This article is part of our exclusive IEEE Journal Watch series in partnership with IEEE Xplore.
The climate crisis is, in part, a technology problem. So how have big technology problems been solved in the past?
One kind of problem tech historians and scholars study, called technology forcing, could provide lessons for the present crisis, according to Fred Phillips, president of TANDO Institute, a non-profit thinktank spun out of the University of Texas at Austin.
Technology forcing, Phillips says, is when an authority, such as a government, sets a cost or performance target that significantly exceeds that of any current technology or product. By a set deadline, only products meeting the new standard may be sold.
As a classic example of Technology forcing, Phillips describes his mentor George Kozmetsky‘s experience bidding on a defense contract that contained crucial components that cost a dollar each.
“He told his engineers not to emerge from their basement cubicles until they could make that one-dollar part for five cents,” Phillips says, adding that Kozmetsky’s team succeeded and ultimately won the bid.
Applying this to climate tech, he says, in 2007, the U.S. Energy Independence and Security Act set a lumens-per-watt standard for light bulbs that effectively banned the incandescent-type bulb. It was anticipated that the standard would result in a shift towards compact fluorescent tubes instead.
But the act, he says, had also effectively forced the hand of technology to build a better bulb.
“Newer LED lights far exceeded the new standard, and far exceeded the performance of the fluorescents,” says Phillips, adding, “People didn’t like working under harsh fluorescents anyway.”
Another example Phililips and co-author Pham Thi Thuy Dung—a researcher at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Economics and Finance, in Vietnam—cite is the Clean Air Act of 1970. This too, Phillips says, was an effective technology forcing tactic that had profound effects in driving both societal and technological change.
Other non-compulsory examples of tech forcing events, Phillips says, include Norway’s aggressive set standard that 100 percent of vehicles being sold must be electric by 2025.
Norway offered tax exemptions, reduced tolls, and provided free public parking to electric vehicle drivers—as well as invested in widespread charging infrastructure. As a result, about two-thirds of new passenger vehicles sold in Norway were fully electric in 2021.
Singapore’s push to decarbonize harbor operations, California’s executive order for zero emission cars, and Germany’s mandate to phase out nuclear power offer additional examples that Phillips and Dung consider of regulation prompting technology forcing.
And while the above represent success stories, by and large, there are pitfalls, too. Phillips notes that some kinds of technology bans may allow equally bad or even worse tech than what’s been banned to enter the market. Some bans, that is, can involve exemptions, which can be sensible in some cases—but might also allow lobbyists to win insensible exemptions.
On the other hand, at its best, technology forcing dictates that everyone must meet the new standard by the deadline, and that no products falling short of the requirement are in circulation.
Of course, technology forcing could fail if the standard or deadline is too difficult to meet, or when the standard results in a product that is unacceptable to consumers. “We’re still learning, for example, under what conditions consumers find all-electric vehicles worthwhile,” Phillips points out.
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