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SOCIAL INNOVATION IN ENERGY TRANSITIONS: Co-creating a rich understanding of the diversity, processes, contributions, success and future potentials of social innovation in the energy sector

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - SONNET (SOCIAL INNOVATION IN ENERGY TRANSITIONS: Co-creating a rich understanding of the diversity, processes, contributions, success and future potentials of social innovation in the energy sector)

Reporting period: 2020-12-01 to 2022-05-31

The Social Innovation in Energy Transitions (SONNET) project brought diverse groups together to make sense of how social innovation can bring about more sustainable energy systems in Europe. Six cities, six research institutions and one city network in Europe were using a diversity of methods– like ‘City Labs’, case studies, citizen surveys and more – to explore how social innovation can accelerate sustainable energy transitions.

But what is "SOCIAL INNOVATION" anyway? People around the world are trying out new social practices – or reviving practices from the past – in the hope that those meet our needs better than existing solutions do. Those new (or revived) practices are social innovations. In the energy sector this can look like: energy cooperatives; new funding schemes for energy retrofits; crowdfunding for energy saving projects; and more.

Key objectives of SONNET included:
1. Map the types of social innovations in energy systems (SIEs) in Europe, and organise them into common types.
2. Identify and analyse what conditions enable or impede SIE, such as financial conditions, cultural factors, political issues, and more.
3. Identify how different types of SIE make energy more secure, sustainable, competitive and affordable for Europe’s citizens, by creating a way to evaluate SIEs.
4. Assess the SIE types identified to see which have the potential to best support Europe in achieving its energy goals. Use this to develop business models and identify market opportunities that arise thanks to these SIEs.
5. Encourage successful SIE by co-creating strategies that target governance arrangements, policies, and power dynamics.
6. Accelerate sustainable energy transitions by co-creating SIEs in City Labs; a toolkit with practical recommendations to encourage successful SIEs; and workshops for those involved in SIE from policy makers to academics, students, and citizens.
SONNET has produced the following main results:

1. Diversity of social innovation in the energy sector (SIE): We have mapped 500+ initiatives across 8 European countries. Based on theoretical considerations, we distinguished 12 ideal-type SIE and 18 empirical SIE clusters in a typology capturing the diversity of SIE. Our empirical research diving into 6 of these clusters in more detail has confirmed the value of our SIE typology for conducting tailored research and devising type-specific research and policy implications.

2. Enabling and impeding conditions for SIE: We have analysed 18 case studies regarding historical and current processes of SIE-fields and their SIE-initiatives (in 6 European countries). We have also conducted six city labs (in Mannheim, Antwerp, Bristol, Grenoble, Warsaw and Basel) covering various SIE types and evaluated them as part of a transdisciplinary research process. We have also assessed citizens’ perceptions of 4 selected SIE types and acceptance of these in 3 countries (PL, DE, FR). Finally, we have investigated the role of urban collaborative governance arrangements, policy networks, power and policy mixes in enabling but also impeding SIE.

3. Success and evaluation of SIE: We have developed and applied a SIE evaluation scheme, and have assessed the suitability of novel data sources for future evaluation efforts. We have also analysed the alignment of EU and SIE goals, showing the greatest synergies regarding the increase of renewables production and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

4. Future potential of different SIE types: For the SONNET citizen surveys, we have designed experiments on 3 SIE types to assess their future potential: investment and financing mechanisms in renewable electricity generation projects, participation in renewable energy cooperatives, and energy gamification through mobile applications; we also investigated protest against specific energy pathways. From our representative survey with approx. 6,000 participants we found that up to 90% of citizens would consider investing in renewables or participating in another SIE if the conditions were right, suggesting a massive potential for various types of SIE to be tapped into.

5. Encourage successful SIE: We have been collecting rich data on governance arrangements, policy networks, power and policy making as basis for deriving policy strategies. We also facilitated a policy dialogue on the role of SIE in the Fit-for-55-package in Brussels, developed policy recommendations on how to better harness the potential of SIE, devised a city lab guide that informs other cities of our lessons learned on how to conduct successful SIE experiments, and contributed to a joint policy brief with our 3 sister projects on how to put people at the heart of energy transitions.

6. Accelerate sustainable energy transitions: We have developed and implemented a co-creation and dissemination strategy, and set up a dedicated website, social media channels, conducted 8 webinars, published 5 energy reads and infographics, produced postcards, published various academic articles and guest-edited a special issue, contributed to public events, organised 2 regional training workshops and a final conference, integrated our findings into teaching materials, recorded 2 project videos, and produced a final toolkit that brings together our key insights in an easily accessible digital format.
Conceptual advances:
1. Developing a novel SIE typology capturing the diversity of social innovation in the energy sector.
2. Developing a novel interdisciplinary conceptual framework by integrating insights from sustainability transition studies, social innovation research and energy research in social sciences.
3. Refining this framework regarding the diversity of social innovation, its multi-actor nature, the power dynamics in social innovation and sustainability transitions, governance in cities, broader mobilisation processes and policy mixes for social innovation.
4. Developing 15 working propositions which can inform transition processes towards more just, secure, sustainable, competitive, and affordable energy.

Methodological advances:
1. Combining state of the art innovation history analysis with recent advances in turning point analysis to analyse SIE-fields.
2. Shedding light on SIE not only through cutting edge qualitative case study research but complementing it in a holistic way with a quantitative stated preference approach using discrete choice modelling.
3. Developing both historical, unfolding and forward-looking analysis through case studies, city labs and citizen surveys.
4. Developing a comprehensive evaluation scheme integrating and advancing SMART energy system indicators.
5. Systematically combining academic and practitioner expertise in a transdisciplinary approach.

Empirical advances:
1. First comprehensive mapping of the diversity of SIE in Europe (500+).
2. Rich data collection and analysis for in-depth insights on a range of SIE within six European countries and six urban areas.
3. Co-creation between academics and six SONNET cities, including the conduction of six city labs experimenting with various types of SIE - in a pandemic setting.

These insights have informed practical recommendations to policy makers, SIE initiatives and business networks that we captured in EnergyReads, videos, guides and a digital toolkit summarizing our findings to anyone interested into harnessing social innovation to accelerate sustainable energy transitions.