Radical Decarbonization and Democratic Infrastructures

Redefining Human Relationship to Energy in a Post-Carbon World

Darshan M.A. Karwat


How we use energy defines social organization.  Fossil fuels are not only concentrated sources of energy, but they also concentrate political power in the hands of those who control its supply.  Renewable energy technologies and infrastructures can completely disrupt this paradigm, and if their design incorporates ideals of social justice, democracy, and ecological holism, they will help communities mitigate, adapt, and be resilient to climate change, be they energy poor or starved, or energy obese.  At the MIT Media Lab, I will create the tools needed to transform the way we use and share energy and lay the groundwork for radical decarbonization and developing democratic infrastructures.     

Guiding Questions

Governments and industry are envisioning and addressing solutions to large-scale socioecological problems like climate change and sustainability under traditional engineering paradigms of indefinite and infinite material growth through efficiency gains made by new technologies.  But I ask the questions: What does community look like in a post-carbon world?  What kinds of human relationships to energy promote democracy and community empowerment?  What infrastructural designs can promote energy and climate justice, while helping us lose the energy obesity many of us privileged carry?  

Since the degree of climate change is a function of the cumulative emissions of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the coming decade is the most crucial for decarbonization.  Yet explorations of the questions posed above have remained in the theoretical, abstract, and philosophical realms.  I want to establish an effort at the Media Lab that translates broad political support for addressing climate change into very real community transitions based around renewable energy.  There are strong synergies between the work I propose and the principles of the Media Lab.  The Media Lab offers a unique creative environment to develop the paradigm-changing sociotechnical tools needed to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions through community-based learning.

Research Philosophy: Praxis and the Media Lab Principles

In studying the engineering mentality behind biofuel development—a technological response to climate change—my research has shown how climate change has problematically been boiled down to being simply a “carbon” problem.  This simplification has distanced engineers from the negative socioecological implications of biofuel development.  In the US, the “appropriateness” of technological advancements in sectors like energy and telecommunications tends to be dictated by economic imperatives like profit and growth, and cultural pressures driving materialism and consumerism.  These imperatives and pressures—driven by deeply entrenched power dynamics between governments, corporations and communities—are the very ones that cause climate change social injustice, and poverty.  In other words, there is no way to address the justice implications of the causes and effects of climate change solely through large-scale technological interventions.  

Metrics like cost, efficiency, manufacturability, and technical performance have remained hallmarks of capital-intensive technological development.  Instead, I address the guiding questions by centering my research, demonstration, and deployment of renewable energy sociotechnical systems and infrastructures through the practice of praxis, which mirrors the Media Lab principle of practice over theory.  Praxis transforms traditional models of technological development into more socially just and ecologically sensitive interventions. According to Donna Riley, in praxis,

no assumptions are made about what the right process to follow is…[p]rocess and product, ends and means, thought and action, the general and the specific, the theoretical and the practical are in constant exchange and dialogue.  As we think about answers or solutions or goals for change, the process for getting there may change.  As we go about the process, the end goals may change…[Praxis] requires critical thinking and ethical judgment.  It is “not merely the doing of something.”

Instilling the philosophy of praxis in engineers creates activist engineers, who are open to constant learning and reflection, rather than being tied to their formal education.  In this way, my approach to addressing climate change embodies the Media Lab principle of learning over education. In addressing climate change, rather than constantly trying to engineer large-scale technological solutions like carbon capture and sequestration from industrial power plants, deploying praxis results in renewable energy solutions addressing global challenges to focus on real community needs—like heating and cooling, lighting, clean water, and mobility—which are needs in the Global North, too (even for companies like Google).  

Research and Practice Goals and Approach

Praxis-based activist engineering requires the development of three interlocking components—one non-technical, one technical, and one methodological—that neatly reflect Media Lab principles.  These components span the breadth and depth of research and experimentation needed for radical decarbonization and developing democratic infrastructures:  

1) Disobedience over Compliance: Robust Sociological Frameworks to Evaluate a Community’s Energy Needs

Two community-relevant facts—one problematic and one inspiring—drive the need for developing tools for evaluating a community’s sociotechnical energy needs.  Problematically, impoverished, underserved, and environmental justice communities have borne the brunt of the pollution caused by industrial society (whether from electricity production and manufacturing or chemical processing and waste disposal) and are the most vulnerable to climate change.  Further, many people in these communities suffer from energy poverty, a situation in which people spend an inordinately large fraction of their income on energy costs and/or in which people limit their energy use to the detriment of their health.  On the other hand, inspiringly, movements like urban gardening have transformed such communities’ agency, decision-making paradigms, learning and education, and economic opportunities, as well as their relationship to the fossil-fuel-fueled food infrastructure.

