Community Energy conference in Manchester: Onshore wind competitive, but held back by regulatory resistance

What will incumbents do? According to Max Wakefield, the lead campaigner for British climate charity 10:10, “they’re there to protect their market share.” Wakefield, who has been running 10:10’ s Blown Away campaign – which seeks to overcome government hostility to onshore wind – said that incumbents can be expected to fight dirty, to buy up new technologies and companies, to appropriate the language of ‘community energy’ where they can and generally do all they can slow down the regulatory process.

He was speaking in Manchester on Saturday, as Community Energy held its latest large conference. Established in 2014, the Community Energy is a not-for-profit membership organisation which supports organisations in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, engaging with policymakers and others. Around 150 people gathered to hear from practitioners, campaigners and academics. The event was sponsored by Cooperative Energy (part of the Coop Group) and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, the meeting comes at a tricky time for the sector, which has stagnated of late, with ongoing hostility from central government to on-shore wind, despite widespread public support for the technology.

Chairing a panel discussion on the question of “what do we need next? Taking community energy from surviving to thriving”, Paul Monaghan of Coop Energy delivered both encouragement and a note of caution. Assessing the fragility of the May government’s numbers (the Conservatives hold power thanks to a coalition with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party), he pointed out that a small number of Conservative MPs rebelling could force the government to change policy. Citing a recent unexpected victory on tax havens, Monaghan said, given the fact that on-shore wind could now be competitive without subsidy, “this is a door and this is the time to push it.” However, he also cautioned that community groups who thought that all their economic difficulties would be solved upon getting grid access should think again – while “Big Six” energy companies had not just lost market share (from 995 to 80% over the last decade), the margins for generators were very small, and at least two (SSE and RWE) were looking to get out of generating altogether.

All was not however, gloom and doom. Thanks to persistent and effective lobbying by REScoop.eu victories had been won at the European level on the question of rooftop solar (if not ambitious renewables targets).

The Manchester event also saw the launch of two new reports. The first was the “community and local energy strategy” of Electricity North West, setting out how they intend to go about “forging links with community and local energy groups”. https://www.enwl.co.uk/globalassets/community-and-local-energy/documents/enwl-community-and-local-energy-strategy.pdf

Based on extensive consultations with stakeholders, it lays out how ENW intends to offer community and local electricity projects access to the grid, financial support and an improved regulatory regime. ENW says that it intends to be “responsive to customers’ needs”, will “create new mechanisms for community and local energy groups to engage” and search for locations on their network “where community and local energy can be deployed for the benefit of the network.”

The second was Community Energy’s second “State of the Sector” report, looking at community energy in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (Scotland, for political reasons, is quite a different beast) (see other coverage here). The report is grim without being glum. Its authors conclude (in words that could be written of parts of Australia) that “what is immediately clear is that the impacts of regulatory and subsidy changes during 2015 and onwards have had a negative impact on the community energy sector, in line with changes seen in the wider energy sector. Ever decreasing project margins, alongside wider barriers relating to site availability, planning and grid constraints, are resulting in an inability for many groups to get projects off the ground. Evidenced by the low numbers of new community energy organisations, projects, funding and finance in 2017, this report confirms the sectoral slowdown predicted in the first State of the sector report.”

The authors go on to admit that despite “continued motivation and passion within the sector” the slowdown “will continue into 2018.”

Conspicuously absent at the conference was any organised union presence. Despite rhetoric for a ‘million climate jobs’, and approving noises from Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn on climate and industrial policy, it is fair to say that – if this conference is any indicator – that the endlessly predicted and hoped for ‘red-green’ coalition is still a distant hope.

So, while the technologies are maturing, the level of debate – and the attitudes of politicians supporting the incumbency – remains anything but mature. And the carbon dioxide continues to accumulate…

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Chairing academic sessions for fun and… diversity #IST2018 #manels #academia

So, the International Sustainability Transitions conference has come and gone. A fine event, with a huge number of scholars delivering papers, speed talks, with plenty of time for schmoozing and boozing.  I wrote already about the problem of manels and ‘What is to be Done’, but that was before I had a) delivered my own talk and b) chaired a session unexpectedly.

