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e-book What is Sustainable Technology?: Perceptions, Paradoxes and Possibilities

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What is Sustainable Technology?

Volume 17 , Issue 3 June Pages Related Information. Close Figure Viewer. Browse All Figures Return to Figure. Previous Figure Next Figure. Email or Customer ID. Forgot password? Old Password. New Password. Password Changed Successfully Your password has been changed. In this book, we aim to help all those involved in designing more sustainable technologies in determining their strategies. We do so by presenting a number of case studies of different technologies in contrasting contexts. All the case studies analyse the design and introduction of new technologies, and analyse the articu- lation of sustainable development that played a role in the process.

In this book we deal with three encompassing challenges that have received a lot of attention from engineers and others: energy, water and waste. Needless to say, the production and consumption of energy have become important societal issues. Engineers seek to develop alternatives for fossil fuels and technologies to reduce energy use. Not only is the reduction of CO2 emissions at stake here, but also geopolitical concerns that relate to the oil infrastructure. Likewise, water systems are crucial for all human activities, including agriculture, industry and sanitation.

Various technolo- gies are developed to make the use of clean water sustainable. The chapters in this book show how they will be attuned to the local geographical and social condi- tions.

Finally, the issue of waste and waste management is also at the core of many concerns of sustainability. Thus, the chapters offer various accounts of different perceptions of problems and solutions, of the paradoxes of sustainability that appear when technologies are used in a socio-economic setting, and of the possibilities for learning from this.

The next chapter takes a step back and investigates how technological solutions have been perceived and received in the last few centuries. In the final chapter we reflect on options for the technology designer. Meanwhile, the case studies show that the sustainability impact of a technology is often much more complicated and ambiva- lent than one might expect.

Whatever answers engineers and others have formu- lated, the question remains: what is sustainable technology? It cannot be reduced to a formula or a method, but requires ongoing reflection, learning and interaction with stakeholders. Bibliography Diamond, J.

Jevons, W. Van Lente, H. Clearly, the concept refers to the big challenges that global developments pose to engineers, policy-makers and civil society at large. These challenges are often located in the domains of social, eco- nomic and ecological concerns. In this book we see many instances of sustainable technologies and what they can achieve—less pollution, less waste, more democ- racy, etc. What is more, the different articulations of sustainability happily co-exist.


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Sustainability is not a singularity, it is plurality. In this book we have taken another route by stressing that the conceptual weakness of the term has important consequences: since the co-existence of different articula- tions allows various interests to be combined, the term allows the alignment of dif- ferent stakeholders with their own perspectives, so facilitating joint efforts. The co-existence of different articulations also gives rise to dilemmas and para- doxes.

Moreover, there are futures without wind turbines, without nuclear power stations, without biofuels, and they might all be sustainable. The concept of SD is often criticised as being vague and ill-defined. However, in our view, it is not so much vagueness as levels of analysis that are being confused: at some levels concepts can be defined and calculated. At other, more encompass- ing levels, this no longer holds. The average use of water and energy by humans, for instance, can be described and predicted by rather precise formulae. Under- standing complex systems, on the other hand, does not lead to such predictions: for example, like climate models do not allow one to predict weather conditions at a certain place and time.

We have the impression that the problem for many people is that there is, in a similar way, no direct relation between the concept of sustainable development and direct action to achieve it. The dilemmas presented in this book illustrate this. Should we then refrain entirely from using the concept of sustainable development simply to avoid unjustified claims?

On the contrary, the concept of SD emphasises that there is a joint responsibility to provide for all, now and in the future. The concept has created a platform within which previously unrelated issues can be discussed and prioritised. The emphasis on future generations and joint, worldwide responsibilities is crucial for creating a common ground for interaction. The SD concept does not give us a recipe for our future: rather, it demonstrates the interconnection of problems, the importance of longer-term analysis and the need to develop joint solutions. The case studies in this book sketch how various articulations of SD have played a role in the devel- opment of new technologies and in the construction of technological systems.

As the authors are responsible for these analyses, the cases represent their vision and, of course, their interpretations can be contested. However, the cases show that various different articulations of SD play a role in technology development and that this may lead to paradoxes, but also to new possibilities. In the case of car materials, this can be recognised as the business-as-usual scenario where the car design is optimised by gradual intro- duction of new materials.

