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.

Looting the Ivory Tower: “Building a middle-range theory of Transformative Social Innovation; theoretical pitfalls and methodological responses”

The title:   Building a middle-range theory of Transformative Social Innovation; theoretical pitfalls and methodological responses. 

The authors: Haxeltine, A., Pel, B., Wittmayer, J., Dumitru, A., Kemp, R., & Avelino, F.

The journal: European Public & Social Innovation Review, 2(1), 59-77.

The DOI: https://doi.org/10.31637/epsir.17-1.5

The abstract:

This paper argues that there is currently a need for new theory on transformative social innovation that is able to provide empowering insights to practice, especially in terms of how social innovation interacts with transformative change processes. It identifies three ‘pitfalls’ that such theory-building needs to confront, and presents middle-range theory development, together with a focus on social relations and the processes of social innovation, as three elements of a theory-building strategy that responds to these pitfalls. In describing the implementation of this strategy in successive iterations between empirical case study research and integrative analysis, critical reflections are drawn on each of the three elements of the theory-building strategy. Taken together, these reflections underline the importance of maintaining a reflexive approach in developing new knowledge and theory on new social innovation.

In plain English/tl:dr:  It is too easy to get (self)hypnotised by shiny new ideas or organisations, especially when words like transformative, social and innovation invite you to do so. So, how to do it theory-building well? Don’t rely on single cases, think hard and test and don’t let what you want to be to blind you to what is. Also , a no heroes policy is good…

Key concepts:  

This is a rich and wise article,

They admit that this is tricky…

The resulting pitfalls (presented below) thus synthesize earlier discussions on SI theory development, and distil what we see as currently the most important issues of concern:

  1. Developing explanations of social innovation based on single cases, or small sets of cases, resulting in a tendency to focus on the empirical detail of single cases, and ignore, or even resist, attempts towards the systematic generalisation of insights and explanations.
  2. Making unsubstantiated normative assumptions about social innovation. Normative formulations of SI that frame the purpose and outcomes of SI in unsubstantiated ways that neglect the complexity and diversity of real-world SI processes.
  3. Reifying the agency of social innovation actors. Making overly simplistic assumptions about their ability to cause change in the world, rather than acknowledging the complexity of how their actions interact with, and can be shaped by, wider change processes.

If you let your normative commitments (which you may or may not be able to see) takeover, you are falling into traps..

Whether misplaced normativities take the form of neo-Marxist formulations of SI (Moulaert, 2016) or neo-liberal formulations of SI (see Jessop et al. 2013 for a critical account) both are ‘traps’ in terms of producing new scientific knowledge. Crucially, they do not adequately reflect the often paradoxical ambiguities, dilemmas, and contestations observed in real-world SI processes.


The pitfall of reifying the agency of social innovation actors

This pitfall concerns reification of SI initiatives and their ability to directly cause change in the world, rather than acknowledging the often messy, dispersed, and complex patterns by which strategic actions shape, and are shaped by, broader change processes. Such ‘agentic bias’, often accompanying the researcher’s engagement with situated struggles of SI initiatives, sits uncomfortably with social-theoretical insights on social transformation (Lévesque, 2013; 2016). It downplays the messy and distributed nature of political life, and the complexity that arises from the interaction between SI initiatives’ actions and the wider change processes that they are involved in.


… we maintained the reflexive awareness that SI, as a fundamentally dispersed phenomenon, is not easily attributed to distinct entities and mechanisms (such as selection, variation, retention). This tension between system-evolutionary explanations and relational description (cf. Geels 2007; Garud & Gehmann, 2012) emerged as an important backdrop to our theory development. Theorizing and empirically exploring all key concepts in relational terms, we arrived at quite open and relational categories and research questions in our case research guidelines, such as e.g. the ‘game-changing developments’ (rather than landscape), or the ‘dominant institutions’ (rather than regime).


Marc’s two cents: good stuff….

Should you read this?

Hell yes


Looting the Ivory Tower: “Co-producing urban sustainability transitions knowledge with community, policy and science”

This one is another good’un, albeit perhaps not entirely plausible in its ‘how to solve the problems identified’…

The title: Co-producing urban sustainability transitions knowledge with community, policy and science

The authors: Niki Frantzeskakia Ania Rok

The journal: Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions Volume 29, December 2018, Pages 47-51

The DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eist.2018.08.001

The abstract:

This viewpoint presents insights on designing, engaging with and researching multi-stakeholder engagement spaces based on the experience of the ARTS project (2014–2016), active in five European cities also relevant for a broader European scale. We argue that those spaces represent an important new instrument of participatory governance that can elucidate the way different actors like community initiatives relate to and employ planning and policy contexts for working towards sustainable urban futures. The multi-stakeholder engagement spaces are analyzed regarding three functions they fulfill: co-creating new knowledge for action, making sense of contemporary transitions, and, exploring how sustainable solutions impact transitions. The lessons learned focus on the roles of different actors within those spaces as well as the link between the multi-stakeholder engagement spaces and a broader local context. We name three caveats including deeply entrenched mistrust between local transition initiatives and local government representatives, existing power imbalances and inclusivity.


In plain English/tl:dr: A couple of academics, having been involved in studying a bunch of transitions initiatives in five European cities, explain some of the jargon (very usefully), highlight some of the dangers and also point to some of the dangers/problems (spoiler: am unconvinced that their solution is a solution).

Key concepts:  Local transition initiatives, multi-stakeholder engagement spaces (and I thought LPP was a mouthful?!)

The first-

Local transition initiatives are actor collectives led by civil society, business entrepreneurs and partnerships of those that actively work on sustainability solutions in their local context and contribute in accelerating urban sustainability transitions (Ehnert et al., 2018).

The second –

Multi-stakeholder engagement spaces are institutional spaces in which multiple actors convene to allow exchange of ideas, dialogue on issues and solutions and interactions concerning targeted problems and their proposed solutions. We identify three functions for designing, engaging with and researching multi-stakeholder engagement spaces: co-creating new knowledge for sustainable solutions, making sense of contemporary transitions, and, exploring how sustainable solutions operate and impact transition dynamics in the making. Multi-stakeholder spaces enable participants to co-produce new knowledge to advance urban sustainability transitions. Most of the literature on public participation focused on the methods to engage stakeholders for legitimizing plans and policy implementation, with their use often mandated by legal requirements. Participation was often criticized as characterized by tokenism.

Then let’s scoot down to the fourth of five lessons learnt-

Fourth, the complexity of urban sustainability transitions requires reaching out to diverse stakeholders, bridging existing communities and networks. This process can be time-consuming and at times frustrating, for both participants and facilitators. Used to talking to people who speak the same language, have similar ways of working or share similar concerns, people fear leaving their comfort zones and need time to find a common ground with others. Working in these co-production spaces, we observed that a new sense of shared purpose and social ties were created between people previously working in parallel. This further showcases that creating new partnerships is instrumental to making an impact in sustainability transitions (Frantzeskaki et al., 2014) and it supports democratization of knowledge on sustainability solutions that is paramount for those solutions to be legitimized and widely accepted (Carton and Ache, 2017).

