Making institutions that serve our children

The matter that institutions are made of is routines, rules and structure. This can both prompt and inhibit innovation. New institutions are conceived in a time and place to meet pressing needs. Overtime, the rules and structures that were put in place age, however as both external and internal factors change (i.e. personnel, technologies and political-social circumstances) institutions can become restrictive unable to meet new demands and address opportunities.

Institutions are essential for change, but they can hold back ideas and technologies, leading to institutional and technological lock-in..

 

The examination I have done on the topic of risk governance applies to broad based institutions. My recent keynote speech at the EU-US Summit on Science, Technology and Sustainable Economic Growth, addressed the need to “break rulez” to prompt a more rapid uptake in new low/zero carbon technologies.  The presentation was a challenge for me, because I had both the opportunity to show my well constructed research to a wide audience but I also wanted to convey a sense of urgency – radical urgency. And convey it with emphasis that stays within an academic discourse (thus keeping people just on the edge of falling asleep).

The reason for my emphasis on ‘urgency,’ or ‘the pace of change’ as I framed it, is essential if we are to achieve an almost zero carbon energy system by 2050. Therefore it becomes almost impossible to speak of reaching these goals without discussing how to revitalize, restructure and revamp institutional processes in an urgent manner. Rulez need to be broken.

During the day long program, the urgency of the need to develop and deploy zero carbon processes and technologies was stated well by Nick Gotts, of the James Hutton Institute, when he rebuked another speaker that said we need to gradually roll out  new technology. Nick said we can’t wait another generation or two to begin rolling out new technologies, the significant consequences of failing to act now, will only be felt after 2050. Patrick Criqui, director at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), later finished this thought by stating that we are working for the babies of today. And he is absolutely right.

My two year-old son was sick last weekend and had a high fever.  Whenever there is a fever in the house, my wife and I go through the same discussion. She takes the temperature, looks at the thermometer and then says, “Oh – its 39 degrees.”  And then I ask “what’s that in Fahrenheit? Is it high?” –  I only know what ‘normal’ and ‘high’ are in Fahrenheit. So I feel the child’s forehead. Then I know how hot the fever is. But really, at the end of the day, does it matter if the fever is 38 or 40? You have to take action to reduce the fever. Even with his high fever, my son kept telling me, “let’s go dad, let’s go outside.” He’s picked up my restlessness.

Inaction only perpetuates the current condition. My effort to break institutional lock-in and ensure the wide deployment of new technologies is based on this restlessness. At least, when my son is older, he can understand why I was always pushing for all of us to get going. It doesn’t matter what the temperature will be in 2050. It will be hot, and the environment and us will suffer, thus action must be taken now. The current pace of change is not enough to stop the fever. The rulez institutions hold onto, like mementos from their own childhoods, need to be broken. It is the children of today that the institutions need to serve.

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The question becomes can you carry the inspiration for fighting institutions from your youth to middle age and beyond? Can the energy of the mosh pits of the 1990’s be transformed to fight climate change? Do we become lazy and content like the baby boomers and fail to make change like they said they would in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Can we afford to fail the next generation?