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Methodology for the design and evaluation of socio-technical alternatives

Environmental context and socio-technical lock

The environmental pressures exerted by human activities on the environment are leading to profound changes in the environment.
Their impacts on human and non-human life are already being felt and are increasing.
Several works, notably those of [Rockström2009] and [Steffen2015] attempt to quantify planetary limits that must not be crossed in order to remain in a sustainable space for human societies.
Among these limits are climate change, ocean acidification, loss of biodiversity, alteration of biogeochemical cycles, different types of pollution, etc. These limits are global, but of course there are also local constraints that affect society in a given territory.
For example, the availability of natural "resources" (fauna, flora, arable land, minerals, fossil fuels, etc.) and their sustainable exploitation rate (which can be zero), the capacity to absorb environmental pollution, and so on.
From an anthropocentric perspective, we sometimes speak of ecosystem services, which the natural environment renders to humans.

These ecosystem services are affected by global changes: for example, local biodiversity is affected by local factors, such as soil artificialisation, but also by global climate change. Faced with the need to reduce the environmental footprint of our societies, several strategies can be considered, which are not exclusive.
The spectrum ranges from individual actions (more virtuous consumption) to state intervention through corporate responsibility/regulation.
A recent report by the firm Carbone 4 [Dugast2019] highlights that individual actions are indispensable but very insufficient to achieve the objectives of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
This can be explained by the fact that "each individual is limited by the socio-technical system, i.e. the social and technological environment on which he or she depends".

In other words, the equipment and infrastructure that we inherit, the organization of work, our modes of production and consumption form a complex system where all the elements are closely linked to each other.
Based on this observation, the STEEP team has decided to focus its new research on how to construct and evaluate socio-technical alternatives (defined in the following section), building on its previous work in the field of environmental modeling and assessment.
The present thesis project is at the heart of this new research axis.

Scientific background and project objectives

Research Questions and Issues

In the context of the environmental issues outlined in the previous paragraph, various questions may arise. How can we get back below the planetary limits already crossed and how can we avoid crossing new ones? What could happen at the local and global levels depending on the trajectory actually followed? How could a human society adapt to the induced consequences?

The central scientific question that we propose to address in this thesis is: How to design a methodology and associated tools (software or other) that allow stakeholders of a territory to think together about socio-technical organizations of the territory that would be viable, according to local constraints and those imposed by global changes?
This question can be broken down into several sub-questions :

The above questions frame the methodology to be implemented. On the technical realization level, various mathematical and computer-related questions are then raised. The modeling tool at the heart of the methodology is the economic analysis known as IO (for input/output) [Leontief1970], which makes it possible to represent a socio-technical organization and to couple it with constraints on resources (and also on pollution and waste that can be "tolerated").

The IO representation of a so-called productive socio-technical organization [Aleskerov2011] must satisfy mathematical constraints, the Hawkins-Simon [Hawkins1949] conditions (constraints on the miners of an IO matrix). Designing a productive socio-technical organization is a complex exercise and the presence of these mathematical constraints is at the same time an additional complication but can also be seen as an aid. Different scientific, mathematical and methodological issues can be addressed. For example, given a non-productive IO matrix, how to deduce a close matrix (in the sense of a distance between matrices) that is productive?

How to guide the incremental construction of a productive IO matrix in the most efficient way for the user? How can this construction be made more flexible by considering intervals for the OI matrix coefficients rather than fixed inputs? Etc.

Finally, the evaluation and comparison of different socio-technical organizations ultimately comes down to a multi-criteria decision support problem. Questions may arise on how to represent these evaluations and comparisons in a way that is relevant to stakeholders and the discussion and decision-making process. It is still too early to give concrete ideas for this, but these questions will undoubtedly arise during the course of the thesis.

