This speech was made after receiving his honorary degree at NOVA University of Lisbon in March, 2017 for work in the History of Technology. Schot outlines the history of the 'Tensions of Europe' network, the 'Making Europe' book series and talks about how the discipline is crucial in helping us address the challenges today's world faces. He finishes by discussing his current work in transformative innovation policy, and with a moving tribute.

“It is a huge honour to be awarded an honorary degree here in Lisbon. Firstly because it is a confirmation of the long and deep relationships between the Portuguese community of historians of science and technology and other scholars in Europe here, represented by me. Secondly because I have travelled away from history, working on many topics including contemporary ones such as innovation policy, however my home is history, precisely because history is so important for understanding the current world in transition and for policymaking and politics. Let me talk across both themes…

I’d like to introduce the deep and productive relationship between the ‘Tensions of Europe Network’, the coordinator of this Network ‘The Foundation for the History of Technology’ at the Technical University Eindhoven and the Faculty of Sciences and Technology of NOVA and, in particular, the University Interuniversity Center for the History of Science and Technology. When I still was working in Eindhoven, directing the Foundation and heading the History of Technology group, I was very happy to be connected with this pioneering group of historians of Science and Technology led by Maria Paula Diogo. I am very happy to know the group is still a leading international hub for historians of science and technology, attracting also an increasingly number of young scholars from other countries, namely Spain and Brazil.

But let me travel back in history.

In 1998-1999 together with other colleagues, mainly from Western Europe, we received a grant from the ‘European Science Foundation’ to develop a network in the history of technology. The aim was to explore how to research and write a New History of Europe. The project would run from 2000 to 2003 led by me, but from the start it was a genuine collective effort. We wanted to be an all European network, since we believed European history had, also, been generated not just in Western Europe, but in Southern and Eastern European too. We did not want to write a diffusion history with one center, but a history of encounters. Our conviction was to write such a history it needed to include historians from a range of countries, and it had to be a collective effort since we wanted to draw on literature from many languages and work in many archives. I therefore made an effort to connect to the community in Portugal and immediately got a very positive response. As a result, in November of 2001, we had our first ‘Tensions of Europe Network’ meeting in Lisbon. Our Portuguese collaborators turned out to be smooth operators, as well as bringing new intellectual excitement. Maria Paula, Ana Paula da Silva and others presented the ongoing project on Science, Technology and Empire. I was impressed by the work, the dedication, the energy, and the positive response so decided to work more closely. I never regretted it. The Portuguese group became a motor for the development of the ‘Tensions of Europe Network’, the ‘Inventing Europe’ program, and the ‘Making Europe’ book series. Without them these efforts would not have been so successful.

We were very ambitious. The plan was not only to create a large-scale European network and when I say large scale, I talk about 250 scholars, but also a big research program with many subprograms, a digital museum for science and technology which collaborated with more than ten science museums, and a six volume book series. It became a long journey to realize all these aims, but I am very happy we did.

At that time we did not know we would succeed. On the contrary our first proposals did not work out. We proposed a project to the EU called the ‘Microfoundations of the European Integration and Enlargement’, as well as an ESF Program. Both failed. However, we believed in our ideas and continued to work on our agenda, the network and on our research. This is a truly European story of deep commitment, we demonstrated Europe. In 2006 we were finally successful with the ESF, we got a ‘Euroscores’ research program. This was very difficult to get, in our year when we applied, only two proposals were accepted out of 54. I am sure ESF never regretted it, since we became an outstanding example, and got a very positive evaluation. The program led to numerous publications and a digital museum called ‘Inventing Europe’ which is also used for teaching purposes across Europe. Finally we began to work on writing a six volume book series, which was designed in Florence in July 2008, with input from colleagues. The process incorporated a joint sabbatical of 13 book authors at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences in 2010-2011 as well as a lot of very hard work to produce all the books. It had been a remarkable adventure and I am very happy to be here, celebrating that.

The book series led to a new interpretation of European history through the lens of science and technology. In this interpretation European history is not fully shaped by nation-states, and the European Union is not the sole driver of European integration. The approach we developed is based on the idea that Europe has been formatted by the circulation of technologies including the artefacts, the people, and their knowledge, as well as the values and ideas embeded in these technologies. In particular communication, transport and energy infrastructures played an important role in linking-up parts of Europe as well as de-linking other parts. Europe emerged as a set of experiences, identities, governance structures, and markets due to this circulation and linked processes.

In particular the work of the Portuguese group showed that the circulation and linking did not stop at the European borders, but was global. Europe was generated and formatted in the colonies, as much as Europe formatted them. The history we wrote together also shows that we should not conflate ‘Europe’ with the European Union. The former is embedded in a much broader and deeper set of connections, which cannot be reduced to the European Union. In fact the latter is a latecomer in the process of integration, and in my opinion, while it is important to continue working on it, but we should take into account too the variable geometry of European history without pushing for a one size fits for all.  The EU has been promoting the motto ‘Unity in Diversity’ without explaining how this mythical unity would be emerge. Our work shows a better motto might be: ‘Divided we Stand’. There are many overlapping Europes, which all need nurturing and empowering.

Let me move to my second reason why I am so happy with this honorary degree. It is because it was proposed by fellow historians working here in the Department of Applied Social Sciences of the Faculty of Sciences and Technology of the NOVA University of Lisbon and was supported by the Interuniversity Center for the History of Science and Technology. This is important because history is my intellectual home. Why? The short answer is that I value historical imagination beyond anything else. As I will argue below, it is this imagination that is crucially important for confronting the world in transition we are currently experiencing.

