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close this bookThe Uncertain Quest: Science, Technology, and Development (UNU, 1994, 531 pages)
close this folderPart 3: The policy dimension
close this folder14 Technology assessment
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentHistorical background
View the documentThe methodology and its critics
View the documentA typology of technology assessment and policy analysis
View the documentStakeholder participation in technology assessment
View the documentConcluding remarks
View the documentReferences

A typology of technology assessment and policy analysis

Since in practice it is so difficult to separate a technology from the socio-technical system in which it is embedded, it is convenient to develop a typology of TA classified along a great many dimensions.

Dimensions of technology assessment

1. The degree of specificity of the category being assessed, e.g. a specific project such as a dam, dams in general, or earth dams in particular.

2. The scope of the system included in the assessment, e.g. the automobile as an artefact, the automobile with its whole set of supporting systems including highways, oil refineries, gasoline stations, auto insurance companies, repair shops, auto factories and the impact of all of these together on society and/or the environment.

3. The degree to which the assessment is restricted to hardware and technical characteristics, e.g. emissions, safety in a collision, fuel efficiency, driving performance, and excludes legal systems, insurance, policing, licensing systems, etc.

4. The scope of the types of impacts considered, e.g. environmental, health, safety, ecological, economic, social, psychological.

5. The geographical and temporal scope of impacts considered, e.g. local, regional, short-term, intergenerational impacts, long-term ecological productivity, etc.

6. The degree to which the likely political and behavioural responses to alternative policy prescriptions for the socio-technical system being assessed are explicitly considered.

7. The degree of "neutrality" aimed at in the assessment, e.g. whether the assessment is designed to gather evidence in support of an already chosen policy, to evaluate and compare the consequences of alternative policies, or to explore in as value-free a way as possible the probable or possible consequences of a continuation or likely evolution of existing trends.

8. The stage of development in the "life cycle" of the technology being assessed, e.g. whether it is in the R&D stage, whether it is already beginning to be deployed, or whether it is already deployed on a large scale and the challenge is to regulate or alter it to reduce its secondary impacts [21]. This dimension, of course, greatly affects the degree of foresight required and the resultant uncertainties and the kind of evidence that can be assembled.

Types of technology assessment

Taking into account primarily the first three dimensions listed above, one can distinguish five types of technology assessment.

PROJECT ASSESSMENT. Here we are concerned with a concrete project such as a highway, a shopping centre, an oil pipeline, or the actual plan for construction and testing of a prototype of a new aircraft or power plant. The environmental impact statement process most often deals with such specific projects. Project assessments may be further subclassified according to the novelty or extent of previous experience with the technologies to be employed, or the degree of previous experience with the particular type of environment in which they are to be deployed. To the extent that a project presents special challenges either because of the novelty of the technology used or of the unprecedented problems of a new environment (such as was the case with the Alaska pipeline), project assessment may spill over into the next category, generic technology assessment, which must rely more on theoretical insights derived from science and less on cumulative practical experience with the technology in operation.

GENERIC TECHNOLOGY ASSESSMENT. Here the focus is on a general class of technologies without reference to a particular project or a particular site, environment, or social setting. An example of an especially important and common class of generic TAs is the assessment of medical therapies or prescription drugs for the treatment of particular medical conditions [11]. This sort of TA has come into prominence, particularly in the United States, as health care costs have continued to rise faster than the cost of living index in most of the industrialized countries, directing more and more attention to the proliferation of new medical technologies and their cost-effectiveness. In this case the system boundary is well defined, and the generic nature of the technology is obvious because it is applied repetitively under similar circumstances in many places to many different patients with similar characteristics.

Another example might be a new generation of "inherently safe" nuclear reactor designs being proposed for the next generation of nuclear power plants. Here the boundaries of the system to be considered are much less clear because nuclear power is a systemic "global technology" in which adverse experience anywhere in the world has repercussions throughout the entire system due to political reactions, and the safety and reliability of the system as a whole is very sensitive to non-technical human factors of management and regulation as well as to essential supporting technologies such as waste storage and disposal, and support of the nuclear fuel cycle. Generic TA is what one mostly has in mind when one uses the term TA, yet only a relatively small proportion of the reports produced by the OTA or other similar agencies could be said to conform to this description of generic TA.

PROBLEM ASSESSMENT. Here the approach is to examine a broad problem area such as commercial air transport and assess a variety of technologies as well as non-technical measures that might be used to cope with the problem. For example, instead of assessing a supersonic transport programme such as was proposed by the Nixon administration in the early 1970s, one might have posed the problem of future air transportation needs and considered a variety of aircraft types as well as air traffic control systems for meeting a defined social need. indeed, a more sensible approach might be to extend the boundaries of the problem to define it as enhancing the mobility of goods and people, and including various ground transportation technologies as well. Even in project assessment, the EIS procedure requires that "alternatives to the proposed action" be fully assessed, implying consideration of alternative technologies or social actions that would achieve the same objectives as the particular project being proposed.

POLICY ASSESSMENT. Policy assessment is very similar to problem assessment, except that it takes greater account of non-technological alternatives to achieving social goals for whose realization new technology is only one of many options. A good example might be the use of various kinds of economic incentives to both electricity consumers and public utilities to reduce peak or total demand for electricity as an alternative to constructing additional power plants, or the development of more efficient or environmentally benign generation or transmission technology. Policy assessment blends imperceptibly into policy analysis, where the emphasis shifts more completely away from technology towards broader social and political measures that require less prescriptive design. An important advantage of policy assessment over generic TA or problem assessment is that it tends to be more even-handed as between technical and non-technical solutions to the problems being addressed. At the same time it is more likely to recognize that the overly conservative regulation or suppression of new technology is just as likely to have unforeseen and undesirable side-effects as the introduction of technology - once again leading to a more even-handed balance between technical and non-technical approaches [8, 24, pp. 91-94].

GLOBAL PROBLÉMATIQUE. When a number of closely interrelated social, political, economic, and technical problems coexist and are difficult to attack piecemeal, and the resulting cluster of problems affect the world as a whole considered as a single system, we call the assessment required a "global problématique." What makes it more challenging than other forms of technology assessment is the close interconnection among many of the component problems, and particularly in the interaction between the technical and political dimensions of the environmental risks concerned. What makes the "problématique" different from other forms of TA or problem assessment is that no single scientific report, no single decision, and no single nation will have the last word, or even a very important word? on how humanity ultimately comes to terms with those risks. The management of the problématique has to be a cumulative process of "social learning" with, ultimately, very wide participation of virtually all the stakeholders.

In the 1970s a fashion arose for developing computer models of the entire world designed to assess trends in and effects of various combinations of policies on food, energy, environment, population, natural resources, and even human relations. Models add no new raw information and are no better than the data and assumptions that go into them; they are nevertheless a valuable accounting device for keeping track of many more variables than can be embraced by the human mind. Such models have attempted to assess socio-technical systems of increasingly comprehensive scope until in some cases, the whole world is treated as a single coupled system.

This interest in modelling as an aid to policy-making was part of the motivation for the creation of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) as a joint East-West research institute in Laxenburg, Austria, in 1972. Among its major projects, IIASA created computer models of the world energy system [1] and the world system of agricultural production and trade. One aim of such models was to explore the consequences of various national and world policies in these sectors on a global basis, e.g. the potential role of various energy sources, or the effects of more open world trade in agricultural products on the world hunger problem. There was a great deal of debate as to whether the many simplifying assumptions and subjective judgements that had to be made for the models to be manageable would largely vitiate their usefulness as policy tools.