Avainsana-arkisto: open horizon scanning

BioEcoJust Open Horizon Scanning #2

Nicolas A. Balcom Raleigh & Amos T. Taylor

The Bioeconomy and Justice futures team continues its Open Horizon Scanning process with this second batch of found items. We thank readers who gave us positive feedback on the launch of this endeavor. We feel encouraged to continue this experimental series of blog posts.

The BioEcoJust project is concerned with the ethical challenges humanity will face in the development of the bioeconomy between now and the year 2125. As part of a larger multi-method research process, we are conducting an ongoing horizon scanning process to inform, develop and test our research findings as we go. On any given week, we encounter a dozen or more items relevant to our research topic. These items can be anything, ranging from academic articles to internet memes. Our project’s futures team has established a practice of documenting, sharing, and reflecting upon these horizon scanning items as we find them. From these discussions, we develop sensemaking tools which we then use to notice new items and interpret them in relation to our project.

Usually, organizations and teams do their horizon scanning privately, in many cases seeing it as a source of competitive advantage. We, however, decided to do some of our horizon scanning work openly. Our reasons are:

  • To more rapidly share our emerging insights with our research communities including our FFRC colleagues, the rest of the Academy of Finland BioFutures 2025 programme, and other futures studies scholars and practitioners;
  • To deepen our interpretations and analysis of the items by communicating about them and listening for feedback;
  • To provide an ‘in process’ view of how we are approaching our research topic;
  • And, to invite discussion about the items we present and their implications for the future of the bioeconomy.

Our goal is to share 3–5 horizon scanning items in somewhat frequent and easy-to-read blog posts. To analyse the presented items, we apply the sensemaking tools we’ve developed so far: the human-technology-nature triangle, three socio-technical domains, and our five BioWorlds (see our launch announcement for detail). To be somewhat systematic in our analysis, we will generally include the following elements about each presented item:

  • A short headline conveying the item’s essential meaning;
  • A reference and link for the item;
  • A brief description;
  • How it relates to other items we’ve encountered;
  • Meanings of the item in relation to our existing sense-making tools (e.g. BioWorlds, Human-Technology-Nature Triangle, and Three SocioTech Domains);
  • And, perhaps most important — the potential futures we see in the item.

This batch of items all share a cross-cutting theme of bioeconomy and it’s potential to address climate change. They include an interactive article conveying the ranges of impacts of global warming, the role of climate change interventions by the wealthy philanthropists, the new global land-use degradation indicator announced by UNCCD, and the launch of a scientific debate regarding how suitable wood-based sources for energy are for reducing CO2 emissions.

Horizon Scanning Items

1. The many ways 1.5C is less than 2.0C

Carbon Brief (2018) Impacts and Uncertainty of 1.5C & 2.0C. Climate Change.  (Accessed 10 October 2018).

This item caught our attention in relation to the widely covered IPCC Special Report 15 released on 8 October. It is an interactive article by Carbon Brief about the ‘impacts of climate change at 1.5C, 2C and beyond. Based on 70 peer-reviewed recent climate studies, it briefly sketches out temperature differences and their impacts for the future in ten categories: Oceans, Ice, Temperature, Rainfall, Drought, Storms and flooding, Crops, Nature, Economy, and Health. Rather than being a simple list, this quantified analysis is presented as ranges of possible impacts and uncertainties while conveying the complicated interrelations among the impacts. For example, depending on if we are talking about 1.5 or 2.0C global average temperature increase, the sea level will rise between 59 and 61 cm by years 2100 and 2300, and warm spell durations will range between averages of 17 to 35 days of continuously warm (hot) weather per year.

In 2015, a presentation by CICERO suggested that the IPCC scenarios of 2.0C increase were rather optimistic with one crucial factor hanging in the balance, the need for negative emissions through carbon capture. The technology and mechanisms for negative emissions are yet to be demonstrated and their viability at scale remains highly uncertain. Futurist’s ears perk up whenever uncertainty is discussed, as these are exactly the areas of the future requiring deeper exploration and bolder strategic action. This week’s IPCC report underlines the need to explore uncertainty to find solutions, to acknowledge the wide complexity of impacts, and the need for concerted and far-reaching action as soon as possible.

In this sense, this item signals a coming maturation in discussions about climate change in which frameworks like this enable discussion about the uncertainty of warmer futures by specifying the variety of combinations of possible impacts. This horizon scanning item may also signal a wider strengthening of our Bio-Equality world’s influence on how people conceive of and act toward an ideal relationships among Humans, Technology, and Nature. At the very least, it is another call for greater awareness of how bold transformative actions are needed today in order to improve the options for people living 100 to 200 years from now.

