Social Innovation: Filling a void?

Those familiar with Scene's work will appreciate we've never shied away from innovation.  From novel ways to own and finance community wind farms, to the use of mobile phone services to provide access to energy services and supply-chains in remote off-grid areas, we've been on 'the front line' for a while now.

You know, a lot of people associate 'innovation' with the development of new gadgetry.  Although technological innovation is clearly an important component in the distributed generation & -ownership revolution (just witness blossoming small-scale storage solutions), a lot of the work ahead is needed in the social innovation space.  What is 'social innovation', you ask?  Under threat of getting too technical about it, a ‘social innovation’ involves a change in the roles of social actors, along with the rules that govern how risks and benefits are distributed. 

In community energy, such innovation is often driven into a sort of ‘negative’ space that can be characterised by an absence, such as access to energy (in poor parts of the world) or lack of control over particular types of energy (in rich parts).  Now, a lot of the social innovation going on in community energy today comes about in the very act of circumventing existing policy that works to, as it were, reinforce the walls around these voids.  In the highlands of Laos, for example, local ‘off-grid’ communities have come up with highly innovative ways of generating hydro-electricity using cheap, used, Chinese car parts, unhindered by anything that looks like ‘energy policy’.  In the highly regulated energy space in the UK, on the contrary, local communities and organisations like ours pour huge amounts of time and resources and blood and tears and kilowatt-hours into the act of finding and implementing innovative ways around a policy- and regulatory regime that is inhibitive – and often downright obstructive – and in a perennial state of playing catch-up.  Great topical example: existing rules around communities being allowed to retail their own energy.  We're working on several such initiatives at the moment, and you won't believe what a headache it is to accomplish the seemingly modest feat of taking charge of electricity supply in your own community in the current UK energy regime! 

Anyway, while we were in the midst of trying to wrap our heads around the rules governing electricity retail, I received an invitation to give a talk in Fukushima City, some 60 miles away from the epicentre of Japan’s recent (March 2011) nuclear catastrophe – an event that, outside of creating a gaping hole in Japan’s energy mix, created absences in the most painful of places: jobs, homes, and often loved ones.  I knew that the nuclear disaster had uncorked a profound drive amongst many Japanese communities to take control of local energy systems, and I was keen to use the opportunity to study this social-innovation-in-the-shadow-of-catastophe first-hand.  Off I went, with an entourage of radiation monitors strapped to my vest.

A team led by Prof. Koji Itonaga (right, wearing face mask and radiation monitor) is looking for ways to revitalise the collapsed agricultural sector around Fukuhima by switching to biofuel crops grown in contaminated soil. Photo: Camilla S. Rose.

A team led by Prof. Koji Itonaga (right, wearing face mask and radiation monitor) is looking for ways to revitalise the collapsed agricultural sector around Fukuhima by switching to biofuel crops grown in contaminated soil. Photo: Camilla S. Rose.

Navigating deserted schools, businesses and retirement homes nestled within a radioactive landscape is a surreal experience.  (When it comes to thorny questions like nuclear-energy-yes-or-no, I tend to place more value on the opinions of those who have actually experienced living in the shadow of a reactor than those who wax lyrical about the relative pros and cons from the safety and comfort of a desk or armchair nowhere near a nuclear power plant).  Within the Fukushima radiation zone, I discovered hotspots of social innovation in action.  I think I've got space here for two examples.  In an attempt to resuscitate the once thriving agricultural sector, a team led by Koji Itonago (pictured above) is looking into ways to grow biofuel crops in radioactive soil.  Other folks, like Yasushi Maruyama (pictured below), in and well beyond Fukushima are driving forward a variety of civic energy schemes, often catalysed by a sense of anger and frustration at what is widely perceived as an incumbent energy system that palpably lacks appropriate accountability.

A Silver Lining?

My visit profoundly changed the way I think about disasters.  The 2011 Tōhuku tsunami off Fukushima, the 2015 Gorkha earthquake in Nepal, and hurricane Matthew in Haiti in September / October this year all took out vulnerable centralised fossil-fueled energy systems.  But in the dark wake of such terrible disasters, we are increasingly seeing social innovations in the form of decentralised low-carbon energy systems which, in principle and often in practice, offer greater resilience in the face of calamity.  Could it perhaps be that disasters create both the space and the energy (in the psychological sense) for disruptive innovation in the direction of greater resiliency?  If this turns out to be true, could this be a silver lining to the encroaching storm fronts of the Anthropocene?

Community wind: an insurgent breed of energy in Japan.  This is Dr. Yasushi Maruyama, who has written a lot about Japanese community renewables, and also helps develop projects.  That's the base of a community wind turbine, with a map showing several of Japan's community wind project locations.  Photo: Camilla S. Rose.

Community wind: an insurgent breed of energy in Japan.  This is Dr. Yasushi Maruyama, who has written a lot about Japanese community renewables, and also helps develop projects.  That's the base of a community wind turbine, with a map showing several of Japan's community wind project locations.  Photo: Camilla S. Rose.

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