David MacKay Announced as 2016 Paradigm Award Winner

Scholar Has Opened Pragmatic Discourse for Meeting Future Energy Needs

The Breakthrough Institute will honor David MacKay, Regius Professor of Engineering at Cambridge University and former Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, with the 2016 Breakthrough Paradigm Award in recognition of his excellence in energy and climate change analyses.

Breakthrough’s Paradigm Award is bestowed annually to individuals whose work has made major contributions to realizing a future where all the world’s inhabitants can enjoy secure, free, and prosperous lives on an ecologically vibrant planet. Past recipients include environmental geographer Ruth DeFries; environmental scientist Jesse H. Ausubel; journalist and author Emma Marris; and author and environmental researcher Mark Lynas.

David is unique in having made groundbreaking contributions in two major disciplines: computer science (specifically information theory), and energy and climate change. Trained in physics and computer science, David’s early work was influential in machine learning. This includes designing code-allowing machines to decipher human signals, including breathing and gaze tracking. With this technology, David co-created Dasher, a text-entry interface that allows the physically disabled to write text as quickly as normal handwriting.

More recently, David has emerged as an invaluable voice in the global conversation about climate change and energy transitions. From his 2008 book Sustainable Energy — without the hot air to his brilliantly effective TED talk on renewable energy to his five years of work at the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change, David embodies multiple roles at once: engaging author, science communicator, researcher, and policy advisor.

Activists and scholars may be quick to envision a world after fossil fuels. David is one of the few scholars who actually seek to deeply understand what that world would look like and what it would take to get there, both the good and the bad. Among his most important and overarching insights is to reject a common environmentalist mantra that “every little bit counts.” To this, MacKay says, “If everyone does a little, we’ll only achieve a little.” 

MacKay’s book Sustainable Energy — without the hot air  provides students and scholars a template for how to conduct relevant and realistic energy analyses. Favored technologies such as solar or nuclear, targets such as Europe’s renewables and efficiency standards, and broadly appealing policies such as carbon pricing only matter if they can scale. As MacKay writes in the conclusion to his book, “It is possible to make a plan that adds up, but it’s not going to be easy.”

The energy and climate scholar describes his work as “the public understanding of science,” which is apt given his commitment to make his book freely available to all audiences online. And unlike other publicly available academic texts, David has been praised for making his work both readable and applicable.

“[Sustainable energy – without the hot air] is to energy and climate what Freakonomics is to economics: an accessible, meaty, by-the-numbers look at the physics and practicalities of energy,” wrote author Cory Doctorow in a review of the book.

Update: Sadly, David passed away in April 2016, he will be honored and a video tribute will be shown at the 2016 Breakthrough Dialogue – themed “Great Transformations” – that is slated to take place June 22 through June 24.