Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Technology and Public Policy Essay

Prompt: In this supplement, we would like you to articulate your reasons for studying technology and policy at MIT - to someone who is not acquainted with the field.

There are many challenges facing the nation and the world today that need to be met to provide a high standard of living for a growing global middle class without depleting the very resources required to do so. In other words, our way of life needs to be environmentally sustainable. In order to achieve this vision, we need new technology. We may also need to change human behavior through effective policies for things such as business practices and land use. System dynamics is a field that is developing and using rigorous analytical tools for designing policy. I’m interested in studying system dynamics, technology policy, and the economy to help transition to an environmentally sustainable way of life. MIT is the leader in the field.

The way we generate and use energy needs to transition from a system that is contributing to the accumulation of carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere to one that has zero net impact on the environment. We need sources of energy that will not be depleted faster than they are consumed. New technology is currently being developed for alternative sources of energy as well as more efficient usage of energy. On the other hand, some goals such as lowering demand for energy can be reached with policy solutions that change behavior. New technologies need to work in concert with these policies. Otherwise, more efficient appliances may be followed by an increase in the number of appliances used, wiping out any potential reductions in energy consumption.

Developing new technology is resource intensive, requiring a large amount of capital, time, and manpower. One prominent theory for the best way to prioritize technology development is that the free market automatically selects for the best ideas and allocates resources the most efficiently. This is often touted as the main advantage of capitalism, minimizing the need for policy and planners. However, ideas can only be sorted by quality if the quality is correctly correlated with the price, and environmental and social impacts are often not included in the price of development or consumption of products. It can be hard to gauge the effectiveness and thus value of a new technology because it can be hard to identify causal links, especially when there are delays in the system. That is why it is difficult for the market to prioritize effectively. In practice, there are many government programs and a variety of tax incentives in an attempt to correct for the free market system.

Alternatively, analytical tools can be used to prioritize technology development and policy implementation. The system dynamics field develops and uses analytical tools to model systems such as the energy sector to determine the causal links of the system. These mathematical models can then be used to simulate the effects of different policy implementations or new technologies on a computer. If relative impacts, especially long term impacts, of potential innovations or policies could be quantized, it would be a very effective way to prioritize resource allocations for new technology. Then, better policies can be made for city and national planning by combining new technologies with a model of the economy. What system dynamics can reveal about the causes of economic growth and recession will be critical. With a better understanding of the system, policies can be optimized to complement each other rather than inadvertently canceling out each other's intended effects.

Many people have worked on system dynamics models for energy, the climate, and the economy. System dynamics was founded at MIT by a former electrical engineer, Professor Jay Forrester in the 1960s. These modeling techniques are not yet widely practiced in policy-making, which is a challenge, but MIT continues to be a leader in this growing field. MIT alumni developed Vensim, the leading software for system dynamics modeling, and they continue to collaborate with ESD and the Sloan School on research and education. Professor John Sterman does research on energy policy and environmental sustainability and has developed many tools for policy-making. The ESD program has collaborative research projects using systems analysis to evaluate and develop technologies for wind power and carbon sequestration.

There is an especially rich discussion about new technology and public policy at MIT because MIT is at the cutting edge of research for new technologies such as alternative energy sources. MIT also has invaluable resources in mathematics and computer science as well as a culture which supports rigorous work. Studying at MIT would allow me to make the biggest contribution to environmental sustainability.

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