If there is anything to be learned from the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ protest in France, is that social innovation should accompany environmental policymaking. Policies will have little effect without the acceptance and understanding of the people directly affected by the changes. Much of the climate change discourse centers on wide-scale economic, social and cultural change – this rhetoric gives people little agency, leaving many feeling alienated. Europe will not be able to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, The European Renewable Energy Directive targets and the European Green Deal objective without socially innovative policy making.
Social innovation in the context of the energy transition is a process of change in social interaction and the sharing of knowledge leading to – or based on – new environmentally sustainable ways of producing, managing, and consuming energy that address social challenges. There are many pioneering European cities applying socially innovative approached in local energy transitions with replicable approaches. Based on studies in such cities – the following nine practical recommendations are a red thread for any policy maker to follow when planning and implementing novel energy policies.
Recommendation 1: Build on existing engagement. Pro-environmental dispositions have been found to be important drivers of social innovations in the energy sector. This is the case irrespective of the actor involved, whether a citizen or a NGO. Connecting with individuals or groups with existing environmental engagement or taking a step further and develop environmental engagement in stakeholders is good way to build support.
Recommendation 2: Welcome resistance. People often demonstrate resistance when faced with ambiguity, such as the financial ramifications of a new energy policy. It is important to acknowledge these concerns as valid and to be transparent about associated risks and costs. Identifying hesitant groups and involving them in trial periods and planning, can help alleviate concerns.
Recommendation 3: Be trustworthy. Trust in the abilities and good intentions of stakeholders and decision-makers is a key factor for the acceptability of new policies. A recent study in France indicated very few people deny climate change (irrespective of their social status), but they do not trust institutions to be able to fix it. Participatory processes are a good way to strengthen trust, especially with disadvantaged groups suffering from energy poverty. Giving people opportunities to express concerns and fostering wider dialogue in order to avoid polarisation of opposing groups is important.
Recommendation 4: Accommodate those in need. Success of policies depends on the extent to which decision makers understand the connect to social status. Regressive effect of policies should be avoided at all costs – a successful and socially innovative energy policy should result in the empowerment of the groups suffering from energy poverty. Allowing disadvantaged groups to participate in the energy transitions on their own terms, might take time, but will foster acceptance in the long term.
Recommendation 5: Remember it is a team effort. It is crucial to educate those who will implement the policy in practice. These are the groups the public will be in direct contact with, so their communication and relationship building skills are crucial. Planning a strategy to provide the necessary knowledge and skills (e.g. language) to these actors will prove worthwhile.
Recommendation 6: Do not expect everyone to care. The sustainable energy transition might not be first on community’s agenda facing other challenges. Asking people to focus on the big picture, when they feel a lack of agency is not motivating. When communities face issues such as social exclusion or low community cohesion, it is recommended that public discourse and policies explicitly highlight the potential of the innovative solution to solve these problematic issues even if this would be an indirect effect.
Policy Recommendation 7: Look out for loop- and potholes. Regulations and laws can act as both drivers and barriers of social innovations. Plenty of time and effort can be saved by making sure to take stock off existing ambiguities in regulations – finding opportunities for amplification and exploration.
Policy Recommendation 8: Use the media as a mediator. Social innovations are often attractive stories for the media. In order to avoid negative publicity and raise awareness about the benefits of the policy – developing a media strategy and establishing contacts that actively report on the process, is a good way to keep the public engaged and informed.
Policy Recommendation 9: Reroute routines. Habits and routines are barriers to innovation. To shake up those stuck in a rut – introducing policies through creative measures is beneficial e.g. hosting an informative city festival or by demonstrating future scenarios visually. To avert the policy itself becoming stale with time, it is important to promote the socially innovative policy as a flexible structure, leaving room for critical thinking, optimization and change.
These findings are based on a report on social innovation drivers, barriers, actors and network structures for social energy innovation published under a transdisciplinary Horizon2020 research project on ‘Social Innovation Modelling Approaches to Realizing Transition to Energy Efficiency and Sustainability’ (SMARTEES). The report highlights these themes through case studies conducted in various European cities.
 ‘Finding France – Can the environment reunite France’, LeFevre Mathieu, Parfait Anaïz, Destin Commun 2020
This article was originally published in the Summer 2020 edition of European Energy Innovation Magazine.
Photo credit: Windmill in Samsø, ICLEI Europe.