Automotive electrification and social justice

I’d forgotten, but I did write a blog back in February for an Italian Policy Studies Institute: Overlooked? Social Justice Issues in Automotive Electrification (ispionline.it). Its publication was understandably delayed by the need to address the invasion of Ukraine, but it’s available now. And as the research has progressed in the meantime, I will soon publish another blog that provides some updates in light of the new EV Infrastructure Strategy published in the UK in late March.

Recognising Recognition Justice

I am working on a major research project called ITEM: Inclusive Transition to Electric Mobility, where we review who uses electric mobility alongside whether the policies that are supposed to support us all to switch from fossil-fuel powered transport to electric options are socially just.

Now that we’ve had workshops with stakeholders in all four cities where we are conducting our research, it is clear that what we call the recognition aspect of social justice is the one least recognised.

In transport policy-making, distributional justice is usually part of appraising the problem and implementing solutions. Decision-makers often ask who living where suffers from local air pollution or who benefits from a new electric charging station or shared e-bike service. They might even ask whether it’s the same ‘who’.

Procedural justice is also fairly straightforward. Who participates in what gets done in a city and how meaningful is that participation? Officials working at various levels of government may not always involve other sectors and citizens as much as they could or would like to. They may not quite know how to make participation more meaningful, but they get the idea.

But recognition justice? Our participants hadn’t heard of it.

We all explained that it’s about recognising that different people need, want, value or expect different things at different times and for different purposes. And our participants understood, but rarely consider it explicitly. In fact, we could find questions about recognition justice in all our workshops – our participants just didn’t call it that.

Back in our first workshop in Bristol, there was a discussion about who used electric car clubs, for what purposes, and whether they were getting the service they actually wanted and expected. Could these shared vehicles meet the needs of both those who could not afford a car, particularly not an electric one, as well as those who could afford multiple cars, but wanted to reduce their car ownership? These are questions of recognition justice.

At the second workshop in Poznan, Poland, participants spoke not just about users of electric mobility, but also related industries. They considered how there would be automotive workers who needed re-training and other support. They asked how the experience of groups like these would fit with the promotion of environmental values and acceptance of regulations to encourage electric mobility. These are questions of recognition justice.

In Utrecht, the Netherlands, the participants wondered how to manage the rights to and use of public space when users of e-scooters or electric cars, for example, might expect to use that space differently than those on pedal bikes or parking a conventional vehicle. They asked how conflicts between users could be avoided to ensure no one felt excluded from the public spaces where they felt they had a right to be. These are questions of recognition justice.

In the Norwegian workshop, the participants noted that although electric cars are now easy to use around Oslo, that might not mean they are equally easy for everyone. They asked whether charging services, with their assorted infrastructure, pricing, and payment mechanisms (e.g. apps), were what all users might want and understand, or whether they could be seen as neither inclusive nor fair. These are questions of recognition justice.

So many questions of recognition justice, just as there are so many different needs, wants, values, rights and understandings to recognise. Our participants recognise that there are these differences, but may not yet have considered how to find out the detail of what they are and who holds them. As this project progresses, we will be seeking answers, and opening up yet another aspect of justice – ‘epistemic’ or that related to the creation and incorporation of knowledge.

Inclusive group interactions: online or in person?

I recently published a paper on the intersections, or as it turned out, the divergence between three different levels of digital divide. The first level is about infrastructure and having fast enough internet connections. A bit like accessibility in transport. The second is about skills to use the required software. The third is whether digital technology enables people to be more productive or resilient or gain from the use of the technology.

The first two divides include the uneven distribution of infrastructure and technical capabilities across the population. The last is more a question of some forms of work or knowledge being recognised as valuable, useful, and worthy of remuneration even when forced online. Other forms of knowledge and work are designated essential but only possible in person, whilst still others are temporarily disposable (e.g. via furlough).

Another way to think about digital divides is to consider how they map onto aspects of social justice such as I am researching for a different project; these include distribution, recognition, and epistemic (or knowledge).

For example, as we slowly emerge from a world where social interactions were forced online in order to make decisions about whether we will return in person or continue to use digital technologies, will these interactions become more or less just?

I am not referring to jobs and occupations, as I was in the paper mentioned above, but rather the advantages and disadvantages of holding meetings, workshops, coffee breaks, and conferences online or in person as this becomes a matter of employer, organisational or individual choice. Similar choices are being made for many other group interactions which had unexpectedly switched to a screen during the pandemic; from charity committees to book clubs, from religious services to exercise classes.

So how did the online switch influence how just these interactions became in comparison to their previous formats?