For me, history is never only about recovering the past, it is a looking glass which makes us understand the presence and the future. This is not only the case because the questions we ask are fuelled by contemporary concerns, but also because through history we get a better understanding of these concerns and ultimately of ourselves. History is not only a looking glass, it shows us roads not taken, and hidden alternatives, which still might have a future. History opens up the experience, and it shows us alternative scenarios. History not only opens up, it can also produce bias. It may blind policymakers and other actors to certain options because a specific way of understanding history has become embedded in the way people, and organizations, think about the options they have. We need professional historians to challenge ways of acting in the world of policymakers, decisionmakers and politicians. Historians can open up new ways of thinking about the future.

Because of the power of history, it is important for historians to engage more with the huge challenges our world is facing. The current financial and economic crisis should not be our main concern, but what is coming next: a series of connected even deeper crises of the material backbone of our modern societies. Here I refer to an energy crisis, an infrastructure crisis with many new vulnerabilities and growing digital divide, a food crisis, a climate crisis, a migration crisis, a healthcare crisis, and perhaps too eventually global conflict and war too. I understand that this is very much on the agenda of the next phase of the ‘Tensions of Europe’ project in which the Portuguese group here is fully participating.

I believe technology is a crucial site in producing as well as solving these crises. We need to develop new socio-technical systems building on new principles of the, for example, resource efficiency, low carbon, the circular economy, and the sharing economy. We historians of technology should challenge the view that there are no real alternatives: in particular, for the current unsustainable energy, mobility, food, healthcare and other sociotechnical systems in place. These are unsustainable because the costs and benefits are distributed in a highly unequal way and their so called externalities, for example CO2 emissions, threaten the future of our planet. For sure, if we continue to cling to a neoliberal ideology fuelled by a belief in the power of the market to solve all problems, we will not be able to stop climate change and we will make ordinary people pay for the costs. As a society we need alternatives to these sociotechnical systems that have reached the limits of their capacity to adapt. We need to provide these alternatives, without giving up democratic ideals and giving in to a technocratic super-state.

Could it be true that we as historians of technology can have any significant impact in the collective search for alternatives?  My answer is affirmative. Using the historical imagination, we can help the world to understand the current situation, we can challenge the way they think about the past, and the way they think about path-dependencies, and alternative scenarios, and by doing this open up a new understanding of the present and the future.  We can only do this when we are prepared to engage with the current world(s) and its problems and come out of our comfort zone. I believe we might need to re-invent how we practice History of Technology.

What is this about? It is about the need for deep collaboration with other disciplines, not only the social sciences and humanities but also the sciences and engineering. It is also about engaging with the stakeholders of our research, business, the policy-world and civil society, not after our research is finished, but early on in an interactive way. Finally it is about addressing head on what C. Wright Mills has called ‘the troubles of our time’.

To respond to these troubles, I would like to focus coming years together with colleagues at the Science Policy Research Unit (called SPRU), at the University of Sussex, where I am now based, on developing transformative science, technology and innovation policies based on a better understanding of the current world in transition. In my research I use the notion of the Second Deep Transition to refer to this structural transformation process. The First Deep Transition was a move from an early modern world to a modern one – or from commercial capitalism to industrial capitalism. Since it is still early days for the Second Deep Transition, it is hard to characterize, but let me try to do this by providing two opposing future scenarios: a brutal one and a more inclusive one.

A Brutal Second Deep Transition might generate economic growth driven by innovation, but outcomes are a very unequal distribution of wealth, unequal access to opportunities and uneven quality of life, and an unequal exposure to pollution and the effects of climate change. In the past these effects were mainly unequally distributed between North and South, but instead will now also produce ruptures within Europe. Inequality is on the move, and is becoming transnational. The state is called upon to safeguard a fairer distribution, but is not able to deliver since its power is eroded. There is an alternative, a more Inclusive Second Deep Transition which also might generate economic growth driven by innovation, but a different type of growth, one which prevents the generation of huge inequalities. In this type of transition we do not expect only the national state to redistribute ex-post some of the benefits of economic growth. Instead distribution issues are partly dealt with ex-ante, through a process of inclusive innovation which does not generate such huge distribution issues anymore.  This inclusive mode of transition is using the creativity of entrepreneurs and civil society.

To help shape the Second Deep Transition, I am building a new global Consortium for Transformative Innovation Policy, and it is my since hope that many countries including Portugal, will join the Consortium to further deepen international relationships.

Over the years I have worked with many people, and I owe a lot to all of them. For this honorary degree I would like to thank the Rector of NOVA University of Lisbon, the Dean of the Faculty of Sciences and Technology of NOVA, Members of NOVA’ s General Council and Management Boards, Institutional Representatives and finally of course my new godmother Maria Paula Diogo and the group of amazing group behind her. Finally I would like to give a special thanks to Jeannette Doff, my partner and my wife. She brings beauty, and depth into my life through how she experiences and sees the world, and through her concern with the troubles of our modern time in her own work and life. Without her I would not be standing here, therefore I dedicated this degree to her.

Thank you.”

Professor Maria Paula Diogo who nominated Schot for the accolade; Professor Schot; and Jeanette Doff (left to right)


Copyright © 2017 Johan Schot