Sustainable energy and transport: the Frankenstein Monster Syndrome
Alternatives to the currently unsustainable energy production and transport systems do exist and are promising. Unfortunately, these offerings, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein monster, are hopeful monstrosities that work well in a protected living lab. However, they struggle when their proponents try to implement them in the real world. Is it because they are not as good as they promise, or because the incumbent supplier networks refuse to engage with them? Maurizio Catulli reflects.
The supranational and national policies to achieve zero carbon call for research into innovative offerings that enable responsible production and consumption, a key objective of the UN Compact (UNECE). Affordable and clean energy and sustainable transportation are respectively goals seven and eleven of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (Sustainabledevelopmentun.org). The energy strategy, for example, needs to include renewable energy more than it does now. One of the possible responses to this need is technological innovation – technologies that can help generate energy and power travel with a reduced environmental impact.
Policymakers, energy and transport providers, researchers and consultants support and conduct research in these technologies, which often results in innovations that promise lower environmental impact than current technologies. Some of these innovations are combinations of products and service elements, resulting in offerings for consumption which Mokyr (1990) has called “hopeful monstrosities”, because they are made out of unrelated products and service elements. For example, Mobility as a Service (MaaS) is a system that enables access to multiple modes of transport through smartphone apps, and enables users to access car and bicycle sharing, mini-scooters and public transport. MaaS promises environmental benefits by encouraging walking and cycling, improving utilization rates and reducing single occupancy ridership.
The role of networks
Both energy and power offerings (EnergyNetworksAssociation) and MaaS offerings (Matyas, 2020) are supported by networks of providers to deliver their services. These innovations are assessed in “socio-technical experiments,” small scale demonstrator projects with are designed and implemented in protected niches and “living labs,” research environments which are protected, for example, by access to proprietary lists of users and availability in spaces, such as university campuses, which competition cannot access. At the same time, research funding and access to specialist knowledge and skills through university academics nurture these innovations. The results are often encouraging and include transport offerings, which dramatically reduce the usage of personal cars and therefore can bring considerable environmental benefits. Within the protected living labs, these innovations work and thrive – through recursive use by enthusiastic practitioners. Like the Frankenstein monster, these innovations are “hopeful monstrosities.” Hopeful because they promise considerable environmental benefits; monstrosities because they are not necessarily suited to diffusion in the “real world” outside their living lab and they often struggle to diffuse in the market. Indeed, the production of energy within the EU generates three quarters of greenhouse gas emissions in the continent, because not enough green energy provision is available at the present time. Why is this the case?
Escaping the living lab
No matter how desirable these sustainable innovations are, when they exit the living lab and their proponents try to scale them up outside of the safety of protected niches, into the open market, they have poor uptake. Indeed, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein monster, sustainable energy offerings and MaaS are rejected and “chased away” by the “villagers,” the existing users and providers in the real world. These sustainable innovations – such as MaaS – often have an unfavourable cost-benefit profile. They may be too expensive for users; they are difficult to use, or they simply do not perform well enough. This is the case of some examples of renewable energy offerings, where the intermittent nature of the supply make then unsuitable to every day usage. MaaS, similarly, presents usability problems, as users may not be able to manage bookings to satisfy their requirements and in some case, they are unable to use the smartphone apps used to manage MaaS.
Research conducted on MaaS by the author sheds some further insights that reveal that MaaS’ Frankenstein Monster’s syndrome hinders MaaS diffusion, even before the innovation gets to users. Within the protected living labs, providers build their MaaS offering around a network of providers including smartphone app designers, transport providers, research partners and local authorities. When MaaS providers try to establish their transport offering in the real world, they need to reproduce the network that supports the transport offering, but on larger scale. For example, these providers need to network with national transport providers such as train and bus companies, locally based car and bicycle sharing companies, insurance companies, local and national authorities and others. These networks are in opposition to the networks of providers that support the private car, such as cars and parts manufacturers, insurance companies, transport authorities and after-market networks constituted, for example, by car repair companies and parts retailers. The research shows that these networks do not welcome the hopeful monstrosity of MaaS.
Difficult integration of MaaS in transport networks
Large transport operators such as train companies have interests diverging from smaller mobility outfits such as car and bicycle sharing companies. Therefore, train and bus companies are not willing to share data with MaaS providers, which makes the inclusion of train and bus services in MaaS apps impossible. Incompatible Application Programming Interfaces (API) impede digital connection between members of these networks. An API is a software interface that offers a service to other pieces of software to create a connection between computers or between computer programs. To create ties between their digital resources, providers need to adopt common API specifications, documents or standards that describe how to build or use such a connection or interface, which they may be unable or unwilling to do.
Local and national authorities may be able to encourage existing transport providers to adopt compatible APIs and share data, making this a condition for the release of transport licences. Indeed, MaaS Global succeeded in Finland because of management savvy but also because of direct involvement of Finnish local and central Governments. This might be a “stick” approach to encourage the formation of networks that can support MaaS and, similarly, sustainable energy provision. At the same time, MaaS providers should evaluate the opportunity to design communications to win trust and establish relationships with other actors in the network, including policymakers. However, whether these strategies can work is an open question. There are problems for large, national companies to network with partners that are more localized and far smaller in size and resources. Furthermore, all the participants might not trust perspective partners which can form the network supporting MaaS by sharing their data, because they believe that they might lose revenue to these partners, as travelers might migrate to their partners’ services.
The Frankenstein monster syndrome can affect the formation of networks in the energy as well as in transport industries and therefore be a hindrance to the diffusion of sustainable energy and transport systems. It is important that resources are allocated to research to gain insights into how providers can resolve these difficulties in creating transport and energy networks and how policymakers can encourage the integration of promising sustainable energy and travel innovations in the relevant industry networks.
Specialist theoretical perspectives to study industrial interactions and networks can support this research. These theoretical perspectives offer knowledge that can guide the design of sustainable energy and transport networks and the selection of suitable participants and processes to enable these networks. These disciplines propose to aggregate networks by encouraging connections between the network’s human participants and ties between the resources and business activities of industrial participants. Policymakers charged with encouraging the diffusion of sustainable energy and transport systems need to support research to address questions to gain insights to inform the necessary decisions, such as 1) how can power asymmetry and issues of trust between providers in the sustainable transport and energy networks be mitigated? And 2) What are the best approaches to encourage the adoption of shared information protocols to support sustainable energy and transport offerings? Addressing these questions may help cure sustainable travel and energy offerings’ Frankenstein Monster’s syndrome.
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Energy Networks Association Energy Networks Association. Available at: https://www.energynetworks.org/ (accessed 20/06/2022).
Matyas M (2020) Opportunities and barriers to multimodal cities: lessons learned from in-depth interviews about attitudes towards mobility as a service. European Transport Research Review 12(1): 7.
Mokyr J (1990) The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sustainabledevelopmentun.org Available at: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/?menu=1300 (accessed 3/02/1010).
UNECE UNECE. Available at: http://www.unece.org/info/ece-homepage.html (accessed 18/01/2019).