Well, yes, but who has the capacity to sustain that new sense of shared purpose? And who gets to reshape it to their own ends? (they kind of flag that in the second and third caveats)

Second of three caveats

4.2. Peeling off local transition initiatives for the sake of ‘research’ and political agendas?

Local transition initiatives (especially those led by civil society) are important for empowering local actors “to participate in policy making” (Vignola et al., 2009, p.695) and for sharing their knowledge on how to make and scale sustainability solutions. When scientists and/or local policy makers discover impactful local transition initiatives, they often invite them in different fora and promote them as ‘iconic projects’ that showcase possibilities for contributing to urban sustainability agendas. With their limited resources and sometimes unbalanced exposure and demands, local transition initiatives become vulnerable and peeled off in serving different agendas (Frantzeskaki et al., 2016). For this to be alleviated, a new form of commitment is needed both by local governments and by local transition initiatives to respect the autonomy of local transition initiatives in having their agenda and (social) mission and be considered as ‘associates’ in specific topics or activities (Voorberg et al., 2014). Both policy makers and researchers should respect time, effort and resources local transition initiatives can and may contribute and seek ways to compensate and/or acknowledge them. (emphasis added)

HOW?  What would that LOOK like?? With which individuals and organisations would which academics have to work with, how and for how long to show respect, to compensate?  How would that be measured so it could be funded?


And as they ask “open and inclusive to whom?”

It remains to be explored how to further engage with community actors and local transition initiatives that were not as established nor as impactful yet as those we selected to engage with. At the same time, it was a challenge on how much effort and time researchers could claim from stakeholders for carrying out this new mode of knowledge co-production that requires intense and continuous interactions with multiple stakeholders. The issue voiced early on was about the power relations between researchers versus the ‘other’ stakeholders since researchers’ time was paid for whereas the ‘other’ stakeholders – especially local transition initiatives – were requested to invest their personal time, or, volunteer their professional time. This makes such processes limited in scope since only a certain type of stakeholders can volunteer their time and access personal and ‘organisational’ learning from such engagement processes. 

 If the multi-stakeholder engagement spaces fulfill their promise of equipping its participants with new knowledge for action and better understanding of transition dynamics, they will be able to continue without the protection of science and will find their own ways to influence a broader local context.

Hmm, I could be wrong, but this seems to betray a naive faith in the Magical Power of Knowledge (MPK)  to overcome baked in class-race-time issues (alluded to earlier).  You can’t magic away those barriers, much as you’d like to. I would be very staggered indeed if the authors didn’t already know that very well, of course…

Marc’s two cents: Defo worth reading – alive to the intricacies and messinesses in the “Quadruple Helix” (no, seriously, there’s an article with that in the title on my reading list – #livingthedream)

Should you read this?

Hell yes


Looting the Ivory Tower: “Acceleration of Urban Sustainability Transitions:A Comparison of Brighton, Budapest, Dresden, Genk, and Stockholm”

Heaps of good stuff – conceptually, methodologically, empirically, in here.  Useful for mice who want to bell the cat (though the article itself doesn’t suggest a particular way/particular ways).

The title: The Acceleration of Urban Sustainability Transitions:A Comparison of Brighton, Budapest, Dresden, Genk, and Stockholm

The authors: Franziska Ehnert, Niki Frantzeskaki , Jake Barnes, Sara Borgström , Leen Gorissen , Florian Kern , Logan Strenchock  and Markus Egerman

The journal: Sustainability

The DOI: doi:10.3390/su10030612

The abstract:

City-regions as sites of sustainability transitions have remained under-explored so far. With our comparative analysis of five diverse European city-regions, we offer new insights on contemporary sustainability transitions at the urban level. In a similar vein, the pre-development and the take-off phase of sustainability transitions have been studied in depth while the acceleration phase remains a research gap. We address this research gap by exploring how transitions can move beyond the seeding of alternative experiments and the activation of civil society initiatives. This raises the question of what commonalities and differences can be found between urban sustainability transitions. In our explorative study, we employ a newly developed framework of the acceleration mechanisms of sustainability transitions. We offer new insights on the multi-phase model of sustainability transitions. Our findings illustrate that there are no clear demarcations between the phases of transitions. From the perspective of city-regions, we rather found dynamics of acceleration, deceleration, and stagnation to unfold in parallel. We observed several transitions—transitions towards both sustainability and un-sustainability—to co-evolve. This suggests that the politics of persistence—the inertia and path dependencies of un-sustainability—should be considered in the study of urban sustainability transitions.

In plain English/tl:dr: 

“Everyone” wants to see a ‘take-off’ of sustainability projects (to use the outdated Rostow language). But we looked at a bunch of European cities and the truth is both messier and uglier. Turns out many cities have foot on brake at the same time they have foot on accelerator, and there’s lots of – in the words of Mr M. Loaf “going nowhere fast.

Also,  useful cross-country comparisons


Key concepts:  acceleration, acceleration mechanisms, messiness

Marc’s two cents

This one is worth a re-read or two.  Lots of data collection and careful thinking about what acceleration would MEAN, how it could be done, how it could go dreadfully wrong.  Ties in with the whole diffusion of strategic niche “successes” thing…

“These initiatives start to create new social networks and synergies, develop new narratives on the future of cities and become relevant actors in urban governance arenas [1,2]. These are dynamics that seem to differ from the earlier phases of sustainability transitions, which are focused on nurturing innovations in protected spaces. This raises the question if and how urban societies already move beyond the seeding of alternative experiments and the activation of community initiatives for sustainability action…. It is, therefore, important to examine local agents of change such as community initiatives and learn how sustainability in practice is further diffused and integrated into the life of cities [3,4]. So far, there is a limited understanding of the processes through which the innovations introduced by such transition initiatives (henceforth TIs) are taken up or transferred beyond the community that created, facilitated, and nurtured them.”

Our research addresses this theoretical gap and offers a new perspective on the understanding of the context-led and agency-led conditions that enable or hinder the acceleration of sustainability transition in city-regions. We do so based on in-depth empirical case studies and a cross-case comparative analysis of five European city-regions. In comparing the acceleration of sustainability transitions in five city-regions, we explore the following research questions:

  1. What are the conditions that enable and hinder the acceleration of sustainability transitions in cities from the perspective of local transition initiatives?

  2. What are the commonalities and differences between the dynamics in which the acceleration mechanisms unfold in the city-regions?


Upscaling is the growth of members, supporters, or users of a single transition initiative to spread new ways of thinking, organizing, and practicing

Replicating is the take-up of new ways of DTO of one transition initiative by another transition initiative or different actors to spread these alternative ways. Replicating is recognized as a process that changes the pace of change in diffusing and spreading innovative practices through interested and supportive actor-networks

Partnering is the pooling and/or complementing of resources, competences, and capacities of local TIs to exploit synergies to support and ensure the continuity of the new ways of doing, organizing, and thinking.