So this post is to talk through how those went, what I learned, what I would do differently.  #reflexivity #narcissism

My presentation

  • I almost had a horrible powerpoint melt down.  So  always have the latest version on your email account (which I did) but ALSO have it on two (not one, but two) NEW memory sticks.
  • Having a countdown clock (my tablet) was hugely useful
  • I talked for too long explaining the multiple streams approach, but people seemed to appreciate it.
  • I didn’t talk about my methodology and nobody gave a damn.  In my opinion, if you aren’t trying to make a methodological contribution, then don’t waste limited time in a short session (ten mins) talking about it.
  • I asked the chair of the session for permission, and then I cut my session down by two minutes and used that time (as I’d previously advocated) to have people turn to the person next to them and try to come up with a question.

hm3-q-and-as

(source)

  • I am biased, and one is not a sample, but I think that there was extra energy in the room, and I got more, shorter, sharper questions than the following three speakers, who kept to the traditional format….

 

My chairing

The following morning I went to a session where the scheduled chair was not available.  The (good) advice from the conference organisers was that in such a situation, the speaker scheduled to be last should be the chair, since they are highly motivated to keep everyone to time.  I thought ‘sod it’, I’ll volunteer (I had been volunteering for the past two days, in my purple t-shirt).  So, I took the opportunity (not asking anyone’s permission, as I recall – perhaps I did ask the first speaker) to try out the “turn to the person next to you” innovation.

In my opinion there are four key roles that the chair has to accomplish in any papers-presentation session

In chronological and escalating order of difficulty

First, they have to make sure that everyone is welcomed to the session and at least mildly ‘energised’ (this can be as simple as a warm hello and a comment about lunch/the night before).
Second, they need to ensure that all powerpoints/prezis whatever are loaded onto the computer and ready to go.
Third, they have to keep schedule ticking over.  It is grossly unfair if the final speaker doesn’t get as much as the first simply because of the sequencing.  That means that speakers have to be kept to time, so that there can be some questions to them. Ask the speaker if they want –
A five minute warning as well as the mandatory “two minute warning”
questions one at a time or in batches
Fourth, they have to take all reasonable steps to ensure that everyone in the room has a realistic chance of participating, and that the discussion is not dominated/ controlled/ unduly shaped by a small coterie of the most confident/experienced/highest status actors.

So, less interesting is the fact that I was able to ensure that all four speakers got the same amount of time and we finished bang on time so people could get down for a cup of coffee and a schmooze (the most interesting bits of a conference are often the random encounters).  This was partly by giving the speakers warnings, but also, while they were answering questions, I brought up the next presentation on the computer. I also didn’t waste time introducing the speakers- they just started talking.

More usefully, though was the getting people to actually participate fully.  The first time I  I said “everyone, for two minutes, please speak with someone close to you- if you have question, get help honing it – a short question is a good question. If you have half a question, get help forming it”  there was confusion/mild bewilderment  but the ‘authority’ of the chair carried the day.  By the third speaker I could just say “you know what to do” with a wave of my hand, and they slipped into it.  (I did NOT explain the rationale)

 

So, that’s basically how it worked.  In the third Q and A and the fourth I gave priority to people who’d not asked questions before.
Again, this is one experiment, and I would hesitate to extrapolate or invoke without more efforts.  There were only about 20 people in the room, for example – might be harder with fewer or more.

BUT

  • there was a very good mix of gender with the questions
  • most people asked a question
  • some people came up to me and thanked me for the format, and were enthusiastic about it
  • one of the speakers was also very complimentary about it…

 

So, would I do this again?  Yes.  Would I have a single slide with the instructions on it?  Yes.  Would I ask people for feedback after the session? Yes.

 

The rationale

There are two purposes to this (though neither needs to be explained to the attendees unless you really want to be explicit)

Firstly, it means that people who are less confident, have been socialised into believing their question can’t be any good, are able to get help/reassurance/encouragement from others if they need it.

Secondly, it gives you options when you come to ask for questions, because there is now a sea of hands to pick from,not just the Quickdraw McGraws. This makes your job easier.

Of manels, transitions and Ottawa. #IST2018 and #IST2019

The organisers of #IST2018 have worked extremely hard, and pulled together what has already been an interesting and thought-provoking programme (with a day and a half still to come). Barring a few things in the conference programme (the floor 1 and 4 switcheroo), it’s been a well-oiled machine – in part thanks to the affable and incredibly good-looking volunteers in the purple t-shirts. But I digress, because there have been – there’s not point denying it- a couple of tone-deaf moments. This blog is about one of those moments, the nature of question and answer sessions the world over, what we can learn from it, and what “we” (by which  I mean “hey you, hosts of #IST2019”) could do differently in future.

