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Where Ideas Launch Episode 072 With Susan Krumdieck on Transition Engineering hosted by Katherine Ann Byam

072 Transition Engineering


Professor and Chair in Sustainable Energy Transition Engineering at Herriott-Watt University, Susan Krumdieck is also an Author, Podcaster and Documentarian on Transition Engineering. She brings some incredible insights. Before this recording, Susan said to me, the interesting thing emerging from her sustainable energy journey is that the role of engineering in the economy and policy is huge and not well understood, even by engineers. Today she wants us to dive into the underbelly of the economy where the engineers drive the engines of progress, and destruction… Sounds ominous!

Show Notes

Katherine Ann Byam 0:01
I just had the most fascinating conversation with Susan Krumdieck, about transition engineering versus economics, and how the two play out against each other, and what we can expect to see in the near future, listening to these sound bites.

Susan Krumdieck 0:14
The third thing that I would say economists have got wrong is that they are fulfilling a natural role in human civilisation. But pretending that they’re being scientists, they just have too much power in that role. And that role is the role of the shaman

Katherine Ann Byam 0:31
Susan goes on to explain,

Susan Krumdieck 0:33
of clearing some land digging, a mine, doing some productive stuff, you can now do at scales that are going to rock the boat. And so that timeframe within which we’ve unleashed that is really only since the 50s. And it’s very quickly become our story because our shamans have said, Oh, look how clever we are. And therefore we don’t question, even though it’s only been this one generation out of 1000s of generations, that has created this ability, and liability.

Katherine Ann Byam 1:09
This is season five, the great debates of our times, Season Five will be centred around the great debates. And we will be comparing and contrasting different viewpoints on various topics that are consuming the public discourse at present. The reason I decided to take this approach is because we, or at least many of us, are losing the skill of debate. And I think this is an essential skill for us all to practice once more. I don’t see how we get to the point of saving the world and saving our planet. If we don’t know how to discuss our differences. I also think that the solution to most of our challenges are somewhere in the spectrum of views, but never a type of extreme. I will be working with guests to curate the content and discuss beforehand, I will understand their positions, their areas of genius, and navigate my questions around that so that the conversation is challenging and stimulating without being combative. I hope you enjoy season five, where I just launched the Sustainable Innovation Podcast. Professor, and Chair in sustainable energy transition engineering, at Heriot-Watt University, Susan Krumdieck, is also an author, podcaster and documentarian on transition engineering. She brings some incredible insights. Before this recording, Susan said to me, the interesting thing emerging from her Sustainable Energy journey is that the role of engineering in the economy and policy is huge and not well understood, even by the engineers. Today, she wants us to dive into the underbelly of the economy where the engineers drive the engines of progress and destruction. Sounds a bit ominous. I think, Susan, welcome to the show.

Susan Krumdieck 2:50
Well, thanks for having me.

Katherine Ann Byam 2:51
So you may not know this, but one day, I think it was in February 2021, I was watching ‘Living the Change’ a documentary you were in. And I thought, wow. I found you in another one as well. And I thought, Okay, I need to get to Know this person, like, where is she hanging out? So I followed you on LinkedIn. And that’s brought us to today.

Susan Krumdieck 3:11
Oh, great. It was worth going on to LinkedIn, then.

Katherine Ann Byam 3:16
No, I do love LinkedIn as a platform to meet interesting people with lots of insights. And usually it’s people who like to share their work. So it’s great to meet you. So first, for the uninitiated, please, could you explain what you mean by transition engineering?

Susan Krumdieck 3:31
Right? Well, I do understand that a lot of people aren’t really that familiar with engineering at all. It’s true that when they do surveys of who people trust, engineers come out right at the top. So we might not know what they do. But we’re glad they do it. And we trust them to do it. And so if you think about the other types of engineering that you might have heard of: railway engineering, or naval engineering, mechanical, civil, what engineering usually means is making THAT work, whatever it is. So right now, we’re at a point in time where our economy, our society, all of the systems that we depend on, and the way we depend on them, will transition to what they will be in the future. So we’ve had 70 years or so of a kind of pattern that we’ve gotten used to, and that pattern now changes. And so the engineering of that change, making the change work, is what transition engineering is, and probably you don’t want to know, many more details than that.