In terms of distribution, some have the internet connections, data contracts and devices to support video-conferencing platforms. Some do not. Some find using the software easy and some difficult. However, many would note that spatial, temporal, and cost barriers were much reduced. People could meet, discuss, worship, or exercise together with little concern for distance. People could schedule activities without the travel time, fitting in online interactions between other responsibilities. And the cost to interact online is usually much lower.

In terms of recognition, some found it easier to put across their needs, wants, and points of view. Perhaps they could raise their virtual hand or comment in a chat box. Yet for others, the lack of body language, the unnatural uniformity of grids of faces make it much harder to recognise the expressions of others or to express oneself. Whilst some blossom in the odd combination of distance and intimacy that online interactions afford, others shrink from it, often unnoticed, such that their potential contribution to the team or club or congregation goes unrecognised.

Finally, whose knowledge is gained and whose is lost? What is spoken and what left unsaid? And even if different voices and views are heard, whose are valued and whose ignored? In some cases, knowledge has been gained from more diverse participants, perhaps due to reduced distance, time and cost barriers. In other cases, not only have previous attendees been excluded due to distributional issues of infrastructure and skills, but also knowledge is exchanged differently. Online social interactions reduce the ability to share non-verbal knowledge. There is a deficit of side conversations, informal commentary and one-to-one conversations on the way in and the way out.

The justice of online group interactions is context-dependent and interactions in person can also include or exclude in different ways. And yet, just as there are multiple levels of digital divide to consider, multiple aspects of justice should inform our decisions. Whilst many point to what are often net gains made in distributional justice from going online, the recognition and knowledge aspects of justice suggest a more complex and nuanced balance sheet as we make these tricky choices over how to meet and interact in the future.

Policy, what policy?

I have recently started a new research project which involves analysis of the social justice aspects of policies and policy-making for electric mobility.

I was also recently accused, in relation to a different project, of unhelpfully conflating guidance and policy.

Personally, I would refute that I was mixing the concepts up, but I do understand why it was seen as unhelpful.

The inconsistency in our respective perspectives appears to have derived from their narrower focus on policy as formally adopted strategic principles. Yet I believe policies are also inclusive of the more detailed descriptions of potential ways to implement those principles, even if agreed at a different level. For example, the road user hierarchy with pedestrians at the top and private cars at the bottom is an example of a strategic policy. But I would say that design guidance for the layouts of roads that put pedestrians first, or the sections of the highway code that indicate who has priority at a junction are also policies.

And yet, strategic policies often gain widespread, multi-level approval more easily, whereas ‘the devil is in the detail’. Pointing out such details could be seen as unhelpful if there is limited power to apply or implement the policy concerned.

Still, just in case, I thought I’d look up the dictionary definition of ‘policy’.

The source of inconsistency was immediately clear. Policies are defined as ‘principles of action’, ‘ideas or a plan of what to do’. Policies should systematically both ‘guide decisions and achieve rational outcomes’. So are they principles and ideas to guide decision-making or are they actions and plans that achieve something called outcomes? Policies are also defined as being adopted by or agreed to in some official manner by a particular group or organisation. Yet there are as many ways to officially agree to something as there are groups or groups of groups who might do the agreeing.

These questions also partially explain the why the academic literature on policy processes and design is contested, as it struggles to make sense of the discontinuity, ambiguity and uncertainty inherent in a process now generally accepted to be non-linear. Allocating agency and unpicking power relations is also tricky, as policies are not the same as politics, and individuals can be actors in their own right as a ‘policy entrepreneur’, for example, or buried in an ‘advocacy coalition’ or a ‘target population’. The terminology reflects the challenge of defining the policy process in a rational and consistent manner.

All this may be why many transport studies include a section on ‘policy implications’, usually of the effectiveness of certain ideas or principles, without engaging with policy makers or the process of how policy is made. Yet if transport planning wants to achieve goals of social justice, economic prosperity, and environmental sustainability, policy implications must consider not just statements of principle or indicators to measure outcomes, but also all the steps in between. And that means engaging with multiple elements of the policy process, even if the idea of distinct, linear policy stages has been criticised as overly simplistic.

This is particularly important for a project that aims to assess social justice, which also has multiple aspects. Transport research and planning tends to focus on distributional justice, measuring policy outcomes like accessibility. Yet there is also procedural justice, which is all about who is involved in policy design and decision-making, and the recognition aspect of justice, relating to who decides what is a problem that needs addressing and so sets the policy agenda.

In conclusion, policy is complex and contested. That is part of what makes policy what it is – and makes it only more likely that some will argue about what it isn’t.