For those of you still wondering about the neologism in the title of this blog post – a manel is an all-male panel. The term was born on a Tumblr and the phenomenon has even been covered by the Financial Times. It’s not restricted to business or social sciences –  it’s a thing in the natural sciences too. The folks over at UN Global Compact have even pledged not to allow its employees to participate in or host an all-male panel. The executive director said

“Too often I’ve been the only woman on a panel. It is time that we challenge the status quo and stop making excuses — there is no shortage of qualified women,”

There’s a boycott site, where men can pledge to refuse to take part in all-male panels.

Today’s opening plenary panel, while full of rich insights  was… a manel. This did not go unnoticed in the twittersphere or in meatspace..

Now, I raised the manel issue with one of the organising committee of the conference (and in the interests of full disclosure I should say that two other members of the committee are my supervisors) and they said that there had in fact been a woman scheduled but this had fallen through and the final make-up was what we saw.

In the break after the plenary (and indeed, all day), I’ve overheard or participated in discussions about this. It left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths, mostly, but not only, women.  Let’s not catastrophize, it hasn’t meant people have been bereft, unable to take part in the many excellent discussions and sessions. It’s not the end of the world (climate change, now that is the end of the world), but it has I think dampened some enthusiasm, and become – fairly or unfairly – another anecdote for the (bulging) patriarchy scrapbook.

Alongside comments on the lack of diversity on the panel, there were twitter exhortations asking women to speak up. (And during the morning session there had been catcalls about women being chosen to ask questions, which was pretty extraordinary). I wasn’t there at the evening plenary, but I am told there was an awkward silence when women were explicitly called upon to speak out in the Q and A.

Taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture, (this is probably impolitic to say), but there is a certain irony here; in that we are seeking to reconfigure – or offer policymakers advice on reconfiguring – at the societal and systemic level, but respond with individualised “solutions” to systemic issues in our own backyard. (Then again, some of the practices within our own regime are not under the microscope, for reasons that both institutional theory and MLP scholars might well understand.)

Anyway, while, the functional utility of purposive endogenous lacrimal gland excitation as an adaptive response to the catastrophic decontainerisation of bovine lactates is low (see here) , we can still look forward to the future.

What is to be done.

I would modestly (cough, cough) put forward the following proposals

On manels

Strenuous efforts should be made to avoid manels. However, if a woman is going to be thrown in as an obvious token/fig leaf, then (and this may be controversial) I think that is probably worse than useless, and the manel should go ahead. However….

If a manel cannot be avoided,

a) it should be placed in the middle of any given conference programme, rather than the first session (which sets the emotional ‘tone’ for the event) or the last (which is what people remember- see the Peak-End effect).

b) there should be a clear acknowledgement that a manel is taking place, with a short explanation/assurance that the organisers took all reasonable steps to avoid this. The audience could be invited to suggest women who could have been asked to participate

Re the Q and A – time-keeping and emotional tone.

Chairs of sessions and facilitators of panels should be asked to keep all speakers strictly to time, perhaps via the ‘clap clinic’ method, which seeks to tackle  the problem of power dynamics between chairs (sometimes lower status) and the speakers. It simply involves setting a time limit and when that time is reached, starting to applaud and asking the (already prepared) audience to join in.

hm2-clap-clinic

Chairs of sessions and facilitators of panels should be asked to consider how they will ensure that those people who traditionally do not speak up (many women, some men, many ‘newbies’, introverts etc) can have brief opportunities to confer and hone their question. Perhaps via the ‘Q and A’ method.

Once the chair/facilitator sees a sea of hands (and they probably will) it will be possible to pick – say – a woman, a man and another woman: each to ask a question of no more than three sentences. Not all of the questions will necessarily be interesting, but then again, “interesting” might be in the eye of the beholder.

 

What other (better) suggestions do people have?   #reflexivelearning and all that….

 

UPDATE Thurs 14 June – from a very astute person who sent me a direct message on Twitter (reprinted with permission)

Good question, some thoughts if i may.

  • participatory sessions (see format of Transformations Dundee 2017 for example), speed sessions are useful for the audience – though may not suit all speakers.
  • Wider disciplinary contributions, but taking care who contributors run parallel to (a multidisciplinary session / more international perspectives in competition with a ‘big name speaker from within transitions’ would be a shame for all involved).
  • Question etiquette enforcement (short or microphone removed, ECR first – even if it requires a moment’s silence).
  • Balance in speakers – have a white middle-age male quota and don’t exceed it, actively approach others (and do not allow the programme to be dominated as it is).
  • Workshops.
  • Creative spaces e.g. collaborative writing jams.
  • Networking sessions.