Katherine Ann Byam 4:39
Well, it’s interesting because I liked your work, because you took some really hard things and combine them with some things that generally are not hard at all. So what I mean by that is economics, and the economists, have come up with a number of things that actually don’t make a lot of real world sense, no offence to economists, but it’s kind of true, right? So there are a lot of, there’s a lot of assumptions inside of economics. And those assumptions aren’t necessarily true things, yet we base a lot of modelling on them. And I think you’re right. Like when I followed your work, I realised, well, yeah, this is what actually made this stuff work. So it’s interesting to kind of get into that. So what I want to ask you is, what are your views on what the economists might be getting wrong at the moment? And if you could possibly limit it to three things. I know that can be difficult, and if we can start there.

Susan Krumdieck 5:33
Right, well, the fundamental premise of economics, when I compare that to engineering, throughout all of engineering, we start with fundamentals of physics, or chemistry, statics dynamics, we model those fundamentals with mathematics. And then we use those mathematical models, usually in a limited and understood way. I mean, we know we just have a rude facsimile of something. But we use those models carefully to inform ourselves about how things would work that are hard to understand. And then we build and test and try out ideas and test again, and test, compare our model to the data test and test and test, the one thing I have never seen an economist do is test their model against the data. So that’s the number one thing that’s wrong; is that they just don’t ever have that self inquiry. All right, now, what they have developed, that is quintessentially wrong, is what they call time value of money. Okay, time value of money means that we discount money in the future, because the price of things will go up, our income will go up, our economy will grow. Therefore, the future money is worth less than it is today. And it’s a very simple little equation they used but when you apply it, what happens is that you take your hands, you put them over your eyes, and you can’t see the future anymore, you become future blind. And yes, that is how we are running full tilt into things that we don’t want to go into, because we’re being purposefully future blind. All right. Now, you said three things. And I guess the third thing that I would say economists have got wrong, is that they are fulfilling a natural role in human civilisation. But pretending that they’re being scientists, or pretending that they have actual information. Now the natural role that they’re fulfilling, if that role didn’t always exist, from probably the first time more than just a family group got together, then maybe we would be okay. But they just have too much power in that role. And that role is the role of the shaman. So you have people who have experience. the wise people, the people who’ve been around for a while, you have the people who have power, and they want to make decisions, and they’re sort of always the shaman, trying to read the tea leaves or look at the entrails of the bird or through casting the rune stones or whatever, in a way to give the confidence in the decisions. The fact that these shamans exist, it’s just part of society. It’s not wrong that they exist. But the economist taking on that shaman position and claiming that they actually do know something, and it isn’t just for the comfort of divining the you know, what the spirits want, or what the ancestors want, or what the omens are, that’s where we’ve gotten into a bit of trouble. So there; three things.

Katherine Ann Byam 9:04
It’s really interesting, you touched on something there that I think is fundamental to our challenge, right, which is that the economy will grow. Right. So there’s always this infinite assumption of growth, which we now know, cannot continue the way it has. Well, you know, technically, we’ve known this for a long time. But we’ve now all kind of owned up to this fact. Yet, we still see this continuous assumption basis. I mean, every time I talk to my pension advisors, they tell me the same thing. You know, it’s just a correction. There’s so many times that I’ve heard these these kinds of rules. And I think, what in your mind needs to fundamentally change right now? And how can we support the transition that we want to support?

Susan Krumdieck 9:56
Right, well, what needs to change right now is the story of us. And I think we are seeing it change, maybe not in the most productive ways, in a lot of places, but the old story isn’t working anymore. And so new stories will arrive, we will write our new narratives. So I would like to be right about those new narratives and not just destructive, because I can see the old way breaking, right? I mean, it feels good to be in on the smashing, you know, they have those things where they give people; for $1, you can get a baseball bat and smash the computer or something, feels great. But we have to clean up the mess when we’re done. So, the narrative of who we are, I know, again, that throughout most of humanity, who we’ve been, has always been a really important part of our story. And we do love our historical tales and our movies about past events and that, but that’s not a very deep look at why we’re the way we are. And when I look, I think we need 100 year perspective of the past, because 100 years ago, most of the technology that we like to think we’re very clever, and we came up with was already come up with so we’re not that clever. But the looming global issues that we have now weren’t actually a problem at that time. Inflation wasn’t really the way we think of it. The banking system didn’t work the way it does now, and what happened was, of course, two giant world wars that changed industry and they changed engineering primarily. How did they change engineering? Number one, some women came into the workplace and had to take over at a time when the companies that existed, that were going to make the machines that were going to win the war, had to cooperate. Before that, before World War Two, they did not have to cooperate. And so you had women and the requirement to cooperate and you’ve got sort of a change in engineering, which involves standardisation. So that, you know, one company could make all the bolts for 10 companies, equipment, and you would standardise what those bolts were so that they would work because you had to do that. All right. And once you’ve got standardisation, you can cook a planet, no question, you can level the rainforest. You know what was going on before of clearing some land digging a mine doing some productive stuff you can now do at scales that are going to rock the boat. And so that timeframe within which we’ve unleashed that is really only since the 50s. So one generation, and it’s very quickly become our story because our shamans have said, Oh, look how clever we are. And therefore we don’t question even though it’s only been this one generation out of 1000s of generations, that has created this ability and liability.