Scientific work identified as related

Most modeling and foresight approaches have so far focused on particular sectors, allowing a good level of description. The shortcoming of these approaches is that they do not integrate the interdependent relationships between all sectors of the economy. For example, based on the study of feedbacks between energy and raw materials, [Vidal2018] shows that some 2°C scenarios cannot actually achieve their objectives. Nexus studies" take this problem head on by exploring the relationships between agriculture, water and energy (for example). These approaches are not standardized and use a wide variety of quantitative and qualitative analysis methodologies [Albrecht2018]. A part of the bibliographical study of the thesis will logically be devoted to these approaches, in order to see how they could be completed and integrated into the proposed framework.
Similarly, some elements could be taken from the MuSIASEM (Multi-Scale Integrated Analysis of Societal and Ecosystem Metabolism) approach [Giampietro2009]. This is the case of the distinction between flows (entities that disappear during the study period) and funds (entities that are maintained during the study period), inherited from [Geogescu-Roegen1975], insofar as the notion of sustainability can be interpreted as a preservation of funds. The reading grid used in MuSIASEM is also close to ours: sustainability (in terms of internal coherence of the described system), feasibility (in terms of environmental sustainability) and desirability (perceived performance of the socio-technical organization).
The methods and results of the European project OPEN:EU (One Planet Economy Network, oneplaneteconomynetwork.org), as well as the work that resulted from it, will also be analysed in detail. They are based on the calculation of a family of environmental footprints using IO methods and a scenario construction and evaluation tool (EUREAPA, [Roelich2014]) has been developed. In relation to this work, the challenge of the thesis is in particular to work at geographical scales and at a finer level of sectoral detail (in particular for the biomass and energy sectors).
Finally, we take a non-reductionist approach put forward by ecological economics, which implies considering the incommensurability of certain dimensions to be evaluated, which does not necessarily mean that they are non-quantifiable, but that they are of a different nature and cannot be compensated for [Munda2004].

Scheme of principle of the thesis: proposal of a formalism to describe socio-technical organizations and then to evaluate them according to criteria of satisfaction of populations' needs and respect of local and global environmental limits.

Proposed approach

Design of the methodology for the description and evaluation of a socio-technical organization

The work envisaged here is primarily methodological. Eventually we would like to have a multi-scale vision of the problem allowing us to analyze several embedded levels: territory, region, France, Europe and even the world. The ambition will be more limited in the framework of the thesis and progress will be made by iterations between model design and test on existing data sets and scenarios.
For example, at the national level several scenarios of energy transition (negaWatt scenario, Ademe scenario) and of the agri-food system (Afterres scenarios, [Billen2018]) have been established. These would be :

Among the environmental assessment methods that will be mobilized for this work are input-output analysis extended to the environment (EE-IO), material, substance and energy flow analysis (MEFA) and finally life cycle assessment (LCA). The first allows a mesoscopic analysis (description of interdependencies between sectors of the economy) and the rigorous tracing of flows from production to consumption (or vice versa) [Suh2009] ; the second allows a detailed vision of certain key sectors (agricultural, forest, energy…) and/or biogeochemical cycles (nitrogen, phosphorus…) by focusing on the validation of material and energy balances [Brunner2016]; the use of LCA/LCI (Life Cycle Inventory) databases is finally envisaged to complete certain missing information on technosphere and biosphere flows associated directly and indirectly with particular products (e.g., the use of the LCA/LCI database for the production of energy, the production of energy, the production of raw materials, etc.); and the use of the LCA/LCI database for the validation of the energy and material balances [Brunner2016]: ecoinvent database). In terms of software development, this thesis will directly rely on tools already developed in the host team (input/output modeling, material flow analysis). It will involve developing new modules (management of mathematical constraints, evaluation methods, visualization, link with databases, etc.) and part of this work will certainly be done by trainees.
The scientific approach will be based on different activities. A research work on the stated mathematical questions, on the design methodology of a socio-technical organization, on the definition of basic needs. Then, a work of analysis of the literature on global changes and local impacts, in order to identify relevant data for the modeling of a territory.

Design of a tool that can be mobilized by stakeholders

Once the model has been conceptualized, work will be necessary to make it accessible to stakeholders in a territory (decision-makers, members of associations, citizens, representatives of sectors, etc.). In particular, two distinct phases can be distinguished, potentially based on different tools: (i) support for the co-construction of socio-technical alternatives, (ii) support for the multi-criteria evaluation of these alternatives.
The approach will be presented to actors of the territory, through the numerous contacts that the host team will have. Ideally, a modeling and evaluation exercise in collaboration with these actors would be conducted, but it is too early to say if this is realistic in the framework of this thesis.

Actions planned for the first and second year

Year 1:

Year 2:

Partnerships envisaged

This thesis is at the heart of the STEEP team's research and, although the student will be the linchpin of the team, he or she will benefit from a large number of interactions within the team and between the team and external partners. Some of the contacts made include:

To summarize, the objective of this thesis is to design a methodology for the design and evaluation of socio-technical organizations as well as to design associated software tools. This is an interdisciplinary work, mixing mathematical and algorithmic issues with concepts and data related to environmental sciences and even human and social sciences. This is a complex subject but the PhD student will fit perfectly into the scientific program of the host team, will be supported by trainees from time to time and will have an opening on the work of other laboratories.