Reinventing the windmill: a snapshot of society’s changing relationship with innovation

The windmill: an icon of the Netherlands and a fixture on postcards, souvenirs and calendars from the low country. While windmills had been used centuries earlier in Greece and Persia, the earliest recorded existence of a windmill in the Netherlands dates back to 1221. They served a multitude of purposes, being variously used to grind grain, mill wood and crucially, to pump excess water out of low-lying land.

For more than five centuries, windmills played a crucial role in the reclamation of land from inland lakes and seas, and formed a central component of the arsenal of tools used by the Dutch to protect their country from the dangers of encroaching river and North Sea waters. Following the advent of steam-driven pumps in the 18th century, functioning windmills gradually lost favour, as the more-modern, coal-driven pumps were simultaneously more powerful and independent of the whims of the wind. Instead, these once prevalent structures became relegated to the role of picturesque tourist attraction, valued cultural monument and to the pages of history books.

Fast forward several centuries to 2015: the Netherlands finds itself once more in the grips of a windmill-building “craze”. These windmills are vastly different both in form and function than their culturally important older brother: these windmills (more correctly, wind turbines) are typically more than twice as tall, with sleek, state of the art, aerodynamic blades, and harness wind energy not to fight the rising waters or perform other mechanical tasks, but to supply electricity to an energy-hungry population and economy.

While 4.5% of the Netherland’s electricity is already generated from wind, current government targets seek to dramatically increase this number: by 2020, onshore wind production must triple as compared to 2013 levels, while offshore wind production is set to increase more than twenty-fold by 2023. Preliminary sites where this development will take place have been designated and further feasibility and pre-planning studies are underway. However despite the cultural affinity the Dutch may be perceived to have with windmills, this modern incarnation is by no means accepted with open arms throughout the country.

While a variety of economic and operational considerations can be cited as reasons against expanding investment in wind energy, the primary protestors are often local residents, who profess they will be negatively affected by the view of and shadow cast by the windmills, as well as any noise made by the rotating blades. In addition, there are concerns for the safety of bat and bird populations who may be injured by the moving blades.

This article does not aim to highlight similarities or differences between the old and the new- for the purpose of this article, it is enough that both are large, unmistakably visible, man-made engineered structures, fulfilling a function that society demanded at one time or other. Nor does this article seek to examine reasons for or against increasing wind energy production, or explore the legitimacy of people’s reasons against further construction of windmills. Rather the question of interest here is centrally focused on why our response as a society can be so different to these two feats of engineering, conveniently linked by a common name? Why is it that the one is seen almost universally as a nostalgic and picturesque icon of a bygone era, while the other is referred to more often as a blot on the landscape, a source of noise and of nuisance, than a marvel of green energy production?

Is it possible that this differing social response is the result of these two types of structures being at different stages of the innovation-mainstreaming-obsolescence cycle? The historic windmill finds itself in the third stage, a technology that is now obsolete and unnecessary. Over previous centuries, it transitioned from being a new, novel way of dealing with a problem, to being widely and effectively used for many years, to being replaced by more efficient emerging technologies such as electric pumps. The modern-day wind turbine is still much earlier in this cycle: while onshore wine generation could be considered fairly mainstream in some countries, innovations are still occurring in the fields of offshore generation, cost reduction and blade design.

It is conceivable that each of these evolutionary stages can be accompanied by a different public sentiment. Initially, new ideas and technologies are untested and mainstream response can be one of excitement for the novel possibilities, but also one of fear, uncertainty and suspicion. Research suggests the latter response is the more typical: while new ideas and creative thinking are often sought after, uncertainty about the ultimate value of an idea and the possibility of failure result in a kind of “bias against creativity” when it comes to evaluating different innovations. Over time, as a technology becomes more prevalent, we may transition to accepting it as normal, and ultimately unexciting. Eventually, technologies may become obsolete, and their very elimination from mainstream use may be exactly what pushes them into a more nostalgic place in our collective memory.

Studies looking at society’s relationship with historic structures have identified ancient windmills as an example of what is characterized as an unintentional monument: structures whose present day meaning is not determined by their original creator, but by the memory and significance our current society attaches to them. This is in contrast to intentional or deliberate monuments, “erected for the specific purpose of keeping single human deeds or events (or a combination thereof) alive in the minds of future generations“. Thus, while a monument like the National September 11 Memorial for instance, was specifically built to remember a particular event, windmills stumbled into the category of monument simply because recent generations decided they were worth preserving and remembering.

Only time will tell with certainty how future generations will classify modern wind turbines: will our descendants take trips to visit the remnants of wind parks in the North Sea, marveling at their sleek design, careful geometry and the fact that they represented concrete steps in a previous generation’s journey to safeguard their future on planet Earth? Or will they become relegated to a small section in a dusty history of engineering textbook? Where is the line between a windmill that goes down in history as a cultural icon and the symbol of an era, and one that is rather forgotten as an eyesore, a source of noise, nuisance and NIMBY-ism?

Photo courtesy from Wikimedia Commons by Kim Hansen.

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