Katherine Ann Byam 13:14
Yeah, that’s a really, really clever way to put it. In your working research what countries are you considering to be taking a leading role in terms of how we need to shape change?

Susan Krumdieck 13:27
Right. Well, I’m going to answer that in a funny way. Because one of the things that I have done, in looking at this narrative that we’re trying to shape, and understanding we’re at a transition point, we are now going to go in a different direction. And we’re going to figure out how to do that. And for humanity, it’s going to be a moment of evolution. Right? The cultural anthropologists tell us that every time we learned a new thing, like to throw a spear or to write, it actually changed us physiologically and in what we could do and and how we related to each other. And so we’re going to have one of those moments of evolution now, where we learn how to correct ourselves, when we’re going in a wrong direction. We correct and if you think about cultures, for the, you know, 10s of 1000s of years before the reset era, correction wasn’t a thing you would do lightly because probably you were doing the right thing at the moment. Right, you have traditional ways they’ve always worked the world around you doesn’t change fast enough that you need to correct anything. And so that’s why I think it is a moment of evolution. So what I’ve done in my research was to go and work with people throughout the world that I could find, who will not have to correct and so I want to know, are there any roots of corrective techniques or corrective disciplines within people who have traditional economies or traditional ways of doing things. And you can imagine there aren’t that many people like that, because colonialism had quite a large reach. But I think I’ve learned some really important things about this correction. And it is aligned with the transition engineering methodology, the seven steps that we take. So that’s really good news. And then the economics of traditional people, I probably won’t get a journal paper accepted. Because I’m not an economist, therefore, I can’t really write about economics. But the traditional economics is really important, that we learn these things. And traditional economics is funny, because it’s not really about growth, it’s about balance. And it’s about balancing what you would like to do. So new things, new, whatever, that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with it, these people aren’t stuck in the stone age or anything. But they always balance that against survival. And survival depends on four things. One, having surplus bio capacity, there’s way more natural capacity, more nature than we could ever use, that’s required for survival. Number two, having way more social capacity than we could ever use. So that always everybody in your society has enough to give that everybody has enough. So the ability to take care of children, the capacity to take care of old people the capacity to help build each other’s houses, this is part of survival. Another thing you have to have is equal access to resources. So you can’t shut off some people from being able to have fish now from being able to fish. And that doesn’t mean that it’s required that people all have the same that’s not true at all, you know, there’s, merit based things and people who work hard to have more or whatever, but you don’t limit some people’s access to the basic needs. And that’s an interesting thing, because our economy doesn’t work that way. And the final thing is autonomy. You have to have the freedom to do what you need to do today. So you have to have abundance of freedom, of the ability to give abundance of equity of access, and abundance of nature. And that’s survival, everything else you balance against that. So all we need is evolution and rediscovery of our roots, probably.

Katherine Ann Byam 17:40
Yeah. And do you think that there are some good examples, perhaps small subsets of examples where we can actually see this playing out today? I mean, I know that we still have some tribes. And I don’t know if you’ve studied any of those tribes, in the Amazon, for example, or even some indigenous societies, but who you think are really leading in this space now?

Susan Krumdieck 18:02
Yeah, Pacific Islanders, they sort of do that. Like I said, a lot of times people don’t end up getting a choice, right, somebody comes and you know, colonises them and sorts them out. But Pacific Islanders are, well, okay, they’re not in great shape because of climate change. But you know, they have ways to take care of themselves and each other and so there’s that. And then, in Guyana, of course, Guyana just got oil discovery. So I think they’re going to struggle now with the resource curse. And here in Orkney, where I’m working, you know, they’re really struggling with the transition, but the roots of how to go about, you know, they just say sort yourself out here and work with your neighbours to sort themselves out. I don’t think it’s sort of a hippie commune sort of idea. But it’s just sort of a, just do what needs doing, figure out what needs doing and do it. You know, you asked about countries and I don’t think that’s the scale at which we see things going the right way. It’s more the local level from the ground up, where we see people starting to sort themselves out.

