4.1.8 Technology assessment: issues and illusions
If you read Braun’s definition of technology assessment at the start of this section and found yourself questioning its feasibility, you are not alone. The discussion above, and the activities you undertook, should have illustrated some of the challenges that technology assessments face. Again, it is a situation I can confirm from personal experience (Horrocks and Bellamy, 1997). To a considerable extent these parallel the problems and issues that confront forecasting techniques and processes, such as scenario planning and the Delphi method, which are frequently used as an aid for strategic thinking and planning, but which can also feature in technology assessment. The fundamental problem is that however much data it is possible to collect and analyse in the present, any assessment of the range of contextual and environmental variables that may interact with a particular technology over time, and thus affect the consequences of its introduction, are ultimately only based on probabilities, assumptions and judgement. In short, any attempt to foresee the future is always an extremely risky business.
As we have seen, this applies even at the relatively localised micro level of an organisation. Move to the meso and macro levels and the exercise runs an increasing risk of becoming more and more abstract – more akin to so-called ‘blue skies’ thinking and futurology than assessment. Interestingly, it is not uncommon to find that an assessment of a specific technology in a particular context can produce more than one set of conclusions. A high-profile example of this has been the assessments carried out by Airbus and Boeing as to the future direction and impact of commercial aircraft. Airbus’s response was the development of the A380 superjumbo, while Boeing opted for an entirely different approach and developed the Dreamliner.
Up, Up and Away
Weighing in at 280 metric tons and with a wingspan as wide as a football field is long, the Airbus A380 is the world’s largest passenger jet, designed to carry about 850 passengers between hub airports. In contrast, Boeing says its smaller, fuel-efficient 787 Dreamliner will allow for direct flights between more cities even at great distances.
The discussion above is not meant to decry technology assessment: far from it. Indeed, perhaps surprisingly (until you sit and think it through) technosceptics and the advocates of greater public understanding and democratic control of technology, such as the campaign group Corporate Watch I cited earlier, argue for more, not less, technology assessment.
An alternative approach would be to attempt consideration of the potential impacts of technologies before they are developed, let alone commercially available. This would give people the possibility of stopping undesirable developments and allow much more strategic input into the direction of technological research.
Ultimately, however, the most practical suggestion I would make is that assessors and evaluators should be forthright and honest with potential sponsors, commissioners and stakeholders about the tensions within, and limitation of, technology assessment.