Technological innovation is impossible without social innovation. Although this statement is gaining more and more recognition, it remains difficult to shape social innovation research because it encompasses so many different aspects. There are two elements in every definition of social innovation. First, social innovation is about changes in social relationships, systems or structures. Secondly, these changes serve to fulfill a shared need or goal or to solve a shared socially relevant problem. That is why we see social innovation as a key in the transition to a sustainable, safe and affordable energy supply. Hence, social innovation research is characterized by two main themes.
The first theme covers the behavior of stakeholders in the energy transition, i.e., how people behave and what they want and don’t want – not just as a citizen, an employee, a policymaker, and entrepreneur, but also as an individual, a member of an (energy) collective, a board of directors, and so on. The second theme covers energy justice and related questions, such as: How can we ensure that the energy transition, as a shared socially relevant goal or problem, does not actually raise other problems for certain groups in society. How can we ensure that the energy transition is fair and just for all citizens? Knowledge on these aspects is considered to be essential. By sharing and applying this knowledge, we contribute to pushing for accelerated implementation of sustainable, efficient, carbon-free energy systems.
Many models which are used to estimate the effects of adopted and planned policies are economic. They assume that people make rational decisions based on keeping costs as low as possible. Yet the choice behavior of people appears to be considerably more complicated. A better forecast can be made of the possible effects of plans and measures by investigating which factors play a role in making choices in the field of sustainable energy. In addition to the “homo economicus”, we, therefore, want to bring forward other images of humanity within and alongside these models (homo psychologist, homo sociologist, homo faber, homo ludens, etc.). Not as an end in itself but in such a way that an action perspective is also linked to this. We see developing a consumer behaviour model (ECN part of TNO, 2018) as one of the ways to contribute to this.
In addition to understanding consumer choice behavior, it is also important to know on what basis companies make choices. Governments are better equipped to shaping policy when it is clear what motivates companies to opt for new technologies, when the most important obstacles to sustainable (chain) cooperation are known, and when we understand what companies encounter in practical terms when opening up new markets for sustainable products and services.
The (process) industry should start to think and work differently. A cultural change is needed whereby sustainable purchasing and the use of renewable energy must become “the new normal”. For example, we have developed training for suppliers of sustainable process technology to help them better promote their green proposition. Furthermore, a considerable part of the potential energy saving can be redeemed by having employees work in an energy-conscious manner. In a European context, we contribute to accelerated energy saving in the food industry, where effective energy management and good housekeeping are central.
In the built environment there are questions from construction companies, contractors, developers, and installers. How do we open up the market for sustainable, natural gas-free home renovation? Knowledge about the target group is very important here, but just as important is how providers organize themselves and work together in the chain. Within the project “the third success factor”, it was investigated how parties working on renovation projects with high energy ambitions can come to effective cooperation. We are constantly asked how we can scale up the practices of these leaders.
Such questions also arise concerning local implementation and spatial integration of technology. One cannot simply install a solar park or wind farm anywhere. Residents should be involved in time and preferably also be able to participate, but how do you do that? With the local integration of technology – sun, wind, but also CO2 storage – we contribute to the development and application of innovative participation methods.
The effects of human actions and trends in society are crucial for the energy transition, but the influence of the energy transition on society is also very important for the feasibility. Honesty and justice play a major role here: the costs of the transition are not automatically balanced and certain people or groups hit disproportionately hard. What balance can be found for groups in society who are disproportionately hit because of their income, their professional group, the company where they work or the location where they live? In answering that question it is important both to qualitatively map which groups are hit harder and how that manifests itself and to quantify how large such effects are.
Every stakeholder must contribute to the energy transition as far as possible. This requires a change in knowledge, attitude, and behavior on the part of everyone, from installer to policymaker, from CEO to team worker. This includes a policy that allows for a fair burden and income distribution.