Blog: Time Travel for Energy Transition Leaders

20th May 2023


Time Travel for Energy Transition Leaders

This blog was originally posted on LinkedIn by our CEO and Secretary General of the World Energy Council Dr Angela Wilkinson.

We live in a Digital age that includes an increasing global consciousness about the importance of inter-connected challenges and existential crises. Many people look at the future with a sense of fear and hopelessness.  

The perspectives of some with energy know-how seem infused with a reinvigorated sense of techno-optimism, borne out of the idea that global technology moon-shots – including advanced nuclear, green hydrogen, electric mobility - will save humanity from itself. What are these leaders seeing that others in society, notably energy customers and users, cannot? 

So, it was a refreshing treat last week to participate in the Sharing Desired Futures UNESCO retreat with a remarkable variety of futures thinkers and practitioners. In these turbulent times of global energy transitions, we need to draw on creative, structured and deliberative approaches to futures sensemaking and design and help teams, groups and organisations to cocreate new and better energy possibilities: climate resilient, shared, circular, and regenerative is the new and preferred shape of energy systems to come! 

Trapped by tensions about the past 

For millennia, energy transitions have been triggered by technology innovation and accompanied by societal upheaval and transformation. The use of fire didn’t just heat the cave, it enabled early humanity to leave it. 

The Industrial Revolution – largely powered by coal – took place over centuries. It has radically transformed transportation systems, brought new industries to life and enabled the growth of urban societies.  

The electrification revolution, which started over 110 years ago, has dramatically improved the quality of life of billions of households and is enabling new forms of virtual, on-line community. The renewable power revolution has only just started – but the full disruptive and transformative potential is mindboggling. It is not occurring in isolation, but in combination with many other transitions, from regenerative farming to general Artificial Intelligence.  

And lest we forget, the more recent and faster energy transition from coal to gas in Europe and elsewhere, did not just swap old technology for new and better technologies, but has left deep impacts on the fabric of societies which are still evident in today’s politics.  

Social sciences highlight that individual and collective ability to learn with crisis and failure is often poor. People get fired for making mistakes, so it’s best to avoid talking about failures.  

As a result, and despite being equipped with better science and more data, communities, organisations and whole societies risk repeating patterns of late lessons from early warning. 

Meanwhile, our entire species is challenged by a less benign, increasingly toxic Mother Nature to create a new and different future which restores health and harmony between people and planet  

And whilst some forests are already showing adaptation to climate change, politics and policy is locked in the ‘mother-of-all strategic reframing contests – green vs clean energy, good vs bad fuels, renewable vs net zero emissions power.  

Steady improvement is no longer enough. Our human desire for stability is in tension with the need for fundamental changes. Social transformation and institutional innovation must proceed hand in hand with technology innovation.  

Embracing global commons sense with a new futures tense 

As Einstein put it – problems can’t be solved with the same mindset we use to create them! The world needs to break new ground – conceptually and physically, and surely socially, as well as technologically. 

The emerging global common sense is that avoiding a global climate change crisis requires global energy transitions to be managed at an unprecedented speed and scale.  

And while there is agreement about the direction – a shift from the scarcity of fossil fuels to an abundance of renewable energies, there increasingly fragmented and polarised positions about the ‘how to’ and ‘who with’ or by when. 

Neuroscience and cognitive psychology show that human beings spend most of their mental time and energy contemplating the future, yet we seldom consider the nature of futures thinking itself.  

In facing global and complex systems challenges, such as global climate change and energy transition, is easy to become overwhelmed and succumb to fatalism. Becoming torn between pessimism and optimism is useless. The future is neither all bad nor all good. The future is first and always a story. And the future we imagine shapes our understanding of reality. If we imagine that better futures are possible, we make different decisions in the present. 

How can we learn with futures thinking and experiences to better resolve tensions between stability and transformation of energy systems? And how are we learning to use the future to explore solutions that are climate resilient, technologically possible and socially beneficial? 

Mental time travel is possible and instrumental in harnessing the might of what might happen rather than focussing on what we want to happen. By exploring ‘what if’ we can avoid ‘if only’!  

Realistic hope is always in action – it is so important that we’ve written a book about the principles of working with realistic hope.

The Council is the world’s pre-eminent energy transitions community and has been working for 100 years to forge new global common sense and cocreate new and better future possibilities. 

Fundamental in our drive on humanising energy to make faster, fairer and more far reaching energy transitions happen in all regions is our ability to work with energy numbers and futures narratives and to share future expectations. Our Energy Transition Leadership Toolkit is expanding to include the opportunity to learn with futures design, fiction and simulated experiences. 

We want to avoid the panel bleating, tell-and-sell, dialogue-of-the-deaf hallmarks of many commercial conferences and trade shows. We can and must overcome the trap of all good vs. all bad energy futures. 

Central in this ambition is to curate ground-breaking impact sessions which ‘convene the future at the table and on the menu’ during the 2024 World Energy Congress – Redesigning Energy for People and Planet.  

Diversity and inclusion are key to cocreating ‘better’ futures - climate resilient, shared, circular and regenerative energy systems. We will engage science and art, work with plausibility and probability, learn with new cli-fi and social sci-fiction, to shape a bigger and better story of energy and climate and societal flourishing; not about what humanity could have done, but instead about what it did to change its mindset to get ahead of its greatest challenges. 

Join the World Energy Council

Engage in strategic dialogue with the energy leaders of today and the future, build capabilities and help shape the energy future.