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Beliefs that stir the system: what is social innovation in the energy transition?

The energy transition requires innovation beyond batteries and solar panels. Innovation that you might like to define as social innovation. But what is social innovation in the energy transition? Maria Fraaije and Julia Wittmayer dive into the topic, on the occasion of the development of SONNET’s typology of social innovation in the energy transition.
 
Wedged between the railroad and grassy fields of the Dutch countryside lie the remarkable houses of the Aardehuizen in Olst. Their dome shaped domestic dream might appear an oddity to the eye, but the heart of their individuality lies somewhere else. Dwelling underneath the domes, are 26 entrepreneurial collaborative spirits.
 
In the energy debate, these spirits are often forgotten. What compelled these individuals to build a community of eco-friendly houses? How have they related themselves to other actors in the energy system? And how are these relations different? Indeed, the energy transition requires innovation beyond batteries and solar panels. Innovation that you might like to define as social innovation.
 
Beyond the trend
The term social innovation has been around for a while. Moving up in the European policy agenda, it is considered as ‘driver for change’ for societal challenges such as climate change, changes in the economy, ageing populations, growing inequality, globalization and digitalization.
 
“We are going to put more money into social innovation,” promised the European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation Moedas, “not because it’s trendy, but because we believe that the future of innovation is about social innovation.”
 
Beliefs that stir the system
Also, we at DRIFT have pondered: what do we consider as socially innovative? In our work on transformative social innovation in the TRANSIT project, we defined social innovation as new combinations of ideas, objects and/or activities that change social relations, involving new ways of doing, thinking and/or organising. A sentence, we have to admit, that won’t do well at parties.
 
Nevertheless, it captures often side-lined dimensions within the energy transition we so ardently want to address: people, politics, relations, and beliefs that stir the system.
 
What is social innovation in the energy transition?
We consider social innovations as a change in social relations. In this line of thinking, we distinguish four types of social relations evident within the energy transition:
 

  • Cooperation: collaborating for a shared vision
  • Exchange: trading electricity, goods, information or network
  • Conflict: opposing a narrative, practice or belief
  • Competition: contending for shared resources

 
You might recognize the well-known energy cooperative to dwell in the first category. But is that the complete picture? Are all social innovation initiatives cooperatives, or is there more to the eye?
 
A typology of social innovation in energy sectors
On our path to explore social innovations in the energy transition, we have scoped 500 initiatives across 8 EU countries.
 
After a significant amount of time behind an ever-expanding excel sheet, the result is here: 18 types of social innovations in the energy sector. These types resulted from distinguishing two axes – whether social innovations in energy involve new ways of doing, thinking, and/or organising, and whether those involved are cooperating, exchanging, competing, or in conflict.
 
Curious to find out what we consider as social innovation within the energy transition? Visit our typology of social innovation in the energy transition here. An important aspect of this typology is that it does not stop at identifying energy cooperatives or bottom-up initiatives as drivers of social innovation in energy – rather it shows that also the public sector and the private sector take up this role.
 
The people behind the meter
Social innovation captures the social context of a transition driven by people. After all, without the entrepreneurial spirits of the Aardehuizen inhabitants and their capacity to formulate collaborative decisions, their dome-shaped dream might have remained just that: a dream.
 
Read more
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Do you want to know more about the aardehuizen in Olst? Read this blog.
 
Julia Wittmayer studies social dimensions of sustainability transitions, working on EU projects SONNET, PROSEU, Energy-SHIFTS, TOMORROW, ACTION and previously active in TRANSIT and SIC. If you want to know more about the typology of social innovation in the energy transition, please follow this link
 
Maria Fraaije is a researcher for EU-sponsored projects SONNET and PROSEU, where she analyzes social innovation in the energy transition.
 
SONNET is funded under the EU Horizon 2020 Research and Innovations Actions (RIA) programme (Grant Agreement 837498).


Date
April 14, 2020