Instrumentalizing is tapping into and capitalizing on opportunities provided by the multi-level governance context of the city-region to obtain resources. Instrumentalizing is about capitalizing on opportunities and relies on the openness to change and transparent governance situations for taking place [1,30–32] and refers to moving from mission to action for sustainability transitions

Embedding is the alignment of old and new ways of doing, organizing, and thinking to integrate them into city-regional governance patterns. Embedding captures the connecting of issues and solutions to institutions as a way to spread and formalize new ways of doing, thinking, and organizing [15,19,24,35–38] and the extent to which local TIs strategically shape local governance dynamics

and later in the article –

“Embedding was observed in multiple forms: (1) embedding new ways of doing (i.e., practice), (2) embedding new ways of thinking (i.e., culture) and (3) embedding new ways of organizing (i.e., structure). Embedding occurred via the routinization and institutionalization of sustainable alternatives. The dynamics of embedding encompassed governmental institutions, economic enterprises, as well as community initiatives.” (p15)


These mechanisms operate not only separately, but can also reinforce each other to accelerate urban sustainability transitions. The proposed acceleration mechanisms are to be tested, validated, and improved through the comparison of the dynamics of sustainability transitions in five diverse city-regions

And the methodology

These interviews were complemented by workshops with all interviewees to discuss, validate and enrich our empirical findings.p 7

For our analyses, we recorded, transcribed and coded the interviews [52]. Our coding scheme included categories for the acceleration mechanisms upscaling, replicating, partnering, instrumentalizing and embedding, as well as the local governance patterns within the city-regions. Examining the empirical data, we foregrounded the obstacles and opportunities that arise from the varying settings within the city-regions. Page 8

The upscaling and continued existence of TIs often relied on a few individual enthusiasts who acted as mediators, networkers, and translators between different actors. A withdrawal of these mediators, networkers and translators often causes a TI to lose its drive, to change direction in unwelcome ways or to cease to exist entirely. This makes TIs quite fragile and vulnerable. 

And the various ways it can (will) go tits up…

Upscaling was confronted with the tension of the limits of growth. While replicating other TIs was a vital source of inspiration, it required the contextualization of the TIs to be attuned to local conditions. Partnering was accompanied by the tension between cooperation and the preservation of the core values of the TIs. This held especially if the TIs partnering spoke different languages and represented different world views. Partnering could lead to imbalances in the relationship between the TIs, especially if the burden of cooperation was distributed unequally among the partners. Instrumentalizing created a tension between the reliance on external resources and the protection of the autonomy of the TIs as it provided political leverage for donors to influence the TIs. Such capture of TIs by external donors can undermine their core values [56,57]. Embedding can develop a dynamic of “stretch-and-transform” or “fit-and-conform” [14,77]. While the former can fundamentally transform entrenched, unsustainable ways of DTO, the latter can diminish the innovative potential of TIs. It can rather be turned into a traditional policy implementation approach.These tensions suggest that more is not automatically better. What matters is the quality of how an acceleration mechanism evolves. Therefore, we propose a more nuanced understanding of these mechanisms of acceleration, entailing not only chances, but also challenges. Page 19

Should you read this?

Hell yes


Looting the Ivory Tower: “Energy democracy as the right to the city: Urban energy struggles in Berlin and London”

The title: Energy democracy as the right to the city: Urban energy struggles in Berlin and London

The authors: Soren Becker, James Angel, Matthias Naumann

The journal: EPA: Economy and Space

The DOI: DOI: 10.1177/0308518X19881164

The abstract:

In this paper, we argue that it is generative to link struggles around access to, control over, and the transformation of urban energy systems to the imaginary of the right to the city; and we explore the conceptual, empirical and political contributions of this connection. Our paper starts with two main questions: (1) what do we learn from reading attempts to reclaim urban energy systems from a right to the city perspective? (2)What can this analysis add to debates around the right to the city? We make two main arguments from our empirical engagements with initiatives seeking to remunicipalise urban energy systems in Berlin and London, each of which is premised upon calls for more just, democratic and ecologically sustainable forms of energy supply. First, we argue that these struggles need to transcend concerns around energy infrastructure to raise broader questions around the democratisation of urban space. Second, we contend that appropriating long-lasting urban infrastructure requires the creation of new and durable forms of democratic institutions, providing insights into the notion of self-management (autogestion) beyond more spontaneous and fleeting forms of protest and uprising addressed in much of right to the city literature. Overall, the paper hopes to put the question of autogestion and related strategies at the centre of conversations around right to the city moving forward.

In plain English/tl:dr: “So this “right to the city” notion goes back to 1968, alongside ‘autogestion’ which aligns more to ‘workers’/public control’ than to ‘nationalisation’. Meanwhile, energy democracy comes from the climate justice movement, more recently. How does all this play out when we look at Berliners and Londoners trying to make their energy provision systems less crap? We’re the first people to put all these concepts together, and we did loads of fieldwork – interviews, participation”

Key concepts:  right to the city, autogestion, energy democracy

Marc’s two cents: This is a good article. At the end they write

What is needed is a narrative about alternative imaginaries of social organisation in-against-and-beyond the state (Angel, 2017; Cumbers, 2015), and a strategic approach based on an analysis of promising anchor points for such an endeavour. This also implies not rejecting the local scale as the legitimate and feasible entry point for political projects for transforming wider social and technological systems; but surely while linking local issues to broader scale processes and not constraining action or thinking to a mystified local level.

Hmmmm, alternatively you could say what is needed is a hard look at what skills, knowledge, relationships, organisations and institutions would be needed to arrive at meaningful autogestion, and what (overlapping but distinct) skroi would be needed to sustain meaningful autogestion, to protect it from the usual depredations of the Animal Farm piggies.

But useful for thinking about social innovation (the creation of new organisations/institutions) and energy transitions, so, I’m happy.


Thus far, energy research and critical urban theory mostly appear as distinct fields (for an exception see Silver, 2015). Yet we believe that flourishing debates on energy justice (Jenkins et al., 2016; Sovacool and Dworkin, 2015) and, in particular, energy democracy (Becker and Naumann, 2017; Hess, 2018; van Veelen and van der Horst, 2018) could benefit from a stronger grounding in debates around the production of urban space more broadly; and, equally, that debates around the right to the city might be developed further through engagements with urban energy contestations. Our paper starts with two main questions: (1) what do we learn from reading attempts to reclaim urban energy systems from a RTC perspective? (2) What can this analysis add to debates around the right to the city?

Anthropologist Dominic Boyer (2014: 325), for example, targets the ‘genealogy of modern power . . . through the twin analytics of energy and fuel’ as linked with historic processes of state formation, expert rule and different biopolitical regimes.

