Science and engineering cultures tend to have a powerful belief in themselves and the products of their endeavours. This confidence leads them into trouble, time and again.
It happened a decade ago when the Monsanto-led push to prescribe genetically-modified crops for the world, hailing them as a sustainability solution to feed the masses and restore the environment, blew up spectacularly.
A community backlash against GM crops that took hold in Europe and spread globally nearly took down Monsanto in a multi-billion dollar stock value crash and put a large hole in the expansion plans of the whole GM sector.
When I see stories like these - http://www.treehugger.com/files/2010/12/biggest-smart-grid-challenge-facing-utilities-consumer-education.php & http://www.treehugger.com/files/2010/12/biggest-smart-grid-challenge-facing-utilities-consumer-education.php - about the growing backlash against the smart meter roll-out in the US I'm thinking it is a bit like GM crops all over again.
First the proponents push ahead with their 'solution' without engaging the community adequately, often using spurious, inadequate or disingenuous claims to justify their actions.
Then, when the inevitable (though seemingly unanticipated by them) backlash comes, the cry goes up that the community and consumers need to be 'educated' so they will 'understand' the rightness of the solution and will support it.
By 'educating' consumers, the intransigently over-confident science and engineering culture types generally mean spending lots of taypayer or shareholder dollars on PR and marketing to sway people their way.
But what's really needed is a compelling case that people will accept and support because it delivers value for them and not just the proponents, like Monsanto with unconvincing GM crops and energy utilities with remotely-read smart meters.
In the case of smart meters over-hyped claims that they will slash greenhouse gas pollution haven't been very convincing, and have failed to inspire consumer-side confidence that the real benefits will do other than accrue to the energy industry players rather than the punters.
Consumer concerns include paying more for their electricity service and supply, privacy issues, remote disconnection, and potential inaccuracy of metering.
Education is no answer unless there is a strong case to make. For GM crops, modifications that made plants resistant to chemical sprays like Monsanto's own Round Up brand simply didn't pass the consumer smell test. Nor did sticking fish genes in tomatoes.
Smart meter proponents are still to get their pitch right. It hasn't helped that they've tried to keep consumers out of the discussion instead of making them central to the solution.
In the end smart meters are just a component of a far bigger 'solution', the smart grid. Yet smart meter proponents are putting it all at significant risk by failing to learn mistakes of the past in other industries, including biotechnology and GM crops.
As consumers we need to see and believe that smart meters and the smart grid will deliver better energy services for us first, with superior value-for-money outcomes including environmental benefits, and that any utility benefits are secondary.
I fear that fostering and fuelling community angst about the smart grid via botched smart metering roll-outs is risky business. Can this be fixed to ensure the timely delivery of the smarter energy future we all need?