2. The downsides of “billionaire saviors”

Florida, Richard (2018) Real Change Won’t Come from Billionaire Philanthropists. 27 September 2018, City Lab.  (Accessed 17.10.2018.)

This item is an interview with author Anand Giridharadas who summarizes many key arguments he makes in his new book Winners Take All. The core of his argument is that the world’s wealthiest people are co-opting the concept of social change in their initiatives to do good. As wealthy people implement their own tools for social change, like social impact investing, change-driven invite-only events such as DAVOS, or personal ‘save-the-world’ pet projects, they simultaneously set the rules for how change should be enacted, closing out other options, and thereby reinforcing their economic power. We don’t necessarily agree or disagree with Giridharadas (we would need to read his book more closely), but we take his observation of this phenomena of what we’ll call ‘billionaire saviors’ as a starting point for exploring some fascinating future potentials.

His criticism of the present class-based influences on the future reminds us of arguments made by Moore (2016). Moore rejects the ‘it’s all of humanity’s fault’ logic of many Anthropocene scholars and instead places the blame for environmental devastation and the looming climate crisis on historical Europe-led colonialism. These past actions dehumanized many non-European people and severely devalued nature in pursuit of capital accumulation. Moore’s point emphasizes the significance of how a small group of powerful actors fundamentally perceive nature’s value.  In this light, how today’s billionaire saviors regard nature is quite important to how far we can go in righting the past wrongs of colonialism over the next 107 years.

Both Giridharadas and Moore are part of a growing list of authors who either call for or predict the need for a new economic system in order to avoid the worst possible outcomes of the global warming crisis. These criticisms link to a sensemaking tool our Bioecojust team is developing regarding the future evolution of the global economy. In our opinion, the often taken-for-granted assumption that the current economic order will continue indefinitely is highly questionable. The overall economic order has changed so profoundly and so many times over the last 100 years that it is highly unlikely it won’t continue to change over the next 100 years. Yet, how can we imagine beyond what we already know? What new forms of ‘valuation of value’ can we expect in the future? (e.g. see 99 These on the Revaluation of Value ) How frequently can we expect the overall economic order change over the next 107 years, due to what factors, and what forms will it take?

This horizon scanning item helps shed some light on these questions by naming a powerful mechanism shaping the present–that wealthy people apply their economic influence to produce change while perpetuating economic structures and systems that continue the destructive status quo. This phenomena of Billionaire Saviors intervening to make change cuts across all five of our BioWorlds as many actors in those worlds already are, or will soon be, mobilized by these types of funders. This phenomena is also present in the three socio-technological domains we are investigating–forests, soil, and algae–as private wealthy individuals play key roles in the development of all three domains. Billionaire Savior initiatives take the form of betting on single solutions to complex and nuanced problems. The motivations of these billionaire saviors are deeply linked with the human, nature, technology triangle as their expectations for how these relationships ‘should be’ profoundly structures the designs of their interventions. Even if these Billionaire Saviors can exert extraordinary influence on societal developments more rapidly than other types of actors, what happens when they are wrong? What other forms of change are overlooked? On a 107-year timeline, will their presence and influence increase or decrease? We note that the actions of Billionaire Saviors must be carefully watched in regards to the development of the Bioeconomy. We also note that doing something is better than doing nothing, even while we wonder what other forms of action could have a greater and longer lasting impact.

 3. Coming Soon: A global Land Degradation Indicator

UNCCD (2018) SDG Indicator 15.3.1. UN Sustainable Development Goal 15.3 Knowledge Hub. (Accessed 10 October 2018.)

