Looting the Ivory Tower: “Making the most of community energies”

Super-useful on DECC (RIP) and the “Community Energy” strategy – the costs of getting it. Should be read alongside that paper by Phil Johnstone Andy Stirling and Ben Sovacool  about Policy Mixes for Incumbency  Honest about risk of academic blindness from using one theory (SNM) and not paying close enough attention to interviewees, and what is NOT being said.

The title: Making the most of community energies: Three perspectives on grassroots innovation

The authors: Adrian Smith Tom Hargreaves Sabine Hielscher Mari Martiskainen  Gill Seyfang

The journal:  Environment and Planning A 2016, Vol. 48(2) 407–432

The DOI: DOI: 10.1177/0308518X15597908

The abstract:

Grassroots innovations for sustainability are attracting increasing policy attention. Drawing upon a wide range of empirical research into community energy in the UK, and taking recent support national government as a case study, we apply three distinct analytical perspectives: strategic niche management, niche policy advocacy, and critical niches. Whilst the first and second perspectives appear to explain policy influence in grassroots innovation adequately, each also shuts out more transformational possibilities. We therefore argue that, if grassroots innovation is to realise its full potential, then we need to also pursue a third, critical niches perspective, and open up debate about more socially transformative pathways to sustainability.

In plain English/tl:dr: You can get policy ideas onto the elite agendas, but only the bits the bosses currently find useful. If you want to transform stuff, ya better be wary of trading truth for access (My gloss)

Key concepts:  

The way the transformative potential (or aspiration) of strategic niches has been successfully absorbed, and now an additional ‘critical niches’ concept is needed…

 

“Summarising, we draw three distinct analytical perspectives from the niche literature: SNM (in which niche influence operates through self-evident improvements in the performance of an innovation), niche policy advocacy (where influence arises by aligning niche innovations with prevailing policy discourses), and critical niches (where influence changes the terms of debate and mobilises transformative action). Table 1 summarises the three perspectives by comparing them in niche terms of: (a) the roles played by local experiments, (b) the knowledge priorities involved, (c) the kinds of intermediation sought, and finally (d) presumptions about the nature of politics.” (p. 412)

smith et al three perspectives

“However, as research proceeded, we noticed discussion in the field was tending to bracket out more critical questions arising from CE development experience. We do not mean evidence about the difficulties of doing projects, of which there was plenty, and where SNM and policy advocacy perspectives helped. Rather, we mean critical debate about transforming energy regimes so that they become more open to some of the originating aims of community involvement and control, rather than CE becoming an adjunct to marginally reformed energy regimes. Critical issues cropped up in conversations with practitioners, yet neither our framework nor policy developments were exploring them in depth. Practitioners rarely persisted in these issues for fear that it would not help their cause in seeking policy support. This prompted us to develop the critical niches perspective and led to us going back through our empirical material to apply and test this new perspective.” (p. 420)

 

“SNM presumes a singularly rational form of politics: everyone learns the same, self-evident lessons. Consensus exists over the sustainable energy problem framing, which is that CE is beneficial, and policy will develop on the basis of evidence about the way to do CE better. Politics under niche policy advocacy takes a pluralistic approach in arguing why CE matters to policy-makers. CE analysed from this perspective identifies the work necessary to convince policy-makers that CE relates to their agendas. Arguments advance by drawing upon evidence from practical CE experience. Reforms can be pushed pragmatically; they should not depart radically from what prevailing regimes deem reasonable. Critical niches, in contrast, see reason in demanding the impossible. That is, they point to limitations under current policy discourse and seek to mobilise for something more transformative. The critical niches perspective sees politics in much more antagonistic terms. It insists upon issues side-lined by the power relations in CE niche advocacy and the exigencies of strategic development. CE projects that are a poor fit or unworkable under current energy regimes can orchestrate debate about restructured energy regimes under which the same projects are very sensible.”(p. 427-8)

 

“Practitioners and intermediaries are aware of critical issues. However, they also rely on opportunities provided by energy regimes: funding mechanisms effectively frame and shape CE initiatives. This raises important methodological implications. Had we limited research to a single perspective and method, such as a survey of SNM processes, we would not have picked up the more guarded critical voices. Working between perspectives with multiple methods meant, for example, that critical issues identified during participant observation at an event, could be pursued in one of our workshops, and become a question in interviews. Multiple methods enabled us to return to developments through different analytical perspectives and, especially for critical niches, notice evidence marginal in many toolkits and intermediary support, and absent in the DECC Strategy.” (p. 429)

 

Marc’s two cents: Another corking article. Shows some of the mechanisms by which the system (“man”) sustains itself. Somebody waves a cheque book or offers a pat on the head and bish bosh, the radicals become willing fig leaves. Big wheel keep on turning…

Should you read this?

Hell yes

 

 

Gupta AK, Sinha R, Koradia D, et al. (2003) Mobilizing grassroots’ technological innovations and traditional knowledge, values and institutions: Articulating social and ethical capital. Futures 35(9): 975–987.

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