On Tuesday 28th July 2020 the Flexibility Theme held the first of a series of ‘Reading Room’ seminars starting with the very idea of ‘flexibility’ itself. Future topics are ‘seasonality’ (Oct) and ‘contingency’ (date to be decided!).

For the first reading room, the Flexibility team was joined by an interdisciplinary group (engineers, physicists, social scientists) from around the world (Norway, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and Japan) to discuss a recently published article by Stanley Blue, Elizabeth Shove, and Peter Forman in Time and Society  Conceptualising Flexibility: Challenging Representations of Time and Society in the Energy Sector.

You can listen to the recording here.

The discussion explored different ideas arising from the article.

One was the relational status of the concepts of fixity and flexibility, and how the meaning of these terms changes depending on what is being described, and from what point of view. For example, while meal times might appear more flexible that they were 50 years ago, the sequences of activities in which they are set has remained relatively fixed. While a given practice appears flexible when compared to a given time-slot, its position can be quite fixed within one or more sequences of practices.

We also discussed the possibility of capturing, describing, and measuring flexibility in society when it is described in emergent and complex terms. Is this a hopeless task or not? Opinions differed.

Related to this we talked about what methods might be used to capture aspects of sequencing, synchronisation, and therefore of flexibility, for example with time-use data, by or by somehow measuring the strengthening and weakening of ties and links between practices. What could be captured described by measuring variation, change over time, extended sequences, and the effects of repetition?

The article ends by challenging experts in the energy sector to engage with more fundamental insights from social scientific studies of time – and especially with ideas about the temporal constitution of society and energy demand. The editor for Time and Society, Michelle Bastian, who also joined the session, invited people working on time and temporality to engage with issues relating to the energy sector and the environment more generally.

The next Flexibility reading room will be on seasonality on 1st October. Let Elizabeth or Stan know if you would like to be involved.