These facts raise the following questions: What are the most beneficial attributes to community-based alternative energy systems and infrastructures that promote social and technical resiliency, ease of use, democratic decision making, and justice?  What kinds of data and learning are most useful to community residents to make sound technical judgments on how to fix technical infrastructures themselves?  

To answer these questions, I will develop robust sociological frameworks to evaluate what the most effective sociotechnical interventions are to simultaneously increase access to non-carbon energy and reduce dependence on centralized energy infrastructures (like the grid) while assessing key community information and expertise needs that will influence energy system design.  I argue that community involvement in technical design, repair, and maintenance has the capacity to bolster community agency, neighborliness, and resiliency in the same way that urban gardening has.  I will build these evaluative frameworks by linking community-based participatory research (CBPR)—a methodology used widely in epidemiology and urban planning, for example—with insights gained from science and technology studies of the social, political, and economic contexts of technology that promote social justice and ecological holism.   At the heart of such research is the commitment to apply the knowledge gained from the CBPR to community empowerment, a commitment that much CBPR has lacked.  

For this research, I would leverage my experience at the US Environmental Protection Agency co-writing the EPA STAR funding opportunity Air Pollution Monitoring for Communities, whichallowed me to formulate research questions at the interface of the development of low-cost air pollution sensors and their viability and acceptability in community settings.  Also, my experiences co-leading a service learning class at the University of Michigan on environmental justice and sustainability in Delray (in Southwest Detroit)—one of the most polluted neighborhoods in Michigan—have provided me a strong foundation on methods to gather, assess, and synthesize survey data from communities, especially underrepresented, underprivileged, and impoverished ones.  These experiences also taught me ways to best sensitize privileged students to the complexities of community-based work, and to build trust between elite institutions like the University of Michigan and disenfranchised communities.

Community-based and community-relevant data provide the contours of the viability of modular alternative energy system and infrastructure designs.  All of this work rests on the premise that engineers and designers can and ought to explicitlyalign their interests with those of the communities and ecologies affected by engineering work; I challenge the socially-constructed notion of “objectivity” that has so far constrained activist engineering.   

2) Systems over Objects: The Design of Easily Deployable and Modular Renewable Energy Systems and Infrastructures

Radical decarbonization requires technical advances at the scale of individual renewable energy systems and at the scale of the energy transfer infrastructures individual systems plug into.  (And thermodynamic analyses of energy losses from centralized energy distribution networks provide strong justifications for decentralized energy generation.)  Thus I ask: How can easily deployable and modular renewable energy systems, built of mature subsystem components like microwind turbines and solar panels for electricity and heating, be made?  With significant hurdles to be overcome in frictionless installation and adaptive interfaces, what might such systems suited for energy poor American communities’ needs look like?  

While there has been a significant diffusion and adoption of energy systems like rooftop solar over the past decade, deploying renewable energy has largely remained at the periphery of elitism and privilege because of high hard (like components) and soft (like permitting) costs.  But I hypothesize that the application of community-based and community-relevant data—assessed through the framework described above—to renewable energy system design would result in fundamentally new system configurations that could lower costs.  I propose developing plug-and-play alternative energy systems that 1) can be easily scaled based on changing loads; 2) feature adaptable racking; 3) have the ability to accept a wide variety of primary energy inputs.  Such systems can be easily adaptable to fit a wide range of community needs, geographic locations, and economic abilities.  

I also ask: What aspects of decentralized alternative energy transfer infrastructures allow for residence-to-residence energy transfers, either for social and technical resiliency in cases of overloads and malfunctions, or for just plain sharing?  While many new technologies use information feedback systems, flow sensors, and wireless abilities to provide real-time data on personal energy use, I would create networks of such technologies to generate data relevant to groups of people connected by a renewable energy infrastructure.  I argue that aggregated data for a scale larger than the personal yet more accessible and graspable than the city scale (or state/national scale)—i.e. the community or neighborhood scale—can help groups of people seamlessly navigate scales of action in mitigating climate change.  

