project — research


Based on six in-depth case studies, this project investigated the complex potential of social innovation in the European energy sector.

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Julia Wittmayer

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SONNET (Social Innovation in Energy Transitions) aimed to co-create a rich understanding of the diversity, processes, contributions, success and future potentials of social innovation in the energy sector.

Transforming European energy systems into more secure, sustainable, competitive and affordable configurations by the middle of the 21st century has become a priority in the European Union. In particular, academics and civil society actors have drawn attention to the widely neglected social dimensions of sustainable energy transitions as an important factor to further this goal. This is where SONNET came into play: it aimed to create an inter- and transdisciplinary understanding of the diversity and processes of social innovations in the energy sector. It assesses – critically and reflexively- the success, contributions and future potential of social innovations towards sustainable energy transitions in Europe. SONNET investigated how, to what extent and under which enabling conditions diverse types of SIE may result in new breakthroughs or successfully help to overcome transition barriers; such as limited citizen engagement or slow adoption of new technologies.

SONNET’s empirical research bridged qualitative and quantitative methodological approaches in an innovative multi-method research design. Across 30 qualitative in-depth case studies situated in six European countries, SONNET investigated the diversity, processes, success and contributions of social innovations in the energy sector. In six transdisciplinary city labs, new forms of social innovations in energy were experimented with to learn how multiple actors can harness their potential. In addition, based on three large-scale representative citizen surveys, SONNET assessed the future potential of SIE and derived implications for reconfiguring existing and developing new business models.


SONNET was funded under the EU Horizon 2020 Research and Innovations Actions (RIA) programme (Grant Agreement 837498).

Fraunhofer ISI (DE, coordinator), SPRU (UK), University of Sussex (UK), Grenoble Ecole de Management (FR), Kozminski University (PL), Zurich University of Applied Sciences (CH), ICLEI (DE), City of Mannheim (DE), City of Antwerp (BE), City of Bristol (UK), City of Grenoble (FR) and the City of Warsaw (PL).

Key Outcomes

SONNET synthesized its findings in an integrated knowledge framework for a socio-economic, socio-cultural (incl. gender) and socio-political understanding of enabling and impeding conditions for SIE and SIE contributions when working towards accelerating sustainable energy transitions in Europe. Through a cutting edge co-creation, dissemination and exploitation strategy, SONNET ensured that its practical recommendations, tools and capacity building activities had a maximum impact on its key stakeholders such as citizens, SIE actors, policy makers, and businesses.

DRIFT’s Role

DRIFT led the work on the conceptual framework, the inter- and transdisciplinary dialogue and the overall synthesis (WP1 Concept and Synthesis). It co-chaired the academic council, and was closely involved in the socio-cultural and socio-political cross-cutting themes, next to being the academic partner responsible for the empirical work in BENELUX and for the Living Lab in Antwerp.