Social and technical “volatility”: commonly shared reference problem of interdisciplinary research on the energy system?


Christian Büscher and
Jens Schippl (ITAS@KIT)


Workshop, based upon an open call for papers, including invited attendees (in particular, from the Helmholtz-Allianz EnergyTrans).

Call for papers

In modern life full of contingency and uncertainty, the overall and overwhelming dependency on energy, especially electricity, offers a sharp contrast of impossibility and necessity. Without electricity, almost all communication will break down. Therefore, sustaining supply and distribution of electricity is mandatory. In the question on how to do this, contingency and uncertainty is re-introduced. The ongoing transformation of the existent complex of generation, transmission, distribution and consumption of energy – e.g. in the case of the German “Energiewende” – is the grand challenge right now. Specifically, the challenge consists in the paradox goal of increasing the overall efficiency in the relation of supply and demand, despite the intended re-entry of more “volatility” in the actual operations on both sides. The new envisioned paradigm stipulates close correlations between deterministic systems (like power plants, transmission lines, transformers etc.) and non-deterministic social (markets) and natural (climate, weather) systems. Volatility becomes a factor on the technical side because of the close coupling to natural processes, and on the social side because of the inclusion of more actors as operators with degrees of freedom in their actions. Both developments increase the overall complexity of the energy infrastructure and call for technical and social innovation.

The workshop has three goals:

  • Discussing interdisciplinary descriptions of the (transforming) energy system, especially with reference to “Sociotechnical Systems”
  • Exposing and extracting a commonly shared reference problem
  • Assessing the consequences of energy system transformation and discussing resulting options for governance

We propose to lay focus on three distinct dimensions of analysis:

  1. Structure: limitations in possible couplings of social and technical elements – physical installation, information and communication technology, computer agents etc. – breaches and stress on the seams of the web
  2. Institution: generalized coordination of action – rules, norms, defaults etc. – governance misalignments
  3. Operation: enabling of action, decision-making, i.e., communication despite contingency, intransparency, uncertainty – mechanisms of “absorption of uncertainty”

Target groups

Those interested in technology assessment.