This commentary was originally submitted to a national newspaper late last year, but they declined. So I am now copying it to the openmod forum instead.
26 August 2022
Big questions invite bold measures and here is one for our times: the detailed analysis of public policy measures that seek rapid decarbonization should switch to practices and methods refined by open‑source software development and crowd‑sourced information provision — and become radically open in the process.
Questions about the feasibility and nature of future energy systems, for instance, can only be investigated using sophisticated computer models and extensive datasets. The underlying systems are simultaneously complicated and complex and not amenable to analysis by simpler methods.
The majority of governments today, Britain and Germany included, rely almost exclusively on closed models — run either in‑house, by single institutes, or by dedicated consortiums — to traverse such issues. The underpinning computer programs, together with their accompanying databases and detailed assumptions, remain firmly hidden from view — with only the final reports made public and then normally under legal terms that restrict the distribution and reuse of the information they contain.
Moreover, the public agencies commissioning such work typically provide tight briefs which inhibit any kind of broad exploration and the modeling teams then reciprocate by treating the instructing agencies as clients. The models themselves are generally sensitive to assumptions and even small tweaks to say the expected costs of technologies can easily influence the results and conclusions. This general process is sometimes dubbed “policy‑based evidence making”.1
Closed‑door public policy analysis runs counter to the tenets of democracy. Rapid decarbonization requires deep and difficult transformations that cover almost every aspect of society. It is therefore only right that the public should be able to access and investigate the entire analysis chain — subject only to genuine and legitimate restrictions on private information.
A new paradigm is fortunately emerging. University students and researchers are building the new generation of open‑source energy systems models and common databases needed to openly investigate public policy options. Forward‑looking NGOs, such as the US‑based Environmental Defense Fund, are now signing on. And albeit slowly, members of the public are also beginning to contribute.
These open‑source systems models are now eclipsing the current suite of behind‑closed‑doors models — both socially and technically. Their development tends to be inclusive, rapid, agile, and proactive and their outputs becoming genuinely transparent, reusable, and contestable. Their working ethos encourages spontaneous collaborations with outside parties and also deep cooperations between project teams on matters of common interest. This in contrast to the closed world where modeling teams tend to view their neighbors as competitors and their intellectual property as something to protect and withhold.
One gratifying aspect of this new landscape are the partnerships now forming with academics and analysts in the global south. Open analysis offers relatively easy and cheap adoption — without the steep licensing fees, restrictive non‑disclosure agreements, and problematic continuity that the closed projects typically require. That uptake is beginning to occur throughout sub‑Saharan Africa, west Asia, central and south America, and Oceania with a recent surge in modeling initiatives and reports. Switching to sustainable energy for the global south is a social and environmental imperative and open analysis naturally respects local sovereignty and the retention of control.
The time has come for energy policy analysts and public interest data providers in the global north to accept and embrace this new paradigm and become radically open. Perhaps the upcoming UNFCCC COP27 climate summit in November will provide the opportunity for their institutions and funders to change tack and embrace open?
Notes1. Geden, Oliver (7 May 2015). "Climate advisers must maintain integrity". Nature. 521: 27–28.