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Social Influence and Disruptive Low Carbon Innovations

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - SILCI (Social Influence and Disruptive Low Carbon Innovations)

Reporting period: 2019-09-01 to 2021-05-31

A low carbon transition requires disruptive innovations to challenge prevailing technologies and practices. Many disruptive low-carbon innovations have been adopted, but in small numbers. Examples include car sharing, smart appliances, digital food hubs, and peer-to-peer energy trading. To mitigate climate change, these and other innovations must diffuse or spread into the mass market. In the absence of strong policy incentives, social communication from adopters to non-adopters is the means by which innovations spread.

The SILCI project seeks to understand how the different mechanisms of social influence work for disruptive low carbon innovations, and whether they can be harnessed to accelerate change. SILCI stands for 'Social Influence and disruptive Low Carbon Innovations'.

The SILCI project has three main objectives.

Objective 1. To understand the attributes of disruptive low carbon innovations valued by actual and potential users.
- By using secondary data, structured elicitation exercises, and a large-scale cross-national survey, I will evaluate innovation attributes and their potential acceptability to mass market adopters.

Objective 2. To assess the strength and mechanisms of social influence in the diffusion of disruptive low carbon innovations.
- By analysing social network structures, online activity, and the spatial distribution of early adopters, I will quantify the relative strength of social influence in diffusion processes.

Objective 3. To test strategies and actions for using social influence to accelerate a low carbon transition.
- By modelling disruptive innovations and social influence effects in urban-scale to global system models, I will test the effectiveness of long-term strategies and actionable policies for accelerating low carbon transitions.
Work in the SILCI project was organised in three Work Packages (WP). Our key findings are summarised in the SILCI Synthesis Report (downloadable from silci.org) and can be summarised as follows.

WP1: What are valued attributes of disruptive low-carbon innovations?
- A range of new goods and services, many of them digital, offer alternatives to carbon-intensive consumption practices in mobility, food, homes and energy domains.
- The current consumer appeal of these low-carbon innovations is strong on ‘value-added’ features, particularly those with public and symbolic benefits for society and the environment.
- But to enter the mainstream, low-carbon innovations also need to compete on the basics including affordability, ease of use, and lifestyle compatibility.
- The importance of appealing innovation attributes for adoption is mirrored in rejection. If the experience of certain attributes – particularly relative advantage and compatibility – is underwhelming compared to pre-adoption expectations, then adopters will discontinue use. Diffusion of Innovations works in reverse too!

WP2: What role does social influence play in the spread of disruptive low carbon innovations?
- For low-carbon consumer innovations, early adopters are highly distinctive with both environmental and/or technological values, skills, and lifestyles.
- We found strong support for Diffusion of Innovations with its emphasis on social influence mechanisms for spreading information to reduce perceived risks and uncertainties. Digital communication through electronic word-of-mouth has the strongest effect on the propensity of non-adopters to adopt.
- Social influence and the role played by early adopters in social networks are consistent predictors of innovation adoption. But adoption ‘echo chambers’ restrict innovation flows if early adopters exchange information only with other like-minded early adopters.
- Covid-19 related restrictions have shrunk our social networks. Resulting reductions in social influence will slow down adoption rates. Increased social media use during the pandemic has only partially offset this effect.

WP3. How does concurrent diffusion of disruptive innovations lead to a systemic transition?
- Low-carbon consumer innovations offer alternative forms of mobility, food provisioning, and home energy management. By reducing energy needed for daily activities, these innovations are an essential part of efforts to tackle climate change.
- Consumer innovations can result in energy use going up as well as down. Using innovations profligately or more intensely is a risk that needs careful monitoring and management.
- Smaller-scale innovations that change how energy and resources are used by consumers also have numerous benefits: they spread faster, they are lower risk, they improve quicker, they’re more fairly distributed, they create more jobs.
- Scenario modelling shows the clear promise of a global future in which low-carbon consumer innovations, particularly digital ones, are effectively harnessed for helping to limit global warming. Reducing global energy demand by 40% over the next three decades keeps the 1.5°C target in sight, and has numerous benefits for UN Sustainable Development Goals.
- Consumption activity related to mobility, food, homes, and energy accounts for 75% of global carbon emissions. There are many proven strategies available to policymakers for testing, learning, nurturing, and regulating in order to amplify the emission reduction benefits of low-carbon consumer innovations.
- Policies and interventions for tapping into the social influence mechanisms that drive innovation diffusion are widely used in fields like agriculture and public health ... but are not widely used to tackle climate change.
- Many of these policy strategies are generalisable, such as early adopter incentives to drive down costs and perceive risks. Other strategies are innovation-specific such as workplace schemes to support sustainable travel.
- In the absence of strategic direction to steer consumer innovations towards societal goals, there is a clear risk of ever-rising emissions. This is particularly the case for digital innovations appearing at breakneck speed.
The SILCI project completed its planned work programmed, delivering results beyond the state-of-the-art in the following areas:
- foundational work to establish a new research field on disruptive low-carbon innovation, including two international workshops with innovators, financiers, policymakers, and academics (co-organised with Future Earth), and a first-of-its-kind journal Special Issue with contrasting perspectives from leading scholars in a range of fields
- meta-analysis of attributes of disruptive low-carbon innovations across four domains: mobility, homes, food, energy supply
- global systems modelling of consumer-facing disruptive innovations showing the importance of energy-demand transformation for meeting the Paris Climate agreement goals, including prominent inclusion in the IPCC Special Report on Limiting Global Warming to 1.5oC as one of four marker scenarios
- comparative analysis of early adopters of disruptive low-carbon innovations across two countries (using cross-national questionnaire survey)
- quantitative modelling of social influence effects on select disruptive low-carbon innovations in a test city (Beijing) using spatially-explicit agent-based simulation modelling
- in-depth case-study analysis of early adoption and social diffusion of four disruptive low-carbon innovations: smart home appliances, mobility-as-a-service, peer-to-peer car sharing, digital food hubs
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