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Author Interview: Nanotechnology and Global Sustainability

by Editor1 last modified March 05, 2012 - 17:00

This month, looks at how ideas and work products from nanoscience are helping to reshape the focus and conversations surrounding global sustainability. We speak with the author of Nanotechnology and Global Sustainability, Dr. Donnie Maclurcan, an Honorary Research Fellow with the Institute for Nanoscale Technology at the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia.

Author Interview: Nanotechnology and Global Sustainability

Dr. Maclurcan has spent his career looking at the interrelationships between nanotechnology and innovation, politics, economy and sustainable systems. His groundbreaking book explores nano’s impact on many levels beyond the traditional ones of efficiency, productivity, and utility.

Dr. Maclurcan explores the potential of nanosciences to reshape the world’s systems – not simply its technology, is breath-taking, as the book features chapters from 22 of the world’s most innovative and provocative thought-leaders.  As befits his focus on sustainability, Dr. Maclurcan is also a Distinguished Fellow with the U.K.-based Schumacher Institute for Sustainable Systems, and Co-Founder of the Post Growth Institute – an international network inspiring and equipping people to explore paths to global prosperity that do not rely on economic growth.


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-------------------------------------------------- You define “sustainability” in part as addressing the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Tell us what prompted you to write this book, and how other nanoreseachers can also strike this balance.

Dr. Maclurcan: In the sciences, people often write about the exciting paths for nanotechnology arising from advancements with instrumentation, simulation techniques, synthesis methods and newly discovered materials. In the social sciences, people increasingly write about how trends like crowdsourcing, ‘open source’ and collaborative consumption are opening up a new era of human collectivity. In economics and climate science, people commonly write about the challenges we face to thriving within biophysical limits. In this book, we seek to synthesize [all three of] these streams of thinking, primarily because we believe sustainable approaches are synonymous with holistic approaches.

This is not another book that merely advocates for technology to have a ‘more human face’, or for more precautionary approach to science. Rather, we look to ‘the edge’ for introductory considerations of what is actually paving new ways for a new paradigm – ‘innovation without (economic) growth’. Our book seeks to make unusual connections in order to inspire new thinking and action towards truly sustainable futures for science and society.

We have included case studies from around the world and various participatory methods for research and development in order for nanoresearchers to have the supportive evidence they may need to enact bold research agendas. However, we believe that striking ‘balance’ requires openness to self-reflection about the shortfalls of the ‘techno-fix’, the long-term sustainability of corporate science, and the real value of cross-disciplinary insights. To me, what is also exciting about your book is that it delivers a whole compendium of alternative ways of thinking about nano in the 21st Century -- not just the technology, but in funding, governance and the entire nano research eco-system.  Would you agree with that overview? If so, what are some of the trends you see that are most exciting to you?

Dr. Maclurcan: In an increasingly ‘connected’ world, we believe that policies, projects and approaches seeking to drive ‘sustainability’ require holistic thinking. In this book we have therefore enjoyed exploring existing and emerging shifts from reductionist to holistic thinking around nanoscience.

Often what scientists and politicians have classed as unequivocally ‘good’ - especially in the areas of aid and development - has failed to look beyond short-term outcomes. As authors in this book note, the potential for more thoughtful approaches is changing, with new mechanisms for public feedback and deliberation, and ways to bypass dependencies on government or corporate funding and, therein, influence over research agendas.

In this respect, some of the most exciting trends we’ve seen relate to crowdfunding science (e.g. RocketHub) and the Open Source Appropriate Technology movement (e.g. Appropedia). Fertile ground for an emerging field, like nanotechnology, to engage with alternative development models. You also explain how being mindful of sustainability doesn’t have to handcuff research. Tell us about your unique holistic approach to innovative research.

Dr. Maclurcan: Open source software has shown that sustainable approaches to innovation can actually lead to a renaissance in creativity. The organized ‘power of the crowd’ is a powerful thing indeed! Precautionary approaches, like real-time technology assessment, facilitate consideration for scientific challenges in both a comprehensive and timely fashion. The digital era offers new opportunities for much broader inputs (public and theoretical) – it’s now a matter of how willing we are to spend the time creating the infrastructures to harness these. In this respect, the growing interest in ‘Technology 4 Good’ is, perhaps, evidence that people realize the huge incentivizes, in a connected world, for research that has the potential to improve human wellbeing rather than driving mindless consumption.

As we suggest in the book, holistic approaches to creating futures founded upon innovation without growth seemingly require four fundamental attributes:
  1. Recognition of limits, ecological overshoot, and unsustainable trajectories— an alternative starting point for innovation that acknowledges the need for a new scientific approach—one that is impregnable to co-option by the short-sightedness often underscoring capitalist ventures, such as “greenwashing.”
  2. Decentralized capacity—an alternative global infrastructure for innovation that responds to the various detrimental divides between and within the Global North and Global South (the terms we prefer to use to describe what are more commonly referred to as the developed and developing countries, respectively) through greater decentralization and autonomy.
  3. Local appropriateness—alternative approaches to technological designs that ensure sensitivity to human needs, cultural norms, and environmental effects.
  4. Democratic governance—alternative methods for overseeing innovation that are participatory, enable the empowerment of people, and influence innovation trajectories.