“Others have stressed the deep entanglement between state power, industrial capital and imaginaries of technological progress necessary to develop and run nuclear energy (Jasanoff and Kim, 2009).”

“The notion of energy democracy originated in the German climate justice movement around 2012, and has since gained international recognition in activist contexts as well as in academic debate across human geography, sociology and other social sciences (Becker and Naumann, 2017; Hess, 2018; van Veelen and van der Horst, 2018). The term has since been taken on by a broad range of activist networks, trade unions and left-wing political parties, largely but not exclusively in Europe and the USA. The concept is framed loosely, incorporating an array of diverse political perspectives, from anti-capitalist de-growth claims towards more Keynesian arguments for green jobs (Angel, 2016). Broadly speaking, proponents of the term tend to advocate energy systems that are ecologically sustainable, socially just and democratically controlled.” Page 6

“Our analysis in this paper relies on intensive fieldwork by the authors undertaken in both cities from 2013 to 2017, which was updated consequently thereafter. Research methods involved interviews with key stakeholders in both urban administration and citizen initiatives for public energy ownership (a total of 19 in Berlin, and 13 in London), as well as participant observations at meetings, events and protests. This was complemented by a comprehensive media analysis continued until today.”

“Democratised municipal energy utilities, as demanded in Berlin and London, could become part of ‘the creation of a new urban common, a public sphere of active democratic participation’ (Harvey, 2003: 941). If the right to the city can work as a ‘“wakeup call” for democratic forces to endorse participation, challenge existing inequalities and injustice, and seek to repair the city’ (Rosen and Shlay, 2014: 949) energy democracy can do just this for transforming an energy sector still characterised by a rigid melange of state and economic power producing an array of social and ecological problems.


References worth tracking down (I am still in the kidding myself phase)

Angelo H and Wachsmuth D (2015) Urbanizing urban political ecology: A critique of methodological cityism. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 39(1): 16–27.

Becker S and Naumann M (2017) Energy democracy: Mapping the debate on energy alternatives. Geography Compass 11(8): e12321.

Belda-Miquel S, Blanes J and Frediani A (2016) Institutionalization and depoliticization of the Right to the City: Changing scenarios for radical social movements. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40(2): 321–339.

Boyer D (2014) Energopower: An introduction. Anthropological Quarterly 87(2): 309–333.

Creamer E, Eadson W, van Veelen B, et al. (2018) Community energy: Entanglements of community, state, and private sector. Geography Compass 12(7): e12378.

Cumbers A (2015) Constructing a global commons in, against and beyond the state. Space and Polity 19(1): 62–75.


Hall S, Foxon T and Bolton R (2016) Financing the civic energy sector: How financial institutions affect ownership models in Germany and the United Kingdom. Energy Research & Social Science 12: 5–15.


Jasanoff S and Kim SH (2009) Containing the atom: Sociotechnical imaginaries and nuclear power in the United States and South Korea. Minerva 47(2): 119–146.

Kipfer S (2018) Pushing the limits of urban research: Urbanization, pipelines and counter-colonial politics. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 36(3): 474–493.


Paul F (2018) Deep entanglements: History, space and (energy) struggle in the German Energiewende. Geoforum 91: 1–9.

van Veelen B and van der Horst D (2018) What is energy democracy? Connecting social science energy research and political theory. Energy Research & Social Science 46: 19–28.


Should you read this?


Hell yesProbably, yup


Looting the Ivory Tower – “Unpacking the social #innovation ecosystem”

Some of my favourite words in the title of an academic article – ecosystem, constellations, typology – squee!! (yes, I know, I should get out more).

And, thank goodness, it lived up to expectations. They take their big database of social innovation networks, with lots of specific projects, and they bash the database against some theory, pick up all the pieces – especially the ones that don’t fit – and make something rich and strange (that’s an allusion , btw).

And it’s, gasp, useful – the five ideal-type ecosystems are good to think with, I think.  Of course, there’s all sorts of questions – as the authors themselves admit – to be answered. (how) do the ecosystems change over time. Whats the succession? Are there keystone species? What happens if there’s a shift in the climatological conditions?  What if someone goes fishing in the fishpond with dynamite? What if the badgers move the goalposts? Yes, you can push the metaphor further than they have here, without breaking anything.  Anna Tsing should be locked in a room with mushroom risotto slid under the door in exchange for completed chapters of a book about this stuff, basically.


The title: Unpacking the social innovation ecosystem: an empirically grounded typology of empowering network constellations

The authors: Bonno Pel, Julia Wittmayer, Jens Dorland & Michael Søgaard Jørgensen

The journal: Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research,

The DOI: DOI: 10.1080/13511610.2019.1705147

The abstract:

Social innovation is on the rise as a mode of governance through which to address societal challenges. Seeking to empower SI initiatives, researchers and policy makers are concerned with the development of supportive “ecosystems”. This concept usefully calls attention to the distributed nature of SI agency, but many questions remain on the kinds of network constellations involved. This contribution unpacks the “SI ecosystems” concept, specifying how the empowerment afforded through SI networks rests on (1) local embedding, (2) transnational connectivity and (3) discursive resonance. Charting the variety of network constellations as studied in an international comparison of 20 transnational SI networks, a typology of SI ecosystems is constructed. Distinguishing five SI ecosystem ideal-types ranging from loosely integrated and locally focused co-creation hubs to globally connected and widely resonating political movements, the typology informs a differentiated approach to their understanding and development.

Keywords: social innovation; innovation ecosystems; networks; co-production; typology

In plain English/tl:dr: 

Academics trawl through studies on social innovation [one of the big sexy buzzterms du jour] and try to get beyond the general hand-waving and halo-effect of labelling a particular field as an “ecosystem”, to answer specific questions – 

  • What actors, networks and processes does the “SI ecosystems” concept empirically refer to? 
  • Which kinds of SI ecosystems can be distinguished and how do they empower the SI initiatives embedded in them?

[I’d add disempowering, but I never met a situation where I didn’t want to talk about disempowerment… ]

They come up with five “ideal type” ecosystems to think with. There is a lot more work to be done ,but this paper is a bloody good start.

Why ecosystems? Because it takes us away from individual/heroic actors…

Instead of reducing the SI ecosystems to supportive structures for certain innovation heroes, Howaldt, Kaletka, and Schröder (2017a) and Kaletka, Markmann, and Pelka (2017) argue that ecosystems are populated with a multitude of actors and organizations that co-shape social innovations. In order to develop such non-reductionist understanding, they argue the need to move beyond emblematic empirical examples of what “SI ecosystems” mean and comprise – observing instead, in comparative fashion, how SI ecosystems come in a broad miscellany of forms.


soc innov ecosystem

Key concepts:  Social innovation ecosystems – and different “ideal types” – coral reefs, badger setts, fishponds etc.

