Disruptive patterns: Steps towards the energy future


Disruptive patterns, such as ecological catastrophes, are unavoidable on the path to the energy future. Nevertheless, political focus lies primarily on prevention of such events. Stefan Breit explains in the GDI study “A New World of Energy” why states back on the wrong horse.

This text is an excerpt from the GDI study “A New World of Energy – From scarcity to abundance”. The study is available as free PDF download.

The path to energy abundance is fraught with surprises and uncertainty. Social and technological transformation never unfolds slowly and steadily, but abruptly. It can take place in numerous small events, such as the development of better and better computer chips, or in a few major events, such as the October Revolution in 1917. Each of these events opened up new possibilities and broke new ground, while burying old, established paths of development. Each followed its own logic or irrationality. Nonetheless, from past events, patterns can be identified that indicate which major events will result in changed economic or social conditions. The following list, which does not claim to be exhaustive, highlights five of them:

  • Fukushima events: An external shock shifts societal demand for individual energy sources. This shift is the result of a reassessment of risk rather than efficiency concerns.
  • OPEC events: An international, economic shock changes the conditions of the energy industry. It is caused by supply shortages, price fixing, politically motivated actions or monopolies.
  • Lehman events: An international, economic shock changes the economy and social values. The attitude that things cannot continue as they are takes over. People, companies and institutions seek alternatives within and outside the system.
  • Swissair events: A national economic shock shifts societal priorities and values. Achievements that were deemed safe are renegotiated.
  • iPhone events: A new disruptive technology changes the economic conditions in many sectors. The higher the convenience factor of the new innovation, the faster and more intensely it is adopted.

In particular, the main focus should not be on an attempt to prevent sudden, large-scale developments – the unfolding forces can rarely be controlled and they tend to be nigh on impossible to predict. The lessons learnt from past catastrophes are used primarily to prevent a recurrence of the same catastrophes: a new type of catastrophe can strike all the harder. Instead, the main focus should be on the new developmental paths opened up by structural disruption.


Read more about the future of energy in the GDI study “A New World of Energy – From scarcity to abundance”.