Of interesting questions and interesting times

How do you create collegiality?

How do you ensure that the emotional tone of an ongoing event is ‘right’, and that people aren’t intimidated from the outset?

How do you get peer-to-peer learning and interacting going at a higher-than-normal level?

How do you do those things and other important things?

How do you make sure they aren’t likely to be scuppered?
In my opinion, these are Interesting Questions.

Field mobilization and how little we know… #PhD

Really really wish I’d gotten better hold of the institutional theory leg of this stool (chair?) that is my thesis earlier in the process. Am good enough on the policy stuff (MSA, PE, ACF etc etc), and the empirics, and even the sociotech transitions stuff. But I wasn’t deep, wide and overview-y enough on institutional theory early enough (not for lack of trying – it’s just … well…   (and yes, to my critical management theory friends out there, I know that inst theory is a panglossian functionalist colonialist exercise. I probably come down on the Willmott side of the Willmott-Lok debate, fwiw.).

Anyway, better late (and it is late) than never. Just mostly finished this great article:

Grodal, S. and O’Mahony, S. 2017. How does a Grand Challenge become Displaced? Explaining the Duality of Field Mobilization. Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 60, 4, pp.1801-1827.

And there are some corker bits in an article about how the big dreams of nano-tech were cut down to size by short-term needs of funders/boosters.
The existing literature does not always recognize the political realities of field dynamics that can unfold after fields mobilize and attempt to make progress on grand challenges.
(Grodal and O’Mahony, 2017:1802)

Without examining how participants’ rhetoric and underlying interests evolve as they take action and dynamically try to influence progress towards a field goal, we cannot explain what affects progress on grand challenges.
(Grodal and O’Mahony, 2017:1802)

While much research has focused on how field participants use rhetorical strategies to mobilize consensus on a common field-level goal (Wry, Lounsbury, & Glynn, 2011), it is the later stages, during which action is required, that can be more complicated.
(Grodal and O’Mahony, 2017:1803)

What is missing is an understanding of what happens after mobilization, when diverse field participants take action to address field-level goals in dynamic environments.
(Grodal and O’Mahony, 2017:1803)

There is a LOT else here, too late to really chew on as I finish this thesis. But I become ever more convinced that the only way we can do better on the multiple problems with sociotechnical transitions (both academically and in the real world) is by a much richer appreciation of institutional theory, institutional work and other tools.

Even then we will be screwed, but at least we will be a better-informed screwed…. Which is comforting.

Mundane epiphany #94 on the thesis

I am walking around the park pretty much every morning now, with my backpack (weights, books) and journal articles in hand.

And things are coming together on this (though they probably could have earlier. So it goes).   And two mundane epiphanies that will mean nothing to anyone except me and my supervisors (who I assume do not read this blog).

a) this thesis is simply an investigation of collective contrapreneurship at the field-level, distributed maintenance work with a dash of ‘creative’ and defensive’  (trust me, this does actually make sense).

b) policy entrepreneurship in the Multiple Streams Approach is simply institutional work based only/primarily the regulative pillar of a field. Institutional entrepreneurship is work on the normative and cultural-cognitive pillars (Scott, 2005) (as well as the regulative one).  These aren’t much on display in the first two windows I look at, but become A Thing (as the young people say) in the third and fourth windows.

c) maintenance/defensive work is just trying to shore up the (one or more of the) three pillars of an institutional logic/set of institutional logics.

d) my theatres of power triangles could usefully be configured in terms of convening and partaking and collective entrepreneurial/contrapreneurial work within a field, with sub-fields interacting…

Boxer’s disease

“Boxer could not get beyond the letter D. He would trace out A, B, C, D in the dust with his great hoof, and then would stand staring at the letters with his ears back, sometimes shaking his forelock, trying with all his might to remember what came next and never succeeding. On several occasions, indeed, he did learn E, F. G. H, and by the time he knew them, it was always discovered that he had forgotten A, B, C , and D.”

Orwell, G. 1945. Animal Farm, p.30

 

Let’s just say there are only so many neurons in my skull, and they have their limits…

Ibn Khaldun etc etc.