UN Sustainable Development Goal 15.3 aims to ‘combat desertification, restore degraded land and soil–including land affected by desertification, drought and floods– and strive to achieve a land degradation-neutral world’ by 2030. The custodian agency of SDG Goal 15.3 is UNCCD and they are maintaining a knowledge hub to track its progress. An infographic on the hub’s homepage shows how SDG 15.3 is linked to several other SDGs, including safe water, ending extreme poverty, ending hunger, and conserving ecosystems. This horizon scanning item includes both the Knowledge Hub and the Land Degradation Indicator 15.3.1 announced on it. This new indicator is good news for our project because Land Degradation due to human pressure and climate change is one of nine key influences on the year 2125 we’ve identified. Land degradation is a cross-cutting theme in our BioWorlds as well, especially BioUtility and BioRecovery which are at odds with each other in regards to land use. However, to date, there are many differing scientific approaches to assessing of how much of Earth’s land is degraded. So far, to understand the current status of this factor, we have been relying on the IPBES (2018) land degradation forecasts for 2050 and Gibbs and Salman’s (2015) harmonization of four land degradation measurement approaches. In the future, we look forward to having a standardized way to track land degradation. UNCCD plans to first publish Indicator 15.3.1 in February 2019 based on data gathered in 2018. After this, the indicator will be updated every four years. For key players in the bioeconomy (policymakers, business leaders, researchers, startups, etc.) this indicator will serve as a valuable metric by which to determine positive or negative impacts of their actions. For example, the key actors in our BioRecovery world, which features innovators deploying advanced technologies such as space-based monitoring, artificial intelligence, blockchain, and drones to rapidly restore critical ecosystems, could use this indicator to target their interventions, measure their successes, and communicate scientifically about their contributions.

4. Are biofuels renewable?

Searchinger, Timothy D., Tim Beringer, Bjart Holtsmark, Daniel M. Kammen, Eric F. Lambin, Wolfgang Lucht, Peter Raven, and Jean-Pascal van Ypersele (2018) Europe’s renewable energy directive poised to harm global forests. Nature Communications, 2018, 9 (1). (Summarized on Science Daily as “Europe’s renewable energy directive poised to harm global forests, experts argue”)

“Europe’s decision to promote the use of wood as a ‘renewable fuel’ will likely greatly increase Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions” states the Science Daily article about an academic commentary that summarizes a warning by 800 scientists about counting wood-based biofuels as a renewable energy source. With the pressures of climate change comes the urgent need to find alternative greener energy and fuel solutions that can replace global dependency on fossil fuels. The EU’s renewable energy directive has opted to identify wood and thus the forest sector as an attractive candidate. However wood as an inherent natural green solution is problematic when it comes to being utilised directly as a source of fuel because, as it is suggested in this item, it can produce more carbon emissions than fossil fuels, depending on the calculation methods and use of carbon offsets. Rather than focusing wood use on other areas like construction or new materials derived from cellulose, wood for fuel would push EU energy emissions over the limit, the scientists argue. This strategy also gives the green light globally for forests as a source of fuel, potentially resulting in dense precious forest areas of Brazil, for example, being cut at a large scale exclusively for biofuel. A potential impact is that using wood as fuel could become more profitable than applying it to other crucial innovative applications such as textiles, construction, chemicals, and medicines. Burning wood, or transforming it directly to fuel then, in this light, seems to be a primitive way to gain value from nature. It exemplifies the approach of some of the actors in our BioUtility world to maximise efficiency and replace fossil fuels with bio-based sources. An opposite value would be to see this precious forest resource as a valuable form of captured carbon and habitat for biodiversity, which is more in line with the values and motives of our Biorecovery and Bioequality worlds. However this commentary focuses the debate on an energy perspective that does not include other bioeconomy concepts, where convergences of added-value products cascade, and any energy is collected only after high value materials are extracted. The authors seem to overlook the emerging new conceptualization of bioeconomy as ‘circular bioeconomy’ which is emphasized in the new EU Bioeconomy Strategy, (EC 2018).

This academic commentary, in our view, represents a central debate that could continue over the coming decades. Furthermore, the industrial interests of various nations come into play–if forestry is your nation’s largest industry the issue may be seen one way whereas if you nation’s largest industry is oil, the issue may be seen another. The debate is driven by anticipatory assumptions about winners and losers: When wood is seen as a key renewable energy source who wins? Who loses? And what are the unintended consequences? This debate may continue as a permanent, recurring feature of the bioeconomy. As an ‘unfurled dialectic’ – two opposing futures perpetually locked in conflict [1] (see Ahlqvist & Rhisart 2015) – it could define the direction and characteristics of the future bioeconomy for years to come. The key will be to see what is outside its framing to identify alternative configurations.

This concludes our 2nd installment of the BioEcoJust Open Horizon Scan. We welcome your feedback, either via comments (below) or as an email to nabara (a) utu.fi.

Nicolas A. Balcom Raleigh
MA, Project Researcher 

Amos T. Taylor
MA, Project Researcher

[1] Technically, Ahlqvist and Rhisiart call this locked opposition variety of futures dialectic a ‘Parallax Gap.’

