The National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado performs research that leads to a slew of clean energy technologies, including in the transportation space. On the surface, this might seem like a field solely for engineers and physical scientists. But NREL is taking a more holistic approach to tech development by incorporating behavioral and social science research.
Paty Romero-Lankao is a behavioral science researcher at NREL’s Center for Integrated Mobility Sciences. She studies what factors influence people’s choices and behaviors at the intersection of mobility and clean energy technologies. In an interview with Centered, she discusses how this approach could make cleantech development more effective and efficient. The interview is edited for length and clarity.
Q: Please explain how sociology plays into your research on energy-efficient transportation technologies.
A: What I do as a sociologist is try to connect the technologies that my colleagues develop — electric vehicles, infrastructure or charging, etc. — to the needs of not only the first adopters, which are mostly wealthy populations, but also the needs of the whole spectrum of groups that make up societies. I try to understand what factors make people adopt or not adopt technologies — what cultural and sociodemographic factors explain that?
What I bring to the conversation is something that transportation experts do not necessarily consider.
I try to put people in the technology loop and make sure that if we are to develop these technologies that promise to benefit everyone, that they really benefit people.
Q: It sounds to me like you’re holding the technology developers accountable for what they’re creating.
A: Exactly. The challenge is how you balance those goals. I’m sure many transportation experts want to make money, but then how do we make sure we have transportation as a service that improves the quality of life for people — that is centered on people, not only on business.
Q: Was there something specific that prompted you to explore this intersection of disciplines?
A: I’m an environmentalist and a sociologist. As such, I always have been working with people from different disciplines.
There is a lot of power in this. We don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past. We want to make sure that technology really helps to create more livable and inclusive societies. I saw the power of what I do in connecting with social scientists and saying, “Why don’t we try to make this happen in a very inclusive and people-centered way?”
In the U.S. … there is finally interest in addressing the needs of underrepresented groups. For that, how we design and deploy technology needs to change. We need to ask, “What are the needs and realities of those sectors of the population?” And then you will have the more interesting and challenging goal of adopting or redesigning or tailoring technologies to respond to those realities and needs.
You don’t start with a design; you start with a need and understanding that need. It’s not that what the designers of a technology do is bad, it’s just that we need to really complete the whole circle.
Q: Why is it important to take social and cultural aspects into consideration during the energy transition?
A: If you do not do so you will face a challenge: resentment and the sense that people are not being considered. This energy transition needs to be designed in a way that we don’t repeat mistakes.
For instance, saying a coal region needs to shift to solar or wind. For you to do that you need to make sure the workforce that is employed in the mining sector is able to be trained and protected with internships, etc., to become the workers of these new industries.
Q: What have you found to be key barriers to cleaner technology adoption in traditionally underserved communities?
A: There are a couple of elements, or barriers, that we need to consider. One is that we humans are animals of habits. When we are in the process of asking people to shift to other technologies, other means of moving around a city, or the use of solar, etc., we need to understand that there are people who are risk-averse or not willing to learn new things.
There needs to be a lot of understanding of how people go about engaging with newness. There are ways to meet people where they are and help them navigate getting acquainted with new ways of cooking, heating your house, air conditioning your house, etc. That is another key to success.
If you get the key leaders that people follow to say, “This is good,” perhaps you have more chances to convince them. There are many ways in which social sciences can help navigate these things and help understand that rather than pointing fingers you need to understand why people are not doing what you want them to do and go from there.
Another thing is the sense of shared identity. … There are a lot of cultural, social, and political factors that we need to target — not only technical factors — when shifting to new technologies and new ways of living and dealing with energy.
Energy is embedded wherever we are so this is a huge change we need to engage with.
Q: Do you find the issues are the same across different communities, for example urban and rural?
A: There are different challenges. There are differences within cities, across cities, and between cities and rural areas.
We did some work comparing urban and rural for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. For example, many recommend the problem in rural areas is access to mobility options. That’s why having a car is key. But this also is about access to hospitals and services.
That’s very different from what happens in urban communities, where you have communities of color or low-income communities that live in areas that, for instance, are food deserts. That is not the case with wealthier communities within cities.
There are differences within cities that have to do with socioeconomic status — being wealthy or poor, living in areas that are considered violent, etc. — that really determine and limit your chances to move around. … Just imagine with a transportation system based on the car what that means for their abilities to pursue their dreams and live their lives with dignity.
Q: Do you have recommendations for how cleantech developers can take a more comprehensive and holistic look at consumer needs during their R&D process?
A: I think now under the Biden Administration this is being embraced and will give more access to resources to really start the process of designing technologies by working with key communities or centers that represent the diversity of groups that make up this society. … Then they need to work with social scientists to elicit those needs. In that way, they can adapt those technologies to all needs.
There will be money devoted to research and development. I have been making the case that we need to start with this dialogue in order to have a palette of research and development options deployed. Listen and ask what the users of your technologies need.
Q: Are there key ways that research institutions and other organizations can support entrepreneurs with this holistic approach?
A: National labs and universities need to be the ones who work on this. It’s mostly labs and the government who need to develop things like awards, prizes, and competitions that include these considerations for developers to know they need to include it in their design. There needs to be some institutional and organizational way to incentivize developers. That could be a good way to start.
The developers need to lobby and get with different groups and organize and say, “If you want us to do this you have to help us — we need support.”