Behind the Scenes: iDocs and Future Energy Systems

Research asks fundamental questions. The "who's" "why's," "what's," and "how's." Seldom do these questions reflect on the research itself…

Image for PostiDoc film crew in the lab of Pierre Mertiny as he explains flywheel energy storage.

Research asks fundamental questions. The "who's" "why's," "what's," and "how's." Seldom do these questions reflect on the research itself, though. When performing the research, we don't always pause to ask: How does a research program work? What are its real priorities? Can it make a difference? What constitutes 'a difference'? And why does it even matter?

Sheena Wilson, who is leading the Future Energy Systems Documentary & Intermedia Project, is working with her team to investigate these very questions. To do this, she and her team are producing documentary videos that reflect on the past, present and future of the Future Energy Systems multidisciplinary program. Working with post-doctoral fellow (and veteran CBC producer) Mary Elizabeth Luka, Sheena is pointing a lens at members of the Future Energy Systems administrative leadership team, researchers, and outside observers. Through these interviews she will gather diverse perspectives on humanity's energy future - as well as differing points of view about the role Future Energy Systems plays in getting there.

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"When you're working on a program this large, with so many societal implications, it's important to ask the people involved what they think they're a part of, what they hope to achieve, and why," Sheena explains. "Their answers can have implications today and for the shape society takes in the future."

Elizabeth agrees: "People are constantly reconstructing the stories behind today's technologies from memory, meeting minutes, diaries and news clips. We have the chance to let our people explain things in their own words."

The project - dubbed iDoc - is part of the Energy Humanities theme within the Future Energy Systems research program, so Sheena and her co-investigators will be going on camera to explain their views as well.

"Interviewing yourself for a project is pretty meta," Sheena laughs. "But this is a unique opportunity to integrate societal questions into the conversation of our energy futures right from the beginning of our research."

Co-Investigator Sourayan Mookerjea agrees: "We don't just want to tell the story of new technologies, we want to gain a better understanding of how social needs might be met by energy transition." Sheena adds: "To do that, we need to better understand the people who bring new technologies into our society, and why they do it - and what futures they are imagining."

Image for PostSourayan Mookerjea and Sheena Wilson interviewing David Nobes about geothermal engines.

Sheena and her team hope the project's videos will make Future Energy Systems' work more accessible to audiences who don't normally follow advanced technical research, but whose lives could be significantly affected by changes to the energy system. And those changes could outlive the program's projects.

"One thing the [Future Energy Systems admin] team keeps bringing up is the importance of training students through this program," she says. "And they're right: hundreds of young people who come out of Future Energy Systems could spend long careers working on energy questions. It's important that we make sure that they understand that energy systems are not merely technological, but also societal. We need to prepare them for complicated intersectional conversations now so that we achieve energy justice as well as energy transition."

The iDoc project began filming in late November 2017, and will continue recording its first round of interviews through the early days of 2018. Interview content will be shared through a variety of mediums, including Future Energy Systems events, and the upcoming IPCC meetings in March and PetroCultures 2018 in Glasgow, as well as online.

Kenneth Tam - Communications Associate, Future Energy Systems

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Kenneth serves as the Communications Associate at Future Energy Systems. He came to Edmonton in 2014 to join the Alberta Land Institute as Communications Coordinator. He previously served as Communications Consultant for the Member of Parliament for Kitchener-Waterloo, and spent four years as an advisor in the investment sector. While completing his MA in History at Wilfrid Laurier University, he received a Balsillie Fellowship from the Centre for International Governance Innovation, and in that capacity worked for Canada's former Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Paul Heinbecker. Hailing from Newfoundland, Kenneth is also a novelist with extensive and award-winning experience in the Canadian publishing industry.

An earlier version of this story was published on the Future Energy Systems website.Future Energy Systems website.