Katherine Ann Byam 19:27
No, that’s interesting. I read Kate Raworth’s Doughnut economics, which really captures what you’re saying, right? So fundamentally, you know, we should be living within a ring, no one should fall through the middle of the doughnut in terms of basic necessities. And we shouldn’t be going beyond the parameters of the doughnut in terms of, you know, those real scale tilting events, yet, we still are moving very fast toward some of these scale tilting events. So what do you see as the job of the economist, sorry, of the engineers now?

Susan Krumdieck 20:02
Okay, now this is where it probably a lot of people who might listen to this podcast have kept up with the climate change situation. Maybe they watched huge swaths of the Amazon burning, you know, the news isn’t good all around us, it’s not great. And so, you know, it can be really hard to have faith. And so you start to have faith in things that maybe are fantastical, and that doesn’t get us anywhere, either. So having faith that there is a way; this is a thing that my son, when he was young, really asked me for, he said, Mom, you know, the sustainable engineering, is that going to work? And that’s what I was doing at the time, sustainable energy, sustainable engineering. And I actually, because my little kid asked me, I had to take a pause and ask myself, and it is a sad fact that no amount of more sustainable overcomes the unsustainable. And so when I told him, I didn’t think that the chances were great. He just said, Well, Mom, you have to figure out what is the way to do it then, you have to do something. So after a lot of thinking, I sort of had a simple idea, which is, well, if unsustainability is the problem, then maybe we work on THAT. And that is bloody simple. And when I started doing research to see okay, does anybody else see this because it seems like one of those inventor moments where something so simple and obvious, just pops out because it is there in the future. And you, you’re like, Oh, I’m the first person to see it. That’s the inventors moment. And I’m looking around, and I’m not actually seeing it, except I’m finding the same revelation happening throughout history. And the first really big one is in 1911, when a group of engineers when they weren’t even a group, it was just some engineers decided to do their job of making goods in factories, but not kill the workers. And that was the beginning of safety engineering. And the trajectory that the industrial technical enterprise was on at that time, was just chewing through human bodies and customers to the things people were making weren’t safe for the customers either. And the waste, of course, they were producing wasn’t safe for anybody. And so you know, this idea that engineers can do the job that they’re good at, and do what society requires just because we call it now duty of care. And safety was just the first one then there was natural hazards engineering, and sanitation engineering, and waste management, engineering and air pollution engineering. And toxic waste management engineering. And every one of those comes after a major disaster in that field. So we can correct. And when these corrections occur, they can occur quite quickly. They’re usually pretty simple ideas, the change, which is just well, let’s prevent what’s preventable. And so that’s where I get my hope is that these corrections have happened before. Transition engineering is the next one. And it can happen from within engineering. So we don’t even need politicians, none of these previous ones have required politicians to get to get them started. Once they got started, and they were working, then the politician said, yeah, you have to do that. So it’s corrective disciplines within engineering, they also are often across all fields. So that’s what we’re doing transition engineering, it requires maybe a half day of a class, and you too, can become a transition engineer. And the reason it gives me hope, besides that the pattern shows that it should work is that engineers are less than 2% of the workforce. So it isn’t like you have to convince people, you don’t have to convince people or consumers or politicians or even economists, you just have to convince the few logical people. So there’s hope in that, I think,

Katherine Ann Byam 24:44
I think that’s a brilliant way to sum up how this has actually played out in the past and make it clear to people, I mean, we’re talking about energy transition, and that’s the biggest buzzword of the moment. Right. And, you know, we see what’s been happening to prices. Where we are. So in Scotland, in the UK, where we’re both of us are based right now, what are your thoughts on how that’s going? And you know, the decisions that are being made? Do you feel like we’re taking into consideration all that we need to, at this point in time, what gives you hope there?