“four empowerment processes of legitimacy (alignment with local needs), critical mass (for which vicinity is important), provision of accommodation and material resources, and institutional anchorage”


“Constituting the most salient combinations of “local embeddedness”, “transnational connectivity” and “discursive resonance”, their pertinence arguably extends beyond the sample of cases by which they were empirically informed. Beyond their similarity to certain exemplar cases, the empirical adequacy of these constructs speaks from the recognizable sets of attributes (actors, network constellations and empowerment processes Cf. section 2.3) that constitute them. In order to highlight how the ideal-typical SI ecosystems indicate essentially different kinds of empowering network structures, they have been distinguished through evocative metaphorical names.

Type A: The “coral reef”. This rich and extended kind of ecosystem provides strong empowerment across all three dimensions of empowering network constellations. Combining strong local roots with a wider translocal identity, political voice and a favorable discursive sphere, these SI ecosystems combine a multitude of the associated twelve (Cf. Figure 1) empowerment processes into a network structure that is particularly supportive to local SI initiatives aiming for broad transformative impacts…..

Type B: The “badger castle”. This second type represents the opposite end of the spectrum, indicating rather secluded habitats. These SI ecosystems provide relatively little empowerment across the three dimensions. This partly reflects the institutional voids that have some SI initiatives struggling for resources and supportive alliances. On the other hand, this category of ecosystems also comprises the sparse, loose networks actively sought for by initiatives cherishing independence, flexibility, and diversity, which also deliberately seek out or build secluded spaces….

Type C: The “Fish pond”. This type of SI ecosystem empowers primarily through strong local embedding, and significantly less so through translocal connectivity (transgressing the edges of the “pond”). Discursive resonance can be either weak or strong. The key empowerment processes are legitimacy, locally developed critical mass, provision of accommodation and material resources, and institutional anchorage. These ecosystems are typically sought for by local SI initiatives for the affordance of material support and immediate means for sustained operation. The network formation is characterized by physical proximity. Key actors are the local governments, civil society organizations, NGOs, citizens, students and entrepreneurs that form local communities….

Type D: The “Fungi strand”. This fourth category of SI ecosystems is characterized by its high empowerment through translocal connectivity (i.e. the subterranean extensions of fungi strands), and relatively low empowerment through local embedding. Empowerment is mainly afforded through translocal critical mass, collective voice and identity, and facilitation of knowledge sharing. Typically involving well-developed network organizations that seek to boost the circulation of organizational models, practices, framings and codified knowledge, these ecosystems tend to involve relatively high levels of discursive resonance. Driven generally by political rationales of organizing collective action and moving beyond dispersed and locally confined action, various policy entrepreneurs, intermediaries, internationally operating professionals, large NGOs and academics can be seen to act as key agents in this translocal linkage…

Type E: “Seeds flight”. This fifth type of SI ecosystem empowers primarily through the communicative sphere around socially innovative concepts – which can be thought of as seeds flight, carried by the winds of society. This fifth type of ecosystem differs from the “coral reef” and the “fungi strand” types for the pivotal significance of “discursive resonance” and the relatively negligible role of local embedding and translocal networking. This discursive resonance involves the authoritative actors and organizations that lead in discourse formation, but also the communication infrastructures through which organizational models, practice formats, fashionable framings and codifying knowledge are mediated and spread…


Marc’s two cents

See above- I couldn’t contain myself to wait until here in the blog post to gush!

Should you read this?

Hell yes – but you may find it heavy going if you’re not an academic.


References worth closer attention

Aiken, G. T. 2019. “Community as Tool for Low Carbon Transitions: Involvement and Containment, Policy and Action.” Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space 37: 732–749. doi:10.1177/2399654418791579.

Amanatidou, E., D. Cox, and D. Gagliardi. 2018. “Social Engagement: Towards a Typology of Social Innovation.” In MIOIR/MBS Working Paper Series-Working Paper 82

Avelino, F., J. M. Wittmayer, B. Pel, P. Weaver, A. Dumitru, A. Haxeltine, R. Kemp, et al. 2019. “Transformative Social Innovation and (Dis)Empowerment: Towards a Heuristic.” Technological Forecasting and Social Change 145: 195–206. doi:10.1016/j.techfore.2017.05.002.

Biggeri, M., E. Testi, and M. Bellucci. 2017. “Enabling Ecosystems for Social Enterprises and Social Innovation: A Capability Approach Perspective.” Journal of Human Development and Capabilities 18 (2): 299–306.

Kaletka, C., M. Markmann, and B. Pelka. 2017. “Peeling the Onion. An Exploration of the Layers of Social Innovation Ecosystems. Modelling a Context Sensitive Perspective on Driving and Hindering Factors for Social Innovation.” European Public & Social Innovation Review 1 (2). doi:10.31637/epsir.16-2.3.

Ziegler, R. 2017. “Social Innovation as a Collaborative Concept.” Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research 30 (4): 388–405


Mental note to self – use this for thinking about how to diffuse “Active Citizenship Toolkit” – how much local embedding, translocal stuff etc.  Tbh, want to get it trialled and USED in Manchester before making a big song and dance about it…

Academic article on social tipping dynamics – or “Oh for cockpity’s sake…”

Ignore my snark later on – this is a good article, that you should take the time to read.  Crucially though, understand that the authors – like most academics – are addicted to trying to play what Haraway calls “the God Trick” and has also been called “cockpitism“.  To be expected, I guess, since the authors have hundreds of years between them of making detailed warnings to policymakers who… ignore them. Those authors know the depth of the shit we are in, and in order to cope with their fear, double down on being able to “see” and “advise.”

Also though – STIs?  Really? Was there not a better acronym, especially when you’re talking about things being contagious? (and yes, I will go again with that joke my wife mysteriously does not like: “What’s the difference between true love and herpes?”  Answer – herpes lasts forever.”)

The title: Social tipping dynamics for stabilizing Earth’s climate by 2050

The authors: Ilona M. Ottoa,1,2, Jonathan F. Dongesa,b,1,2, Roger Cremadesc, Avit Bhowmikb,d, Richard J. Hewitte,f, Wolfgang Luchta,g,h, Johan Rockströma,b, Franziska Allerbergera,i, Mark McCaffreyj, Sylvanus S. P. Doek, Alex Lenfernal, Nerea Moránm,n, Detlef P. van Vuureno,p, and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber

The journal: PNAS

The DOI: http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1900577117

The abstract:

Safely achieving the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement requires a worldwide transformation to carbon-neutral societies within the next 30 y. Accelerated technological progress and policy implementations are required to deliver emissions reductions at rates sufficiently fast to avoid crossing dangerous tipping points in the Earth’s climate system. Here,we discuss and evaluate the potential of social tipping interventions (STIs) that can activate contagious processes of rapidly spreading technologies, behaviors, social norms, and structural reorganization within their functional domains that we refer to as social tipping elements (STEs). STEs are subdomains of the planetary socioeconomic system where the required disruptive change may take place and lead to a sufficiently fast reduction in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The results are based on online expert  elicitation, a subsequent expert workshop, and a literature review. The STIs that could trigger the tipping of STE subsystems include 1) removing fossil-fuel subsidies and incentivizing decentralized energy generation (STE1, energy production and storage systems), 2) building carbon-neutral cities (STE2, human settlements), 3) divesting from assets linked to fossil fuels (STE3, financial markets), 4) revealing the moral implications of fossil fuels (STE4, norms and value systems), 5) strengthening climate education and engagement (STE5, education system), and 6) disclosing information on greenhouse gas emissions (STE6, information feedbacks). Our research reveals important areas of focus for larger-scale empirical and modeling efforts to better understand the potentials of harnessing social tipping dynamics for climate change mitigation.

