EnTranCe regularly welcomes international experts in the field of energy, sustainability and the transition towards a sustainable future. Last month, the Indian professor Anupam Saraph, visited EnTranCe and introduced students and researchers into the concepts of Future Design and System Dynamics Modeling. We asked him a couple of questions about these concepts and their relation to the energy transition.
As an expert on Future Design and Complex Systems, you help individuals and organisations understand and design the future of their worlds. What are the toughest challenges we face when designing the future?
‘The most important challenge is that the concept of future is generally missing in design. We tend to design the world as if there is no future. We fail to recognize the dynamics of the world, that is organized as several systems with actors that have a symbiotic relationship. If this symbiotic relationship is ignored when reorganizing the world and we create exploitative relationships, then we suddenly create a world that is unsustainable. Because we have failed to recognize that the world is made up out of several systems which must be symbiotic to be sustainable, we create a world that is exploitative and therefore unsustainable. Then tremendous challenges emerge because we have messed up with the design of the system that we are a part of. For example, for the last forty years the world leaders have been saying that the biggest challenge of the world is global warming. However, when looking at our effectiveness in handling global warming, it has been next to nil. Even after the meeting of world leaders for more than 24 times, the Conference of Parties (COP) has not succeeded in decreasing carbon emissions by even 1 percent. We have failed to recognize where we should intervene. The big challenge is to recognize which systems are causing the climate to change and where the points where we can intervene.’
You are also widely known for pioneering work on designing urban nervous systems for smart cities. What are urban nervous systems and what role can they play in the transition to sustainable future?
‘Any living system, like cities, has to have a nervous system. It wouldn’t survive without it. When a town grows into a city, you need to create a mechanism whereby the information about the water supply, the food supply, the waste being produced, the energy that is demanded and the traffic and mobility in the city is being fed back to the system. This feedback loop is the nervous system of the city. Within large cities, important feedback is often destroyed. For example, when there is a mobility problem in the city and the traffic is congested, this is information that the city has grown beyond its carrying capacity. We must listen to these kinds of signals instead of hiding them by with engineering solutions like building wider roads. Wider roads will not create a more livable sustainable city. Traffic congestion is a feedback of the system that it has exceeded its carrying capacity. We need to receive all the necessary feedback to ensure we are able to sustain the city. We need to have information that helps the city to know when it needs to stop growing. Living cities really shouldn’t grow beyond a certain point. Thus, we must not just create more supply, even if this is through renewable sources, we must manage the demand of the inhabitants of the city (for example in terms of energy, water and food). Moving to renewable will not take away the problem, but only result in having to run faster and faster to stay in the same place.’
How do we then ensure that we decrease our demand for energy?
‘Transition has to be accompanied by mechanisms whereby new technologies have to cut down their energy requirements. So, instead of having everything be done by new devices which will consume energy, we either must cut down on devices that require energy or cut down the energy that they require. Many tasks that can be done manually, or without energy, should be done manually. Technology should not be used as vehicle for continuously expanding our limit forever, but rather for supplying things within the limits that we have. This is something we need to recognize in the process of creating a transition.’
You introduced students and researchers in Groningen into System Dynamics Modeling. What does this entail and how could this methodology be used in the context of the energy transition?
‘The idea in system dynamics is essentially that the world comprises of stocks and flows. Stocks are nothing but accumulators. Accumulators change because of inflows and outflows. When the inflow is larger than the outflow, there is an accumulation. And when the outflow is larger than the inflow, there is a de-accumulation. The larger the accumulation, the longer it will take to make changes in what has accumulated. For example, the C02 has accumulated in the atmosphere. This has accumulated through the inflow of carbon from burning fossil fuels. There is an outflow when carbon dioxide is absorbed by trees and fixed as biomass. Carbon dioxide can only be absorbed at a very small rate every year. Thus, we not only have to make sure CO2 is being fixed (outflow), but we simultaneously have to reduce the inflow. Another important element of systems dynamics is the idea that the world is built up of feedback loops. The more trees, the more the CO2 will be absorbed. This is feedback. Without policies to protect trees, therefore, less carbon from the atmosphere will be absorbed. System dynamics helps you to design policies by recognizing the feedbacks that should in place in order to address the accumulation and de-accumulation of stocks that are important to us.’