Susan Krumdieck 25:18
Well, energy transition is a funny thing, because in my research group, we did start using that term quite a while ago. And to us, it was pretty clear what it meant. I had already done research on basically all of the renewable energy sources and smart grids and efficiency of buildings. So all the energy engineering, but energy transition is again about taking on the unsustainable. So you know, there, we aren’t in the position we’re in right now, of using 100 million barrels a day of oil, and putting that much carbon into the air plus the gas plus the coal, same, you know, about the same amount of carbon for each, we are not in that position, because we don’t have enough windmills. We’re in that position, because we use too much oil. And so laser focus, bring it in, it’s about the oil and oil is how you get gas and coal. So you know, oil is the the primary big one, but also gas and oil. So we use about 80% too much of those. And that question of simply okay, how would I downshift 80% of what is used right now in whatever it is I’m doing as an engineer, and how do I help end users of the system that I am going to change to understand and benefit from that change? There you go. There’s transition engineering right there.

Katherine Ann Byam 27:02
No, that’s brilliant and really clear. So what projects are exciting you at the moment that you’re working on either with Heriot-Watt or as an advisor,

Susan Krumdieck 27:12
Right, well, at Heriot-Watt, I’ve been real busy. The last couple of years that I’ve been here setting up something called an island centre for net zero. All right, well, the world needs another centre, like it needs a hole in the head. There are plenty of centres. But I went ahead and took this island centre for net zero because I saw this as the toehold for that beginning of transition engineering, we don’t need another centre for something. We need 100 transition engineering courses, research groups, you know, just the professional organisation, we just need to get on to training and executing the transition engineering work. So I’ve got a transition engineering course that will be delivered online. And that will be starting in August. That global association for transition engineering is based in the UK, even though it does have almost 100 members in New Zealand, because that’s where we started. But it’s legal entity is in the UK. And at Heriot-Watt University, the president of the university, read my book. And he got it he’s an engineer as well. And so the buy in from Heriot-Watt university that you know, what we are one of the key universities that really brought the coal age into existence, and then the oil age and then the gas age, that’s what we’ve been good at. And so we want to be there, we want to be that first place where transition, the energy transition gets rolled out, and how it’s going to work. And we are working with the oil and gas industry on that proposition, because that’s how it’s going to happen. So you know, I think that’s what’s got me excited it’s just really, you know, like, at the beginning of the race, when Usain Bolt puts down his foot there on the block, and the other ones back behind him, and you know, it’s gonna, it’s all on it’s gonna happen. That’s where we’re at here. Yeah. So that’s quite exciting.

Katherine Ann Byam 29:27
It’s really important work. And thank you for giving of yourself to do this work. The other question that I wanted to tap on, is this whole conversation about space and space travel and, you know, creating this alternative of Mars. What are your thoughts on this?

Susan Krumdieck 29:47
All right, so somewhere back at the beginning of the conversation, we said we’re at a point where the story of us is starting to waver, right, our 1950s story of us as you know, building giant cities and going to the moon. And you know, that story of us, it’s starting to waver, it’s falling apart, it’s not working the way we thought it was going to. And so the new narratives start to come in. And in this era, we are going to get the age of silly, okay? It’s gonna happen. No question about it. And, you know, I don’t know, we’re looking for that new story. And so somebody with a story can always pop in, and tell us a whopper. And it’ll have our attention for a while, and it’ll distract us from the problems of the day. But yeah, be aware of that, that we’re going to have a lot of distractions. And in my book, if people care to get it, I use sort of these funny tales, these stories, to depressurise the situations we’re in by by using these little stories, and then I’ve seen people be able to then pop back to that story, to just say, okay, look, I get that we’re in that situation again. So the one that sort of fits, this is the emperor’s new clothes. In a kingdom, where things have gotten out of control, and the king now thinks he has to have a spectacular new outfit every hour, there’s going to be some nonsense merchants turnout. You can bet.

Katherine Ann Byam 31:21
Okay, Susan, tell everyone how they can get your book and stay in touch with you.

Susan Krumdieck 31:25
Well, my book is called ‘Transition engineering; building a sustainable future’. And the book is published by the CRC Press, which is a textbook publisher. So I do apologise ahead of time, it’s about three times as expensive as Kate Raworth’s book. But it is available on Amazon. And if you just Google transition engineering, it’s easy enough to find,

Katherine Ann Byam 31:50
Yeah, perfect. Thank you so much for spending time with us today. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. I love your insights, and thanks for what you do.

Susan Krumdieck 31:59
Well, thank you for having me.

Katherine Ann Byam 32:00
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