Where articulations of SD compete they tend to become more visible. However, less visible clashes of articulations have also occurred. With regard to car materials Chapter 10 , energy efficiency, materials recycling and safety are competing articulations. Chapter 12 noted that the chlorination of drinking water to control microbial contamination could have other adverse health impacts.

As a rule, the articulations of SD are not totally in the power of a designer. Design limitations were even more obvious in the car mate- rials case Chapter 10 , as the design of the car itself appeared to change relevant use conditions in a negative way—a certain amount of materials is needed for impact safety, but if other cars become heavier then safety features require more materi- als. Moreover, the safety of a car depends on driver behaviour, which is influenced by driver perceptions of the safety of their own car.

Feeling safer behind the wheel leads to more dangerous driving. In other words, the success of a design depends on the context within which it will operate, but this context is itself changed by the design. However, the examples show that the effect is far more encompassing than a mere boosting of consumption through increased efficiency. The Lancia change in car design, for example, enabled the design of much larger cars Chapter The introduction of more lightweight materials in cars stimulated the steel industry to produce thinner steel sheet.

It also helped to make the car an affordable luxury to many. Developing nations, such as the Yellow River case Chapter 13 and the Morro de Moravia Chapter 12 case showed, tend to assign more value to economic development than do richer nations. For this reason they tend to privilege economic development over envi- ronmental protection. Water scarcity makes water efficiency a prime SD articu- lation.

Product safety is a very strong local SD articulation in North America as US product liability legislation forces designers to make this an absolute priority Chapter 3. And although one might argue how crucial landscape amenity is as an SD articulation, for the Dutch it was an important issue with regard to wind farm development Chapter 5. These local SD articulations often clashed with the more global ones, and outsiders may regard local SD articulations as short-sighted. Nev- ertheless, without local support, global SD articulations cannot be implemented successfully.


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  • In various cases, local independence versus external developments was impor- tant. This was an important argument for wind turbines in the Netherlands Chap- ter 5 , for biofuel district heating in Sweden Chapter 7 and for developing water technology in China Chapter Aiming at local solutions is important for SD as it enables greater participation of stakeholders and diminishes transport needs.


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    • However, in these cases, the motive for stimulating the use of local resources was to diminish vulnerability in times of international crisis. Articulations of SD were often put forward by stakeholders with a specific stake in them. These were not always direct stakes, however: researchers emphasised SD articulations that supported the importance of their own research, for example.

      Resolving conflicts between various SD articulations was not necessary when strict legislation applied. In the Swedish district heating case Chapter 7 , the Mon- treal Protocol prevented any discussion on continuing to use CFC-blown insulation materials which would have saved significant amounts of energy. The EU End-of- Life Vehicles Directive prioritised material recycling which prevented development of lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles Chapter These policies were extremely effective in pushing a single articulation of SD, but could all be questioned when balanced against other SD articulations.

      The success of these single-issue meas- ures in ruling out other sustainable technologies is particularly remarkable com- pared to the lack of success for policies aimed at creating new facilities. Thus, the Dutch government was unable to realise its own wind energy targets Chapter 5 , while China was unable to effectively protect the water environment in the Yellow River Basin Chapter While the co-existence of different articulations allows the existence of joint efforts, these articulations may also overtly compete.

      Such competition often stalls new technology development. Companies generally cannot develop technologies without regard for their com- petitors. But what if there is no foreseeable mainstream technology of the future? Clear visions that are perceived as being realistically achievable are important to create such a mainstream.

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      That is what explains the success of US product liability, the CFC ban and the EU End-of-Life Vehicles Directive; because although all these measures have been criticised on good grounds, they were very clear about the characteristics of a future technology. Chapter 7 contains a good exam- ple—if passive house design is the future is it sensible to invest in district heating? A district heating system utilises waste heat thereby saving energy that would oth- erwise be released but, once it is in place, it is hard to get rid of it, makes passive house development unattractive and the necessity of feeding a grid by a large heat source might necessitate continuing fossil fuel consumption.