Harvard undergraduates are approaching sustainability in their coursework from a variety of angles. On Wednesday, students in the course Environmental Science and Public Policy 77 showcased how they have been learning to view environmental technologies through a sociological framework.
ESPP 77: “Technology, Environment, and Society” is a new course taught by Professor Sheila Jasanoff of the Harvard Kennedy School. The course is described as drawing on “major theories of technology and society to inform and deepen our understanding of environmental problems and policy options.”
As a student of the course, I learned many different theories about technological innovation, power, risks, and implications. In the course we used foundational theory to consider the inherent power in technology and the sociopolitical consequences of different developments. We considered the ability of technology to transform infrastructure and human behavior and we examined the risks of unpredictable or uncontrollable technologies as well as their potential to create solutions.
The prompt for the final project was to choose a “specific technological artifact, process, or system” with an environmental dimension and examine it through one of the frameworks studied in the course. Students explored how their technology was political or democratic, the visions it promised, the social impacts, and the complex network of different actors involved in its development.
A wide array of projects was showcased on Wednesday. One group studied the failure of the solar company Solyndra and the role of the US government as well as the challenges posed by China. They questioned whether the company or the government could have foreseen challenges. American companies have since learned from the experience, the team suggested; today they use cheaper Chinese solar panels rather than trying to compete.
Another group focused on the genetically modified AquAdvantage Salmon and the concerns over intellectual and physical containment. A third analyzed the potential for PRT, or Personal Rapid Transport, and the limitations presented by existing infrastructure.
“Automobility” was a theme that appeared in a large number of the projects – the self-organizing system that includes actors such as cars, drivers, infrastructure, law, and technology. Two groups presented on Tesla Motors. Another focused on the ways in which Zipcar is socially engineering human behavior. There was also a project on the Google Driverless Car; this team brought up the implications and risks of the technology and questioned how driver responsibility would be transformed.
An independent panel of judges evaluated the projects at the final class. The feedback was very positive overall, and the Solyndra project was among those that received an honorable mention. The winning project was a video on Tesla that examined how gas station owners, utility companies, charging network operators, and legislation could pose barriers to Tesla’s reimagined infrastructure and vision for mass accessibility to electric vehicles.
Students explored how their technology was political or democratic, the visions it promised, the social impacts, and the complex network of different actors involved in its development.
I worked on the Tesla project and the experience was exciting and enlightening. Viewing Tesla’s technology through the theoretical framework established in class helped me understand the interplay of different actors in the development of a technology. I realized firsthand the factors that pose a challenge to the expansion of Tesla’s charging networks and retail stores, as well as the potential consequences of these barriers—sthat Tesla remains a high-end vehicle only accessible to the most affluent consumers.
All of the final projects highlighted the enormous role technology continues to play in shaping society and the environment. In an age of rapidly transforming technology, one of the important ways to consider environmental issues is at the intersection of science, technology and society.