Launch of BioEcoJust Open Horizon Scanning

Nicolas A. Balcom Raleigh & Amos T. Taylor

A key part of any high-quality futures research project is active horizon scanning. In our work for the BioEcoJust project, we have made it part of our research design to continually seek, analyze and share new information regarding our focal topic − the bioeconomy. Up until this point, we have only shared our horizon scanning items and future insights within our small futures team. One could argue that doing so is wise in the competitive world of research − moats not bridges. We however believe that being open with our horizon scanning outcomes will contribute to our project’s societal impact while also doing important sharing work within the research community of the larger Academy of Finland BioFutures 2025 programme.

Earlier this week, we decided we would pilot a more open horizon scanning process. This is the first installment. Our goal is to share the top three to five most interesting items we find every week on the FFRC blog. Because establishing an active new communication channel would cost us a lot of valuable research time, we see this strategy as a win-win for our project and for the FFRC community. Our research efforts win because we will be forced to further synthesize our analysis of our items found through horizon scanning. And society wins because what we share could lead to new and productive actions, perspectives, and insights. Furthermore, we invite readers to share any items you find that you think our project will find useful.

Because you are joining us midway in our horizon scanning journey, you will probably need a brief introduction to the sensemaking tools we’ve created so far. There are three main tools:

  • The human-technology-nature triangle. We find the longstanding and dynamic relationships among humans, technology, and nature are useful for making sense of the motivations behind various bioeconomy activities.
  • Three Socio-Technological Domains. We’ve identified three indicative socio-technological domains: forestry, soil, and algae. These do not comprehensively capture all activity in innovative activity in the bioeconomy, but do convey some of the variation and depth of this activity. Forestry refers to all efforts to better manage and generate more value from forests. Soil refers to all efforts to leverage soil’s capacities to capture carbon as a way to address climate change (e.g. regenerative agriculture). Algae refers to many efforts surrounding the use simple living systems to produce chemicals, foods, fuels, and materials for human consumption.
  • Five BioWorlds. Building on the Scenarios as Worldmaking (see Balcom Raleigh et al. 2018), we have identified five worlds or worldview archetypes that various actors in the bioeconomy occupy. Each BioWorld has different characterizations of the human-technology-nature These BioWorlds are Bio-Utilisation, Bio-Mimicry, Bio-Upgrade, Bio-Recovery and Bio-Equality. The first two are hopefully self-evident. Bio-Upgrade refers to actors and activities engaging in upgrading lifeforms. Bio-Recovery refers to applying radical technology to restoring degraded or destroyed ecosystems. Bio-Equality refers to actors advocating for equal status for all living beings.

These and other emerging sensemaking tools produced from our past horizon scanning efforts feed into the present and future horizons scanning work we are doing. On one level, they serve as attractors for information − for example, we may see a headline and think, “this could be useful because it could be part of BioMimicry world.” On another level, they can be applied while interpreting an item for its future potentials. While discussing the launch of this open horizon scanning series of blog posts, we decided we’d start by losely applying the following framework to produce brief ‘first takes’ about what we’re seeing in what we share with our readers. For each item we share, we will generally include the following elements:

  1. The found horizon scanning item, a brief description, and a short header capturing its essence.
  2. How the item relates to other items we’ve encountered;
  3. How it relates to our existing sense-making tools (e.g. BioWorlds, Human-Technology-Nature Triangle, Three Tech Domains)
  4. Potential futures we interpret from the item.

Before we present our first five items, we ought to mention that our project is concerned with the year 2125. If you find it tough to imagine, think of the great-grandchildren of today’s three-year old children. These descendents will be in their 20s and 30s in 100-some years. Close your eyes and let that sink in for a minute before you continue.

Now, without further ado, here is this week’s top five BioEcoJust horizon scanning items:

1. Milk from Bioreactors

Orispää, Oili (2018) Maitoa ilman lehmää ja munia ilman kanaa – suomalaiset keksivät, miten maailman kasvavaa väestöä ruokitaan. 19.9.2018 Yle.fi, accessed 20.9.2018.

This news item is about the work of researcher Lauri Reuter at VTT who has successfully produced milk proteins via bioreactors and microbes. This is an example for the Bio-Upgrade world and also linked to to the concept of bio-based production, in this case, of food. It is similar to the YCombinator story we saw earlier about the rising startup theme of cellular agriculture and the DARPA-funded 10 thousand molecules research project which aims to find a way to make 10 thousand useful chemicals via bio-based means.

2. DNA for Data Storage

Hyde, Embriette (2018) From magnetic tape to the “DNA hard drive:” entering the next frontier with DNA data storage. SynBioBeta 16.9.2018, accessed 17.9.2018.