My research at the University of Michigan studying the combustion chemistry of biofuels and my work at the US Department of Energy (DOE) as the Technical Lead developing the Wave Energy Prize have provided me strong training in the fundamental aspects of energy sciences that define and limit the new and existing technologies required to address these challenges.    

3) Emergence over Authority: Developing New Methodologies to Inspire Community-Based Technological Innovation

Prizes, challenges, and open innovation have shown vast potential to invigorate technological innovation in healthcare, transportation, and energy production, by mobilizing a vast community of solvers who have deep and diverse technical expertise.  Through my experiences with such innovation pathways, I have found that key to their success is the definition of technically credible yet ambitious targets, with few restrictions put on approaches used to achieve those targets; indeed, these innovation pathways drive the distributed innovation championed by Joichi Ito of the Media Lab.  

It is important to recognize, however, that most problem statements that have been developed and prizes and challenges sponsored have been by government agencies, large non-profits, foundations, and companies, to benefit of their ideas of what direction technological innovation should take.  These organizations and institutions are the very ones that have traditionally held political power and that have dictated the non-responses to climate change.    

I propose flipping the power paradigm of prizes, challenges, and open innovation on its head by developing ways to empower communities to put forth their problems centered on modular alternative energy systems and democratic infrastructures.  Innovative institutions like MIT and the University of Michigan can then vie to win community-defined prizes in the spirit of collaboratively tackling real-world problems.  I argue that the problem statements developed by communities and the metrics to meet the requirements of winning these competitions would be radically different than those by developed the DOE, NASA, or Health and Human Services—agencies that have successfully deployed such innovation pathways.  

For this work, I would draw on my experience as the US Environmental Protection Agency’s contributor to the 2014 NASA International Space Apps Challenge, in which I was fortunate to develop two challenges that promoted citizen science around climate change and the urban heat island effect.  Also, my current work on designing the Wave Energy Prize has provided me a strong foundation of understanding about how to motivate game-changing technological design by setting aggressive yet achievable goals, and designing metrics that can be used to evaluate radically different device designs.    

Impact: What does Community Look Like in a Post-Carbon World?

To answer this question, it is important to understand what is needed to move away from an energy infrastructure that pollutes the Earth and concentrates political power in the hands of a few.  My work will help create a culture of community-based technological development centered on building sociotechnical systems that empower communities to tackle climate change, a model that could be replicated ad infinitum.  

Radical decarbonization and the development of democratic infrastructures can “address multiple interlocking needs” of underserved and impoverished communities vulnerable to climate change.  Just like an urban garden not only provides healthy, fresh, and fossil-fuel free food but also serves as a central community meeting point, alternative energy systems and infrastructures can provide another basic need—energy—and be designed in ways that provide relevant energy data to tie together community building and climate change mitigation.  

Importantly, by equipping engineers with praxis to create activist engineers, the proposed work fundamentally transforms the power and role of engineering in addressing climate change.  Most engineers work in hierarchical and highly bureaucratized settings on small aspects of large technical systems in which problems are defined for them by lawyers and businesspeople.  Praxis, on the other hand, allows the co-definition of problems with communities affected by climate change, thus allowing the infusion of social justice considerations into engineering work.  Engineers, who have always been well-equipped to measure things, can thus learn to measure the social justice implications of their work and have it shape their future work.    

The Rural Studio of Auburn University and their 20K House project provide inspiration for my work.  The 20K House, “provides an alternative to the mobile home…that could be reproduced on a large scale by a contractor and built for $20,000.”  Easily deployable and modular renewable energy systems can be designed and built with mature subsystem components just like a radically new home can be built for impoverished people using mature subsystem components.  I endeavor to achieve the impact with community-based alternative energy system design that the Rural Studio has had with community-based architecture.  

I strive to create the contexts in which student learning is deeply embedded in the community experience, and the redefinition of underserved, impoverished and environmental justice communities not as places that where forgotten people live in degraded environments, but rather places that drive the most meaningful kinds of technological innovation.  

Why I Am Motivated to Work in the Media Lab

In mutually reinforcing ways, my experiences in the federal government and academia, as described above, have afforded me powerful tools for deploying science and technology to build community and tackle climate change.  I am in search of a place and space to practice praxis-based activist engineering.  Radical decarbonization and democratic infrastructures are embodiments of sociotechnical ideals and systems disruptive of the powerful fossil fuel status quo.  They epitomize disobedience over compliance and emergence over authority; I am incredibly excited for the opportunity to collaborate with and learn from the team in the MIT Media Lab.