© Andrew Codrington / flickr

"Breaking the Rules! Energy Transitions as Social Innovations" International Conference

Thanks so much to all who made our conference such a great success! On June 14th and 15th, 2018, more than 120 researchers from across Europe gathered at the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB) to discuss how social innovations relate to the transition of energy systems. In 16 sessions, participants held lively discussions over theoretical conceptualizations of energy and innovations, as well as over a broad variety of practical energy initiatives currently underway across Europe. The main theme of the conference, "Breaking the Rules!", attracted a highly stimulating mix of social science researchers interested in how to initiate, govern, and divide the costs of energy-related socio-technical change.

The conference was hosted by the Leibniz Research Alliance on Energy Transitions. The conference is documented in the form of paper presentations in the conference sessions, videos and summaries of the conference keynotes, and a photo gallery below.

Two keynotes laid particular focus on key aspects of "breaking the rules", and provided excellent entry points for each conference day.

Maarten Wolsink (University of Amsterdam) discussed the nature of social acceptance in relation to distributed renewable energy technologies. He made a case for the development of "intelligent" grids, which he sees as cooperation networks between prosumers. According to Wolsink, "intelligent" grids are socio-technical systems for the coproduction of electricity and everything that goes along with it. They allow citizens to play an active role in the production of public goods and services in the sense of Eleanor Ostrom's common pool resource theory. Due to their collective and participatory nature, "intelligent" grids could generate the much needed adaptation of consumption patterns that conventional demand response schemes have failed to generate. For this to happen, however, Wolsink sees the need for tremendous insitutional change. According to him, digitized technologies are the innovation that will lead the way to a truly distributed and clean energy system.

Elizabeth Shove (co-director of the DEMAND Centre at Lancaster University) played devil's advocate by highlighting the overall failure of the energy research community to understand energy-related social practices. Instead of focusing on the introduction of ever newer and more efficient technologies, Shove made a strong case for researching and addressing what energy is 'used' for in everyday practices, such as heating, cooking, or travelling. She gave an overview of various research projects conducted under the umbrella of the DEMAND Centre at Lancaster University, which she co-directs. Among others, she showed why, when and how people use different means of transport. Cars, for example, are mainly used for transporting loads and children. Reducing the demand for cars therefore means improving the cargo capacity of other vehicles - not necessarily only building more bicycle lanes. She also showed that the introduction of certain technologies, such as refrigerators, can create new energy 'needs'. Apart from this, Shove discussed how certain everyday rhythms, such as office hours or library opening hours, influence energy demand. Changing these rhythms could also change energy demand. Current energy policies, she argued, tend to focus on technologies instead of practices or rhythms. She therefore suggested to introduce 'non-energy policies' that target people's lives rather than people's appliances.

The conference presented a lively platform for interdisciplinary exchange and started a discussion that should continue into the coming years. Participants agreed that a successful energy transition requires enormous technical and societal efforts, which require continued interdisciplinary exchange for researchers to make a meaningful contribution.