This is a fascinating example of BioMimicry world (plus some parts of BioUpgrade, although they the purpose of this technology is not improve existing lifeforms but rather to create a data storage technology using a one of life’s core concepts − DNA. One of the entrepreneurs interviewed claims there could be a commercially available DNA storage product in 10 years.

3. Inequality and the biosphere

Hamann, Maike – Kevin Berry – Tomas Chaigneau – Tracie Curry – Robert Heilmayr –  Patrik J.G. Henriksson – Jonas Hentati-Sundberg – Amir Jina – Emilie Lindkvist – Yolanda Lopez-Maldonado – Emmi Nieminen – Mat´ıas Piaggio – Jiangxiao Qiu – Juan C. Rocha – Caroline Schill – Alon Shepon – Andrew R. Tilman – Inge van den Bijgaart – Tong Wu (2018) Inequality and the Biosphere. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, Vol. 43.

Amos noticed this item late in the week. It is an academic article that defines inequality in terms of society and the biosphere, then digs into the interactions among these concepts. We find it highly valuable to our development of the BioEquality world as it discusses interactions among human society and the natural living world. As an aside, the authors “define the biosphere broadly as the global ecological system integrating all living beings and their relationships in the thin layer of life between the Earth’s crust and outer space” − which really puts things in perspective.

4. Other Species recruited to help humans sense impacts of the melting ice sheets

Culliford, Elizabeth – Jackson, Lucas (2018) Harsh climate: The struggle to track global sea level rise. Reuters Graphics 20.9.2018, accessed 21.9.2018.

This item describes some of the key technologies being used to track impacts of global warming on Greenland’s ice and glaciers through NASA’s OMG program. Biomimicry world partially appears in the form of the sensor strategy used by the research team–human made robots are not nearly as agile swimmers as seals, halibut, or small ’unicorn’ whales. Biorecovery world partly appears as the recently launched space-based monitoring satellite that will provide highly precise data about the Earth’s two ice sheets. The future potentials here include humans increasing their use of other species to monitor planetary systems and future high resolution datasets for verifying and modeling climate change and rising sea level.

5. Large-Scale Walls vs. Large-Scale Complexity

Wolovick, M. J. and Moore, J. C. (2018) Stopping the flood: could we use targeted geoengineering to mitigate sea level rise? The Cryosphere, Vol. 12, 2955−2967.

Geo-engineering offers solutions to climate change at giant scales intended to tackle global problems at their natural and geological source. In a recent proposition to avert the impending Antarctic glacial collapse that has been noted to be the largest contributor to future sea level rise, scientists Wolovick & Moore (2018) suggest innovations to mitigate the degradation and melting of the Thwarties Glacier in West Antarctica, echoing the idea presented in this post on WEForum. This we might understand as a contingency plan to slow the melting ice contributing to sea rise that threatens human habitat along coastal areas of the globe. It could be seen as linked to the BioRecovery world as human technology is applied to preserve an ecosystem, but it is perhaps more a part of the BioUtility world as humans intervene on natural processes to meet its own agenda − human habitat preservation. In practice, the proposal is an innovative way to stop the ice shelf from breaking away by artificially cooling and anchoring its edges. As an example of radical innovation to mitigate disasters, it signals new forms of resilient engineering that are evocative of coming times. There are ethical questions however, can engineering at such a scale work? At what cost? In the coming future will these projects become commonplace to avert the multitude of threats due to climate change? As China instructs its armies to plant trees at a gigantic scale to improve air quality, and engineers in Norway attempt to capture carbon from the air and store it in caves underground are we moving to a new level of scaled up innovation for planetary protection? This item also reminds us of other ‘walls’ in popular discourse: the walls built to block human migration flows. As Sassen (2018) argues, human migration is fundamentally caused by loss of habitat. Going to the symbolic level, a simple human technology − walls − are being proposed as safeguards against changes wrought by deep changes in the behavior of complex Earth systems. This observation begs the question: Are there alternative metaphors to walls that can serve us better in addressing these multifaceted challenges?

That’s our list for this week. We hope it gave you a taste of our thinking here in the BioEcoJust futures team. We welcome your feedback − particularly about how the above items remind you of items you’ve seen or if you see additional future potentials in the horizon scanning items. Please send your remarks to nabara (a) utu.fi and Nick will pass them on to our team.

Nicolas A. Balcom Raleigh
MA, Project Researcher 

Amos T. Taylor
MA, Project Researcher


Article picture: pxhere.com