Last week I passed my PhD defence, the most dreaded of events for any PhD student. Thankfully mine wasn’t a grueling 4-hour duel between examiner and examinee but an interesting discursive conversation around the research topic, approach and outcomes. Their conclusion, that I should add a few sign-posting paragraphs and correct the typos in order to be accepted, was a great relief. Still, its been a while since I gave many of you an update, so I’d like to take this moment to do so and also to express my gratitude to those that have made it possible.
Empirically, my research investigated contemporary community-led sustainable energy activity in the UK. It explored the ways in which communities pick up and play around with low carbon technologies. Conceptually, it was about community-based intermediary attempts at ‘local embedding’, defined as the integration of technologies into local contexts of use. As such it built on a contemporary societal challenge, whilst it is widely acknowledged that existing low carbon technologies offer substantial means to reduce the carbon intensity of existing lifestyles the problem is not simply one of diffusion. These market-ready technologies need to be made to work in diverse local contexts of use. They need to be locally embedded. So I approached this challenge through a particular actor, community-led energy initiatives and the broad research question: how are community-led energy initiatives seeking to integrate sustainable technologies into local contexts of use? I explored the agency of community activists to locally embed technologies and the context dynamics influencing how their projects develop.
To do so and as many of you know I used case studies of community-led projects in Bristol. Two based around solid wall insulation – Bristol Green Doors’ Tackling the Terrace project (Dec. 2011 – July 2012) and Easton Energy Group’s energy efficiency project in partnership with Sustain (Apr. – Dec. 2012) – and two based around solar PV – Demand Energy Equality (May 2011 – Jan. 2013) and Bristol Power (Sept. 2009 – Apr. 2013). I am extremely grateful for the access and patience these groups have shown me through the process. Without which I would not have been able to construct comprehensive histories and examined in-depth the twists and turns of their projects. Equally important were the discussions with partner organisations and city-wide actors who situated and contextualised project activity.
The result of the research is a novel process model of how community-based intermediary organisations seek to locally embed low carbon technologies. Two stories are contained within. The first story details an ideal-typical sequence to community intermediation. By ideal, I mean a sequence that we might expect to see in a world free from complications or learning. It goes something like this: identified opportunity > configuring > brokering > facilitating > outcomes! The pattern is applicable to all four case studies, with setbacks or difficulties explaining deviations observed. In the second, I identify a variety of context dynamics enabling and hindering community-based intermediation across three levels: target community, the local system (i.e. the Bristol city-region) and external environment (everything beyond). The story, as such, is about multiple layers creating a dynamic context, each layer influencing in its own way and evolving in its own right. Read together the model answers a basic question of why and how community-based approaches are locally shaped and context dependent.
A number of conclusions subsequently follow. First, the agency of community-based initiatives is constrained (by multiple context dynamics etc). Second, the proximity and connection of community initiatives to their ‘target community’ is often overstated, inadequately known for sure and underdeveloped. I draw attention to this not as a direct criticism but rather, to stress their greatest strength (the connection) being also a significant weakness. For this reason I am pleased to welcome our new outreach officer to the small but growing BEN team. Third, often neglected and little realised community initiatives have the capacity to mobilise a nascent community voice for energy technologies and direct it to where it might have the biggest impact. A fourth and then final point includes the importance of flexibility and adaptability of project design and implementation and closely correlated to this, the need for reflection, evaluation and learning during and after projects.
Okay, so that might not sound all that surprising to you. There is more that we could discuss – but it stretches beyond this blog post. What I really wanted to say is thanks to those that have made it possible. I hope to discuss these outcomes with you more in the near future so that we can better learn and reflect (yes, why not) and continue to build on the great work that has already been done.
If you would like to get in contact about any of this, I would love to hear from you. Drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org