Technology Case Studies Update
Jacy Reese
Co-Founder & Research Fellow
September 23, 2019

Many thanks to J. Mohorčich for his important work on this topic, including the three case studies and initial exploration of a variety of other interesting areas for future research, on which this blog post is based.

Summary: Our first three technology case studies have provided significantly more useful insights than we expected. We believe they successfully gathered the low-hanging fruit in this field: emerging technologies that had the context, discourse, and evidence base to be particularly useful case studies for strategic research. We have no immediate plans to work on additional technology case studies of this type and expect our future work to focus more narrowly on a specific similarity of an emerging technology to a contemporary or future emerging technology. For example, we could do a short case study on artificial diamonds and their consumer marketing campaigns to directly inform how cell-cultured meat stakeholders may prevent consumers from seeing the product as fake, cheap, or ersatz. We think most of our other research at Sentience Institute, including polls and experiments, should pay more attention than previously on the role of technology given the central role it can play in facilitating, inhibiting, and otherwise affecting moral circle expansion.

Sentience Institute has now published three emerging technology case studies of emerging technologies and one summary journal article. The lead researcher on these projects, J. Mohorčich, has moved from his position as a Research Fellow to an Advisor role at Sentience Institute as he enters a new position as Assistant Professor of Political Science at Lehman College, CUNY. Thus we have conducted an internal check-in on this line of research, assessing how they met our expectations and how our future research plans should adjust accordingly. First, to summarize the three case studies:

Nuclear Power: Nuclear power had an unusually strong impact on the French energy market, making up 75% of French electricity by 1990. The US has topped out at 21%. This case study provided evidence for the following stakeholder strategies to encourage adoption of a new technology:

Genetically Modified Foods: GM foods started out in a similar ecosystem as clean meat with small firms, ethically driven stakeholders, and widely shared optimism. GM foods have experienced mixed adoption. The US has 89% GM planting by acre. Many other countries have banned or heavily regulated GM food and plant virtually no GM crops. This case study provided evidence for the following stakeholder strategies to encourage adoption of a new technology:

Biofuels: Biofuels also started with small firms, ethically driven stakeholders, and widely shared optimism. However, rather than failing in the consumer market, biofuels experienced wider failure in the development of the technology, never getting as cheap as stakeholders expected from around 2005 until 2013, which resulted in a loss of interest and investment. This case study provided evidence for the following stakeholder strategies to encourage adoption of a new technology:

There is a little overlap in these findings (converging or contrasting), and we did not expect much because of the variation in these technological pathways, such as biofuels failing before the technology became cost-competitive while GMOs and nuclear powers’ failures occurred later in the emergence of the new market. This limits the robustness of these findings, but it seems that many of them are still compelling given the host of evidence.

When we began this line of research in 2017, we chose to use this case study approach instead of a question-driven approach, which would entail looking across a range of contexts to gather evidence on a specific question (e.g. How can stakeholders reduce the likelihood of a “winter” of decreased investment in a new technology?), for several reasons. Primarily, given the lack of research literature on the factors that lead technologies to succeed or fail, it seemed most promising to first build a more primary literature corpus that documents the timelines of the technologies and develops a general understanding of how these technologies are best studied for our research aims. Question-driven research seems significantly more cost-effective after this primary literature is at least partially built, and is more promising now that these three case studies are completed.

There are a variety of other emerging technologies that we have considered studying, along with some reasons for studying them:

Solar Power:

Wind Power:

LED Lighting:

Vertical/Indoor Plant Farming:

Artificial Diamonds:

Other Contexts of Previous Case Studies:

Technologies Used in Factory Farming:

Technologies Used in Animal Testing:

Currently, we see these potential future projects as somewhat less cost-effective than our first three case studies, though this is very tentative and may change if and when we pursue one of these projects. Particularly, many of these contexts seem significantly less analogous to the context of clean meat or other moral-circle-relevant technologies. Because of this, and the aforementioned point about now having a decent-sized body of research to build upon, we think future research is probably best done in a question-driven direction, drawing information from different contexts as appropriate to best answer a given question of interest. This may come up as specific questions of interest come to the surface in the clean meat context, such as if several clean meat companies start seriously considering merging or being acquired by large food companies, in which case a report drilling in on those questions may be a high priority.

A project that may help facilitate this question-driven research would be a more comprehensive list of the wide range of technological changes that we could study. An output of this project could be a large spreadsheet with each of these changes and notable features (e.g. date of commercialization, consumer-facing versus non-consumer-facing), which could be utilized to make question-driven research more systematically and rigorously draw from all the possible evidence bases.

We also expect there to be other ways to examine moral circle expansion from a technological angle. We are currently in an early planning stage for an experimental study that would test the effects of awareness of animal-free food technology on a variety of outcomes, such as attitudes towards animal farming. Given the central role we expect technology to play in the expansion of the moral circle to include farmed animals, and the potential for it to facilitate or inhibit future expansions, it will be important for moral circle research projects to pay close attention to the important effects of and on relevant technologies.

Subscribe to our newsletter to receive updates on our research and activities. We'll email you once a month at most!