industries that would cause immense suffering if they disappeared suddenly today in 2021, but if left to business as usual (BAU), those systems would destroy the stability of the climate. Something has to change, and that change will have to happen without leaving humans without essential services during the transition.
Their plan (which is already underway in a number of countries) is to educate engineers to perform various roles in the energy transition, and overcome those challenges.
In a YouTube Video, Prof. Susan Krumdieck explains how the organization hopes to change the engineering profession and what they aim for engineers to start doing. For all engineers, they want to build what Krumdieck calls “carbon literacy” so they can perform energy transition due diligence in their daily jobs. A smaller number of engineers working in leadership positions need more education and training to keep the whole profession contributing to the energy transition. Finally, specialists (often with advanced degrees) can learn in detail the methods and practice of transition engineering to lead the educational effort.
There’s already an internationally-accepted textbook on the topic and a growing number of programs from universities in Europe and New Zealand.
The InTIME Methodology
Krumdieck explains that a multidisciplinary approach is needed to analyze the past, present, and the future to find ways away from business as usual. The use of carbon-emitting energy sources has risen over time, and will still be on the rise if we don’t do anything (the chart above calls this BAU Growth–Business As Usual). Tinkering around the edges with minor efficiency and technological changes can help, but still puts us on a bad timeline that destroys civilization. To succeed, we need to get on the chart’s “transition pathway,” but we are still left with questions about what that pathway is, and how we do it without literally killing people by taking away essential services.
She explains GATE’s 7-step process for determining how to get out of the economic and social ruts we’re in that lead to bad futures. While this process can be used to look at the whole situation with carbon emissions, the idea is for engineers to look at specific things they’re working on as well. That way, one industry, or one set of environmentally harmful but essential technologies can be transitioned away from.
The first step is to look at the history, going back at least 100 years. That way, the engineer (or other professional working with the engineers) can understand why we are presently using the technology and why it has become essential to everyday life. Armed with that understanding, it will be easier to visualize not only the future of “business as usual” but also to know that alternatives (good or bad) to the technology do exist.
The second step is to gain a good understanding of the present. Knowing what’s going on today, what the technology does, who it serves, and what aspects of it are essential helps with subsequent steps.
Step 3 is to use techniques I’ve previously seen described by futurists to look at future scenarios. There are bad scenarios, good scenarios, and everything in between. The GATE approach is to follow each scenario and see if it “crashes,” or leads society to major climate issues. Unless we achieve around an 80% reduction by 2030, the chances of staying below the various doomsday scenarios is unacceptably low.
Step 4 is to identify a good future, 100 years ahead. What would a good scenario look like in 2121? The professor says that this requires a lot of technical knowledge and data, and she explains one possible scenario for transportation of goods and people in New Zealand that would look good from a climate perspective (the video will be embedded further down).
Step 5 is to work your way back to present, and then find a “trigger” in the present or near future that can accelerate change in the right direction, and steps 6 and 7 are to work out the details of continuing in the right direction from here to there.
She goes on to explain how to apply this to the oil industry in detail to explain the concept in the following video:
This Is Still A Huge Challenge
When I thought about this approach, I can see ways that Elon Musk used a similar method. For climate change, Tesla aimed to serve as a “trigger” to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” He knew that the whole transportation and energy industry couldn’t be forced to change, but it could be given a catalyst or a kick in the pants that knocks it out of the fossil-fuel rut that it was stuck in. SpaceX aimed to make big changes to the space industry, not by doing everything, but by pushing it toward Mars.
It’s (relatively) easy to look at where we want things to be, and it’s relatively easy to come up with ideas to get from here to there, but actually getting it done takes a lot of blood, sweat, and tears (plus as much treasure as you can come up with). The bigger the goal, the harder this will be.
But, you have to have a plan to get there, so GATE is definitely doing good things.
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