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  • Confronting the Second Deep Transition through the Historical Imagination
  • Johan Schot (bio)

I have traveled many disciplines: from history of technology, science and technology studies, transport history, Dutch history, history of Europe, a bit of global history, sustainable development studies, to mobility studies. I also worked with policymakers and other stakeholders in fields such as innovation policy, technology assessment, and greening of industry. Yet my home is history, in particular history of technology, and the Society for the History of Technology provides the space where I can meet friends driven by a similar love for the history of technology. I feel therefore privileged and honored to be awarded the Leonardo da Vinci Medal. It feels like a recognition from my soul mates, which is important precisely because I so often travel far away from my roots, and then wonder whether historians of technology will still accept me when I come back.

Why is history of technology my home? The short answer is that I value the historical imagination beyond anything else. As I will argue below, it is this imagination that is crucially important for many actors in the world confronting the next Deep Transition. Here I am building on the notion of the Great Transformation, a phrase made famous by Karl Polanyi to describe the social and political changes that occurred with the rise of a market economy.1 History allows me to travel through time and space to new worlds and the enjoyment of often amazing experiences. There is no [End Page 445] greater pleasure than sitting in an archive and opening up boxes which have not been touched for a long time, reading minutes, letters, and other documents, and then using these sources to construct an interpretation and narrative. However, for me, history is never only about recovering the past; it is a looking glass which makes us understand the present and the future. This is not the case only because the questions we ask are fueled by contemporary concerns, but also because through history we get a better understanding of these concerns and ultimately of ourselves. This is the first feature of the historical imagination.

History is not only a mirror, it is also a set of scenarios. It teaches us the path-dependencies which shape who we are today, roads not taken, and hidden alternatives, which still might have a future, never in a similar way as they may have in the past, yet in an unmistakable way may shape what is yet to come. History provides access to experiences, and it shows us alternative scenarios. This is the second feature of the historical imagination.

And 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 how people, and organizations, think about the options they have. In this way, history is a prison, and certain options are closed because actors believe history has proven they have no future. It is for this reason that understanding history is more powerful than we often think! It will challenge ways of acting in the world, and open up new ways of thinking about the future. This is a third feature of the historical imagination.

Now I come to the main point of my address. I would like to use this Leonardo da Vinci talk to make a plea to historians of technology to use the historical imagination to engage more with the huge challenges our world is facing. These are recently captured by the United Nations in seventeen sustainable development goals, ranging from zero hunger, good health and well-being, quality of education, no poverty, responsible production and consumption, peace and justice, and more.2 These goals contain a double challenge, to reduce inequality and nurture climate-compatible development for all countries in the world. The goals also express that the current financial and economic crisis should not be our main concern, but rather what comes next, including a series of connected crises in food supply, water provision, mobility services, energy security, health care justice, waste management, resource scarcity, migration, and climate change. And, of course, existing...