I arrived to Karlsruhe, Germany by train on October 2nd to attend the first in-person project meeting of SONNET – Social Innovation in Energy Transitions. The meeting was hosted by Fraunhofer ISI, the organisation co-ordinating SONNET.
After checking into my B&B, I made my way to the second project dinner, which took place – yes, you guessed correctly – in a vegan restaurant. The project team arrive from a walk during which they discussed city labs and what we can learn from them, and crowd into the restaurant to occupy two large tables.
Gendering social innovation and energy
I look around the room and immediately notice something unusual. I am surrounded by a group of mainly female academics and professionals. It is not often you find yourself in a research project that is dominantly female. Gender wasn’t a criteria for inclusion in the SONNET bid, but whether the make-up of the project team will influence the outcomes of the project is another question.
SONNET endeavours to reflect on issues of gender across all its work packages, in line with the goals of the European Commission, and aims to identify how gender is discussed (or not) in the literature on its areas of focus: social innovation and energy transitions. The project will also analyse gender in relation to levels and ways of participating in Social Innovation in Energy (SIE) initiatives, when conducting the city labs, including issues of inclusion and equality. Issues of gender will be addressed specifically in the recommendations proposed at the end of SONNET.
Bringing gender issues into the project is not always straightforward and it has to be an ongoing process and discussion, rather than something that is set in stone at the beginning. Learning from each other on best practice is key.
Co-creation and city labs
I attend the final day of the meeting, where we start the morning with an Interactive lab-style session on the ‘Co-creation and dissemination strategy’. I facilitate a group talking about how to engage with policy makers. I soon realise this is a very new setting, different to discussions I am used to in UK projects. In the UK we talk about influencing “policy makers” on a daily basis, but we rarely question who they are. It has become an almost mythical concept within the ivory towers of academia, where there is increasing pressure to break out of silos and achieve impact.
But what happens when stakeholders are involved right from the start as equal partners working in close collaboration in a process of co-creation? City labs are at the heart of SONNET’s transdisciplinary approach, aiming to collectively initiate and observe current and unfolding social innovation processes in the energy sector. City labs will not only have an impact on the participating cities, but also allow other cities to learn from them.
Hearing from local authorities and city councils about the challenges they face first hand is a useful learning experience for researchers involved. Speaking to Jana Deforche from the City of Antwerp, I find out that she sees being part of SONNET a mutual learning experience. She highlights the importance of working together to achieve impact and how they, as a city, can use learning about social innovations and transitions to help them accelerate the processes that are already there.
Talking to partners from local authorities about how to achieve change, I find that the pathways to influencing decision makers or even, who makes the final decisions in government, when it comes to sustainability transitions is just as blurry to them as it is to us in academia.
Hopes and challenges
Speaking to some of the researchers and city partners after the meeting, I want to find out about what their hopes are about what SONNET could achieve and what they see as the main challenges.
Coordination clearly is an important aspect of such a large project. SONNET is ‘a lot of energetic people working on energy’, as DRIFT researcher Flor Avelino said to me. Ambition levels are high, but we only have three years to deliver what we’ve set out to achieve, so efficiency is crucial.
Flor also explained to me that social innovation can demonstrate how alternative energy options can not only help achieve our climate goals, but also provide answers to socio-economic issues like inequality. Having so many people in a room who might have different views about the world and how to solve our problems, but feel equally passionate about achieving a transition to a sustainable and fair society is definitely a challenging, but also exciting start to a project.
I leave Karlsruhe full of excitement, new ideas and questions to get on a train to my next destination.