We’ve come to these foundational attributes after years surveying practice and literature across various fields that intersect with technology and sustainability issues. You and your contributors also take great care to put sustainability into a context for many nano disciplines. Talk about the areas you cover. And, how did you go about amassing the expertise to edit a book on the subject?

Dr. Maclurcan: We have endeavored to look at social equity as it relates to alternative starting points for innovation, infrastructure for innovation, approaches to technological design, and methods for overseeing innovation. To achieve this broad-ranging enquiry, we sought to draw together leading social scientists, technical experts, and advocates who represent gender, disciplinary, and geographical diversity. This allowed the coalescence of bodies of knowledge, including environmental sociology, nanoscience, technology studies, anthropology, political economy, development theory, and regulatory studies. Within nanotechnology, the book touches on examples and discussions covering disciplines such as nanoelectronics, nanobiotechnology, nanomaterials, nanotoxicology

The editing process began with thinking broadly about the subject areas to cover in a book looking holistically at nanotechnology and sustainability. Authors were ‘cherry-picked’ from around the world and invited to make contributions based on the pre-determined topics and themes. These themes and the contacts across the fields built directly on Donnie’s doctoral experience over the previous eight years exploring nanotechnology’s potential impacts for global inequity. When people think of nano sustainability, energy research comes to mind (solar, hydrogen fuel cells, etc.) What does nano-energy research teach us about sustainability practices in general?

Dr. Maclurcan: On early evidence, the potential for nanotechnology-based renewable energy breakthroughs would seem to deserve greater funding support, worldwide. However, successful breakthroughs will not provide a technical-fix to the largely socio-political challenges associated with overconsumption. Furthermore, the banner of ‘improved efficiencies through renewable energy’ ought not be a smokescreen for a lack of rigorous investigation into possible risks associated with fields like ‘nanosolar’, nor a broader consideration of phenomena like the ‘rebound effect’ – in which environmental benefits from efficiency gains are typically offset by corresponding increases in overall consumption. Your book also presents an innovative “bottom-up” approach to sustainable nanotechnology going on in Thailand. Tell us a little about it, and what can researchers in large industrial countries learn from this approach.

Dr. Maclurcan: The work being done by researchers from the Centre of Excellence in Nanotechnology at the Asian Institute of Technology is nothing short of astounding. With extremely limited and unreliable funding, the group is applying techniques from nature (biomimicry) to pioneer what they call ‘poor man’s nanotechnology’. Areas of application include the development of dye-sensitized solar cells, super-hydrophobic surfaces and antimicrobial systems, as well as inexpensive methods for desalination and hydrogen generation. The Centre’s is showing how a little ‘natural’ ingenuity, combined with a collaborative mindset, can overcome the belief that small budgets are a barrier to ground-breaking nanotechnology research.

The Thai experience provides useful examples for researchers in the Global North to consider ways to reduce raw material use and energy input in nanotechnology R&D. The case study may also spark questions about the ultimate goals and associated strategies associated with present research trajectories. Are there, for example, ways around the unhelpful bureaucracy associated with a great deal of scientific research, especially in academia? Are huge research budgets always necessary for innovative outcomes? If not, in what ways can alternative approaches be best facilitated whilst maintaining an acceptable risk profile? In what ways can groups collaborate more creatively in order to reduce budgetary pressures and overbearing external influence? Finally, are new possibilities emerging for win-win partnerships with groups in the Global South that can transcend the exploitation commonly associated with market commoditization? When combined with other chapters in our book, especially the investigation of open source appropriate nanotechnology, the Thai case presents some stimulating ideas for ways to enact alternative scientific pathways. Tell us about your current research work, and how it may showcase some of the principals in Nanotechnology and Global Sustainability?

Dr. Maclurcan: Building on the concept of innovation without growth, Donnie is mapping examples of ‘post growth science’ from around the world to be shared in a public database, late 2012. Also through his work at the Post Growth Institute, Donnie is writing a book that will outline an emerging macro-economic model based on not-for-profit social enterprise.

Natalia is furthering the principle of approaching sustainability from a holistic, interdisciplinary perspective with research into urbanization. Working in association with the Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab (University of Melbourne), she is examining how the social needs of communities can be met whist progressing the systemic change needed to evolve low-carbon resilient cities of the future. Natalia is currently undertaking fieldwork in New York and Europe to map cases of small-scale, community-led urban transformation which have had long lasting ‘triple bottom line’ transformative impacts.