Breaking the Rules! Energy Transitions as Social Innovations


The Leibniz Research Alliance is hosting an international conference entitled "Breaking the Rules! Energy Transitions as Social Innovations". The conference will take place on June 14th and 15th, 2018, at Berlin Social Science Center (WZB).


The challenge of developing clean energy systems is often perceived first and foremost as a question of technical and infrastructural innovation. In many countries, major efforts are currently being put into developing more efficient renewable energy generation plants, more effective energy storage capacities, higher grid flexibility, more efficient power conversion processes, and novel ways to electrify adjacent sectors, for example the transportation and the heat sectors. More often than not, however, these technological challenges are not the greatest barrier for system innovation. Instead, energy transitions require major innovations in the social and educational realms.

The transformation of energy systems has profound implications for the ways in which our societies are organized, and must therefore be understood as process of social change and social innovation. In many ways, energy systems structure our economies and mirror our attitudes and values regarding the definition of public goods, of justice, and of equity. The transition from one system to another calls these habits, values, practices, and norms into question, and replaces them with others, in a process that is necessarily conflictive and that may surpass our traditional (educationally formed) knowledge and understanding. Among others, energy transitions challenge our basic understanding of what energy means for our everyday lives, where and by whom it should be produced, and how it should be distributed and traded. At this early point in the transformation process, visions for clean energy futures are manifold. They range from highly decentralized systems that center around small-scale prosumers who trade renewable energies with each other in local units, to much more centralized systems, where renewable energies are produced in larger power clusters and distributed across great distances at regionally differentiated prices. These different visions rely on different fundamental assumptions about the distribution of resources, responsibilities, and power. They open up pathways for rethinking our energy systems on the basis of new priorities, new values, and new economic orders.

This range of possible pathways is spurring the imagination and the creativity of individual entrepreneurs, large companies, collectives, utilities, and many more. At the same time, these highly innovative dynamics are being resisted by incumbents and increasingly also by local protest groups.

The German Energiewende, which was long known for instigating the innovative dynamics of hundreds of citizen-led energy initiatives throughout the country, is at a turning point. Innovative grass-roots initiatives are struggling, conflicts over local heat and power production are increasing, the systematic roll-out of solar PV and wind power plants is stalling, and for the first time since the nuclear phase-out was proclaimed in 2011, political parties are openly turning against the Energiewende. The conference invites international scholars to discuss social innovations in the context of energy transitions, to reflect their meaning for educational and participatory practices, and to spark a debate about the societal values inherent in these innovations.

  • Theorizing social innovations in the energy sector
    We invite sessions that seek to better understand social innovations in the energy sector in light of the theoretical debates going on in such fields as innovation studies, social studies of science and technology, educational studies, and sustainability studies. Sessions could explore what characterizes social innovations in the energy sector, how they are influenced by individual knowledge or attitudes, and how they compare to (social) innovations in other sectors.
  • Governing social innovations in the energy sector
    We invite sessions that discuss whether and how social innovations in the energy sector can and should be steered. For example, sessions could discuss different governance tools currently being used in energy politics, such as "nudging" as a means of changing people's behavior, constructive means to enable public participation in decision-making processes, or real-life experimentation as means of engaging various stakeholders in energy transitions. Sessions could also reflect questions of regulatory and market management as means of stimulating behavioral change (for example through demand side management).
  • Drivers of social innovation in the energy sector
    We are looking for sessions that explore the driving forces of social innovations in the energy sector, including for example pioneer personalities, visionary entrepreneurs, or utopian social movements, or new forms of resistance. Sessions might explore the role of these driving forces for specific energy transition processes, the circumstances that give these driving forces momentum, for example external pressures, or the visions and collective imaginaries that keep these driving forces working over long periods of time.
  • Transforming existing power structures through social innovation in the energy sector
    We invite sessions that examine the state of current energy systems and policy (in Germany and elsewhere) and discuss key obstacles to system transformation, especially in relation to power structures, cultural practices and norms, and institutional arrangements. Sessions might explore what kinds of social innovations are emerging and where they are facing resistance, or what kinds of social innovations are needed to accelerate energy transitions.