In plain English/tl:dr: We asked  a bunch of our academic mates who work on this stuff what it would take to stop us from continuing on the same tragic trajectory to dystopian hellholeness.  They came up with a bunch of “tipping points” and feedbacks.

(But nobody really said who was gonna bell the bloody cat)

Key concepts:  Social tipping points/elements/dynamics/interventions.

“In this paper, we examine a number of potential “social tipping elements” (STEs) for decarbonization (27, 28) that represent specific subdomains of the planetary social-economic system. Tipping of these subsystems could be triggered by “social tipping interventions” (STIs) that could contribute to rapid transition of the world system into a state of net zero anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The results reported in this study are based on an online expert survey, an expert workshop, and an extensive literature review”

Fine. You asked a bunch of your cockpitty mates. And cat-bellers? How many of them did you ask?

The social tipping dynamics of interest for this study are typically manifested as spreading processes in complex social networks (35, 36) of behaviors, opinions, knowledge, technologies, and social norms (37, 38), including spreading processes of structural change and reorganization (34). These spreading processes resemble contagious dynamics observed in epidemiology that spread through social networks (39). Once triggered, such processes can be irreversible and difficult to stop. Similar contagious dynamics have been observed in human behavior (35, 36), for example in assaultive violence (39), participation in social movements (40), or health-related behaviors and traits (36), such as smoking or obesity (41, 42).

btw, (40) is  P. Hedström, Contagious collectivities: On the spatial diffusion of Swedish trade unions, 1890–1940. Am. J. Sociol. 99, 1157–1179 (1994).

BUT  some useful for my immediate purposes stuff on energy –

STIs in the energy production system. The technological development in the energy production system is a dominant element of the decarbonization discussions in international institutions (55, 56) and business partnerships (57). The results of our expert elicitation confirm that technology development is likely to play a key role, however, not in the sense of yet-to-be invented technological solutions, but rather in the adaptation of existing carbon-free technology primarily in the power sector and by facilitating a smarter utilization of energy. The main control parameter that drives the adaptation of fossil-fuel–free energy technology is associated with the financial returns of its adoption (58). Our expert group believed that the critical condition needed to trigger the tipping process is the moment when fossil-fuel–free energy production yields higher financial returns than the energy production based on fossil fuels. The empirical data show that this critical threshold is about to be reached; the prices of renewables have dropped sharply in the last few years, and they have already become the cheapest source of energy in many world regions. The average cost of onshore wind dropped by 18%, and offshore wind fell by 28% (59).

TYPICAL BLOODY ECONOMISTS.  BELIEVING THAT CONSUMERS, OR INVESTORS, ARE “RATIONAL” and that there is not an enormous issue around social acceptance of (energy) technologies.  Plug anxiety etc etc Sigh. But this is useful –

2050 tipping points

Finally, the urgency and complex character of climate change require transdisciplinarity and engagement with social movements, knowledge brokers, and change leaders (151). More research is needed on understanding the required social processes and the drivers and incentives for short-term engagement of diverse coalitions of action around concrete solutions and strategies at various governance levels (152).

Indeed.  But how? And to what effect?  In what languages (I don’t mean English or German).  As a dialogue? Who facilitates? For how long? With what ‘outcomes’? Who is not in the room? Whose intellectual labour will get looted (probably the women of colour, if history is any guide).


Marc’s two cents

They almost lost me in the second sentence – “It is also an indispensable prerequisite for achieving sustainable development.”  That, my friends, is a tautology – show me a dispensable prerequisite. And why two words with so many syllables right next to each other? What are you trying to prove, and to who?

But, yes, we need the big picture thinking.

2050 tipping points pretty picture

But we also need much better answers to the “how will civil society get up on its hind-legs and STAY ON ITS HINDLEGS when the tear gas disperses and the neo-liberal think tanks move back in…?”


Should you read this?

Hell yes

Probably, yup – but with your ‘academics are waffling’ sensors set to kill.


Probably not

Defo not (unlikely to publish a review)


And on cat belling

Tribal barriers to cat belling


Economists, the post-coronavirus world and that cat in need of belling


The 4Cs- coronavirus, capitalism, climate and cats (belling of)


Academic article: “Between innovation and restoration; towards a critical-historicizing understanding of social innovation niches”

So, as promised, I am going to start “looting the ivory tower” for useful work on social innovation (despite my reservations about the term – see here and here).

First up, well – a brilliant article …

The title: “Between innovation and restoration; towards a critical-historicizing understanding of social innovation niches”

The authors: Bonno Pel & René Kemp

The journal: Technology Analysis & Strategic Management,

The DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/09537325.2020.1750588

The abstract:

Social innovation (SI) is gaining attention as an innovation category. However, the SI concept proves vulnerable to stereotypical understandings. Next to the radically novel, diffusion-oriented and thereby manifestly innovative social ‘niches’, it is important to also acknowledge the rather latent SI phenomena of restoration and shielding. This paper therefore develops a critical-historicizing perspective that highlights the social construction of innovations in social relations. Building on scholarship in Strategic Niche Management, grassroots innovation and critical innovation studies, four ‘shapes of social innovation’ are distinguished. Substantiating and deepening this conceptual classification through empirical evidence on 20 SI initiatives, the analysis highlights how social innovations may take on several of the theorised appearances throughout their existence in society (shapeshifting). Disclosing overlooked SI phenomena, this critical historicizing understanding informs more comprehensive and balanced SI research and practice.

In plain English/tl:dr: “Social innovation” is the latest label policymakers and their remorseless remorafish pals are throwing around.  But it is also about going backwards to old ways (restoration) and protecting the Too Big and Stale to Fail brigade, incumbents who make the party donations, control the purse strings (shielding). So, learn from history and previous thinking, they come up with four kinds of “social innovations” and then test it against twenty projects with that label in their titles. The four types of innovation can all appear in one project – it isn’t either/or.  We should be super careful about this term “social innovation” else we end up just concept-mongering while the planet literally fries.

Key concepts:  

They come up with a 2×2 matrix (one of the oldest hacks in the academic toolkit, but it’s an oldie because it keeps on working).

social innovation four types

(Later in the article they do the same diagram with dual direction arrows between most of the circles, trying to capture the interplay and essential wibbly-wobbliness of Real Life.)

