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Programme directors: Research on sustainable transitions progressing towards questions of a fair transition

24 Jun 2021

2015 was time for the winds of change. The new SRC research funding instrument had distributed money for projects that work in programmes on equal society (EQUA), technological transitions and changing institutions (TECH) and Finland’s scarce resources while moving towards climate neutrality (PIHI). All these programmes and their projects emphasised both the inevitability and necessity of change but from different perspectives. In the EQUA programme, the main focus was on mechanisms that produce and maintain inequality and the promotion of social equality. The TECH programme addressed solutions that can be used to benefit from the opportunities offered by changes in technology and to adapt to the transition processes that they have caused in Finland. In the PIHI programme, the main focus was on finding answers to global pressures for change that require new solutions from Finland.

The variety of projects was vast. It was clear from the onset that the TECH and PIHI projects had many connections. Energy issues in particular formed a natural entity, but there were also links between the assessment, utilisation and managing of natural resources. The direct contact surfaces of the TECH and EQUA programmes were particularly found in the societal changes caused by technology and their equality questions.

Changes and equality

From the perspective of equality, technological transitions can be seen as both a threat and an opportunity. The transition may make some jobs obsolete, and the robotisation of production will reduce social security contributions collected from wages and weaken the funding base of the welfare state. In addition, the digital production methods require knowledge and skills that everyone does not have, which can lead to exclusion from the labour market and gradually from the society as a whole. On the other hand, digitalisation opens up new opportunities for participation for groups that were previously at risk of exclusion. Physical functional capacity no longer constitutes a restriction on participation in working life as it did in industrial production.

Technological development can also strengthen the development of social equality in many ways. The development of digital social welfare and healthcare systems that are not restricted by time or location opens up new opportunities in Finland where distances to get to services are often long. The question of the participation of robots in the production of welfare services in the reviews of the ROSE project is very much relevant in the service sector suffering from labour shortages.

The equality impacts of various changes, practices and transitions have been studied in the EQUA programme in human lifecycle analyses. The EQUA programme projects have played a key role in the planning and evaluation of major social policy reforms (social welfare, health and social services family policies, early childhood education and care, education and cultural policy reforms). The projects also promoted experimental culture, e.g. a basic income experiment, training experiments and various interventions in working life.

Sustainable development and factors related to climate change have their own equality impacts. One key social policy issue is how policy measures aimed at sustainable development and combatting climate change affect different population groups. How are costs shared between different actors, population groups and generations?

Environment and changes

The PIHI projects focused on new solutions that could be widely applied and could, for example, change business activities in large areas. SmartSea produces new information on how the Gulf of Bothnia can develop in the future as climate and other environmental factors change, while seeking new ways to utilise seas and marine resources. The results will be available when Finland participates in an assessment of a very extensive offshore wind farm in the Gulf of Bothnia in the Swedish sea area. The assessment is following the UN's so-called Espoo Convention, which is a general agreement on international assessment of environmental impacts.

Forests have gained an emphasised position in discussions on the mitigation of climate change and adaptation to climate change in Finland and Europe. Point cloud measurement technologies developed in the Combat/Pointcloud project of the TECH programme can be utilised as support for sustainable forestry, for example in forest management and the creation of forecasting models. Forbio has produced new information that has been able to shed light on and deepen the understanding needed to negotiate forest solutions in the EU and to seek new sustainable ways of using forests to reconcile different goals. An upcoming international book will expand these reflections extensively outside Finland's borders.

The role of the food system as one of the pillars of sustainable development has become increasingly visible over the past six years. ScenoProt has been a pioneer that has opened views in many directions. Proteins have been at the heart of the review, but at the same time, much more extensive windows have been opened for the development of the entire food system and also for people’s daily nutrition and diet, which reflects societal changes. Consumers have also emerged as drivers of change, not only as buyers of products and targets of marketing. ScenoProt’s results have served the development of the food strategy and agricultural policy.

The digitalisation of the energy system was an acknowledged trend at the beginning of the PIHI programme, but the EL-TRAN project and the TECH programme’s energy projects SET and BCDC-Energy have progressed faster than anticipated. In fact, the projects are likely to have contributed to the rapid development by producing studies focusing, among other things, on demand response, open-minded solutions for the electrification of transport and on the management of variable energy production.

The PIHI programme was complemented by the three-year CloseLoop project, which focused on high value materials in a closed raw material cycle. The study focused on battery storage and recycling of battery materials which are important in energy issues. It directly promoted the development of the sector in Finland. Many CloseLoop researchers helped push forward BATCircle research, which deepened information about battery recycling.

Digital revolution

Digitalisation and the platform economy have taken a tremendous leap during the six years that the programmes have been running. Research in the TECH programme has had concrete impacts on technology-related policies and the discussion related to digitalisation in Finland. Among other things, the DDI project has participated in shaping Finland's position in the EU's Digitizing Industry policy programme. ROSE has participated in the Government resolution on smart robotics and automation. The PVN project report on global scenarios and alternative roads to the platform economy has been used in the Government's strategy development work in the preparation of the digital business roadmap. The end result of the TECH programme is a significant amount of information that supports Finland's broadly effective innovation policy, in which, alongside the development of traditional technologies, other innovation activities important for well-being and growth are seen as important (e.g. organisational and service innovations). An article series in the Tekniikka&Talous (“technology & economy”) magazine, which is aimed at a wider audience, has brought to the attention of the wider public the socio-economic impacts of the technological transitions studied in the TECH programme (digitalisation, artificial intelligence, automation and robotics, platform economy and the transformation of the energy market).

Six years of strategic research

During the past six years of research, Finland has made progress in developing new solutions. The management of large systems has developed and concrete solutions have become clearer and more refined. The change in sustainability is not just a far-off goal, but the changes are concrete and visible in many areas of life. These processes have not been and cannot be painless. Giving up old methods means that those who have not seen the change coming or who have not been able to change their activities because of their circumstances, will suffer. The current situation in the peat sector shows this. In the Wild West, changes left behind ghost cities and dead dreams. In Western democracies, the aim is to prepare for changes or, when the speed of change becomes surprisingly fast, at least actively seek new paths. In 2015, there was not yet a widely adopted concept for this. Nowadays, a fair or just transition occurs in all policies that promote the sustainability transition. The research consortia of the PIHI, TECH and EQUA programmes have carried out the groundwork, the continuation of which supports not only the advancement of systemic changes but also the search for human-oriented fair solutions. The work will continue in new programmes and projects funded by the Strategic Research Council.

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