Marc’s two cents

This is great – super useful. An intuitive typology that doesn’t claim too much for itself, is humble about the empirical gaps.  Will cause useful (more light than heat) debates
And reference list to die for (I have cherry-picked particularly interesting looking ones below. Won’t be able to read all, of coruse)

Various quotes-

“Social ‘niches’ can be radically novel or restorative, and oriented towards diffusion or shielding.”

“An important ideological line of division has emerged between individualistic, social entrepreneurship-oriented understandings, and the rather collectivist understandings focused on social movements”

“Defined in critical-historicizing and non-essentialist fashion, SI is understood as the introduction of ‘new’ ways of doing, organising and thinking (Avelino et al. 2019b) that gain this innovative significance through their contrast with prevailing social relations (Haxeltine et al. 2017b). Following this definition, a very broad range of social phenomena could qualify as SI (Jaeger-Erben, Rückert-John, and Schäfer 2015). Crucially, this comprises not only the manifest shapes of SI (with an obvious, pronounced innovative profile), but also their relatively latent counterparts.”

“Particularly insightful has been the account of the ‘restorative niche’, characterised by the ‘absence of any strong diffusion push’ (Ziegler 2017, 349) and by ethical motivations. Struggling for survival against the societal current, the associated innovative agency resides largely in the construction of shelter. This active shielding may entail particularly creative work (Ziegler 2017, 341).”

References of particular note

Avelino, A., J. Wittmayer, B. Pel, P. W. Weaver, A. Dumitru, A. Haxeltine, R. Kemp, Michael S. Jørgensen, Tom Bauler, Saskia Ruijsink, and Tim O’Riordan. 2019b. “Transformative Social Innovation and (Dis)Empowerment.” Technological Forecasting and Social Change 145: 195–206.

Ayob, N., S. Teasdale, and K. Fagan. 2016. “How Social Innovation ‘Came to Be’: Tracing the Evolution of a Contested Concept.” Journal of Social Policy 45 (4): 635–653.

Cajaiba-Santana, G. 2014. “Social Innovation: Moving the Field Forward. A Conceptual Framework.” Technological Forecasting and Social Change 82: 42–51.

Collier, D., J. LaPorte, and J. Seawright. 2012. “Putting Typologies to Work: Concept Formation, Measurement, and Analytic Rigor.” Political Research Quarterly 65 (1): 217–232.

Dóci, G., E. Vasileiadou, and A. C. Petersen. 2015. “Exploring the Transition Potential of Renewable Energy Communities.” Futures 66: 85–95.

Edwards-Schachter, M., and M. L. Wallace. 2017. “‘Shaken, but not Stirred’: Sixty Years of Defining Social Innovation.” Technological Forecasting and Social Change 119: 64–79.

Haxeltine, A., B. Pel, J. Wittmayer, A. Dumitru, R. Kemp, and A. Avelino. 2017b. “Building a Middle-Range Theory of Transformative Social Innovation; Theoretical Pitfalls and Methodological Responses.” European Public and Social Innovation Review 2 (1): 59–77.

Jessop, B., F. Moulaert, L. Hulgård, and A. Hamdouch. 2013. “Social Innovation Research: A New Stage in Innovation Research?” In The international handbook on social innovation: collective action, social learning and transdisciplinary research, edited by Moulaert, et al., 110–127. Cheltenham, United Kingdom: Edward Elgar.

McGowan, K. A., and F. Westley. 2017. “Constructing The Evolution of Social Innovation: Methodological Insights From a Multi-Case Study.” European Public & Social Innovation Review 2 (1): 93–109.

Pel, B., and J. Backhaus. 2018. “Realizing the Basic Income; Competing Claims to Expertise in Transformative Social Innovation.” Science & Technology Studies. https://sciencetechnologystudies.journal.fi/forthcoming/view/index.

Pel, B., and T. Bauler. 2017. “A Transitions-Theoretical Perspective on the Social Economy; Exploring Capture Dialectics in Flemish ‘Insertion’ Practices.” Annals of Public and Cooperative Economics 88 (2): 279–298.

Pel, B., J. Dorland, J. Wittmayer, and M. S. Jørgensen. 2017a. “Detecting Social Innovation Agency; Methodological Reflections on Units of Analysis in Dispersed Transformation Processes.” European Public and Social Innovation Review 2 (1): 110–126.

Pfotenhauer, S., and S. Jasanoff. 2017. “Panacea or Diagnosis? Imaginaries of Innovation and the ‘MIT Model’ in Three Political Cultures.” Social Studies of Science 47: 783–810. doi:10.1177.0306312717706110.

Pol, E., and S. Ville. 2009. “Social Innovation: Buzz Word or Enduring Term?” The Journal of Socio-Economics 38: 878–885.

 Scott-Cato, M., and J. Hillier. 2010. “How Could we Study Climate-Related Social Innovation? Applying Deleuzean Philosophy to Transition Towns.” Environmental Politics 19 (6): 869–887.

Shove, E. 2012. “The Shadowy Side of Innovation: Unmaking and Sustainability.” Technology Analysis & Strategic Management 24 (4): 363–375.

Smith, A., and R. Raven. 2012. “What is Protective Space? Reconsidering Niches in Transitions to Sustainability.” Research Policy 41 (6): 1025–1036.

Smith, A., and A. Stirling. 2017. “Innovation, Sustainability and Democracy: an Analysis of Grassroots Contributions.” Journal of Self-Governance and Management Economics 6 (1): 64–97.

Strand, R., A. Saltelli, M. Giampietro, K. Rommetveit, and S. Funtowicz. 2016. “New Narratives for Innovation.” Journal of Cleaner Production 197: 1849–1853.

Suchman, L., and L. Bishop. 2000. “Problematizing ‘Innovation’ as a Critical Project.” Technology Analysis & Strategic Management 12 (3): 327–333.

Wittmayer, J. M., F. Avelino, J. Backhaus, B. Pel, T. Strasser, and L. Zuijderwijk. 2019. Narratives of Change: How Social Innovation Initiatives Construct Societal Transformation, Futures.

Ziegler, R. 2017. “Citizen Innovation as Niche Restoration – A Type of Social Innovation and Its Relevance for Political Participation and Sustainability.” Journal of Social Entrepreneurship 8 (3): 338–353.

“What else by the author(s) looks good?”

Well, the Pel stuff below in the reference list. And Rene Kemp – he’s one of  major guys in the whole field…

The institutionalization of Transformative Social Innovation;: A comparative case study on institutional bricolage and mainstreaming B Pel, F Avelino, A Smith

Unpacking the social innovation ecosystem: an empirically grounded typology of empowering network constellations B Pel, J Wittmayer, J Dorland, M Søgaard Jørgensen Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research, 1-26

Mainstreaming Renewable Energy Prosumerism:: Directionality of an ongoing Transition B Pel, JM Wittmayer, T De Geus, S Oxenaar, F Avelino, M Fraaije


Should you read this?

Hell yes

Probably, yup


Probably not

Defo not (unlikely to publish a review)

Building whose capacity to do what? How?

This is a direct follow on from an initial rant about “social innovation”.  At the end of that I went on a rant about how social change is a marathon not a sprint and that the ‘load’ has to be shared.

There’s an article, very astute, by a Development Aid specialist that I read as I yomped around Alexandra Park with my backpack full of bricks and weights. I should try to track it down… meanwhile, this –


But what IS the load?

There’s the technical work – be it writing press releases, responding to consultations, gathering evidence for a judicial review, fundraising, prisoner support.  

Sharing the load would be making sure that the knowledge and skills were easily shareable – written down, turned into videos, workshops, trainings etc, that it was possible for folks to be apprentices in meaningful ways

There’s the credit – if people are going to do grunt work, then they should also be able to get – if they want it – credit, exposure etc.

Power to decide – what are the decision-making processes? Who has final say? How can they be challenged etc? At what point do those who have been doing grunt work get an invitation to be part of the decision making (which they may of course choose to decline).
All this brings me to the buzzword of many a year – “Capacity building”

As meaningless and frustrating as “innovation”  (yes, vaccines were an innovation. So were machine guns, mustard gas and concentration camps. For god’s sake stop using innovation as a synonym for ANY form of progress).

And always ask the following

Capacity-building To DO what?

To do endless pilots which allow policymakers to defer and defer and defer? To do the leg-work for big beasts to swoop in and create new markets and marketisations? To be the thin-end of the neoliberal wedge?

For WHO to do what?  White middle-class professionals sitting in offices, being suitedly and suitably parasitic on those taking the risks?

For how long is this capacity going to be maintained? 

Are you just creating the next generations of micro-bosses, or are you trying to spread the capacity to capacity build and create the vibrant civil society you say you want? Are you teaching the pigs on animal farm, or also the cows, hens and the sheep?


And when you’ve answered these questions

How is this CBW done?

By who?

Peer-to-peer or  Top down info deficit bullshit?

(Horizontal, peer-to-peer, social innovation – all the right buzzwords. Old wine in new bottles, we’ve been on this rodeo before.)

 The whole point of the Active Citizenship Toolkit, as I see it, is to make it easier for individuals and groups  to see what is at stake – what skills, knowledge and relationships are needed for sustained social innovation around the climate crisis, the racial and sexual injustice crises…  If we are serious about transition/transformation and the acceleration of them, then it becomes a question of WHO IS GOING TO KEEP BELLING THE CAT?

The cat WILL take the first bell off, and eat the brave and clever mice who put it on.  So those brave and clever mice better have prepared the next generation of cat-bellers.  And also devised ways of helping them cope with watching a vicious cat eating their buddies. And figured out how to learn from all the failed attempts (one is reminded of the bomb disposal experts who would describe each step of the way over a telephone, so that when they made a mistake, someone else could learn. Not inspiring, but hey ho…)


Okay, I have completely lost control of my metaphors. Happens when you’re rusty at blogging. So it goes. Publish in beta and be damned…

“Social innovation” acceleration and the belling of cats

So, my intellectual energies have been mostly devoted to the Active Citizenship Toolkit, which is a project of the group I am part of – Climate Emergency Manchester.  I’ve researched and written a couple of novice’s guides – to Manchester City Council’s budget process, and to the thorny question of allyship.  Other two page guides are ‘under review’ and will go up soon.

ALSO, and this is Good News – I have been shortlisted for an academic job.  It’s about social innovation.  So, over the coming few days expect a bunch of posts about that subject, and “acceleration” and so on.  This is to help me figure out what I think and what I should say (and of course NOT say on the day itself…)  Here’s a link to a list of ‘adjectival innovations’  and innovation terminology I made a while back.  Doubtless will have to expand it…

So, below, a few preliminary comments about my prejudices, and then I will follow up with another, more “ACT” related post about the thorny question of “capacity building”…

First banality:  The word “innovation” is sprinkled around like magic pixie dust. Like its cousins reform and progress it sidesteps/silences profound questions about morality and end-states.  Most of the time it is used there is a (knowing?) naivete around questions of incumbent power and resistance.

Second banality:   Most work on “innovation” and “efficiency” also largely ignore rebound effects – what will be done with the money/time/energy ‘saved’?  So, you insulate someone’s house so they aren’t being bled white on fuel bills. This is a good thing. But from a “carbon saved” perspective, what if they then use the money they saved to fly to Barcelona or Prague for the weekend.

Third banality: Most innovations fail, or take a hell of a lot longer to mature than folks think they will (people and hype-cycles, eh?) 

Look, we’re in the shit.  We have had over 30 years to take action on climate change, and in all that time we have just dug our holes deeper.  More people on the planet, yes, but crucially, far more fossil fuel infrastructure, far higher expectations of an always on world etc etc etc (and yes, this is not individual consumers’ “fault” blah blah systemic blah blah regimes).

And because we are in the shit, we are busy bright-siding ourselves. You saw it after the Paris Agreement, when people who really ought to have known better (and probably, in private, DID know better) spouted all sorts of guff about turning points [here’s a blog I wrote about that in December 2015]. And now here we all are in coronaworld, spouting guff about Green Recoveries, with no sense of the coalitions-work needed to make that happen.

So we latch onto the idea of social innovation “(versus” technological innovation? I don’t know, I haven’t read the literature. Hopefully nobody is that ill-informed?)

And we Need To Believe that it will get us to where we need to get to.  Social Tipping Innovations etc.  Yes, we all apparently need to contract an STI…

soc tipping dynamics

It reminds me of that clip from “The Newsroom” where they get a climate scientist on and he says “x/yz/ would all have been great 20 or even 10 years ago…” 

So, sophomoric ill-informed doomster rant over.  I am going to dive into various academic articles about social innovation, energy transitions, urban governance. . Going to blog about each (usually in a batch).

Criteria for articles on a kind of Likert scale on Should you read this ?

Hell yes
Probably not
Defo not (unlikely to publish a review)

And also “What else by authors is any good?”

My coda.

Social innovations like technological innovations, are all well and good, and fun to study at the Research and Development stage.  But deployment and dissemination/diffusion whatever, that is usually a far trickier thing.

Individuals  who are part of innovation get tired, burnout, demoralised, or sell out (literally)

Meanwhile, organisations are fantastically bad at sustaining morale. On the whole they either flame out or become self-sustaining rigid bureaucracies, trading on past glories.

That doesn’t, it seem to me on a rough first glance, get captured in academic work about social innovation, because who goes back after five years, or ten years, or fifteen years and sees “where are they now?” It is just endless polaroids, some explicit, some not, all always fading.

This is a marathon, not a sprint, So, need to think of it as a relay race to – how does “the baton” get handed on? We (activists) need to think of sharing the load. Which is the subject of the next blog post – on “capacity building”.


Words, ideas, videos