In the West of Amsterdam there is an area that used to be occupied by light industry, but which since has been designated as new area for housing development. Surrounding the area is a working-class neighbourhood with homes built in the first half of the 20th century. Rather than giving corporate developers free range, the municipality has also given space to citizen initiatives and community development. One project to come out of that is a climate neutral neighbourhood that aims at self-sufficiency. Its homes are self-designed, (largely) self-built and made up of biobased materials, with water, heat and energy efficient technologies. The group of initiators share a history as friends and acquaintances with a common interest in future-proofing their way of life. This motivation and their mutual bonds supported their endurance during a long and arduous process – fuelling their taxing process of research, design, permitting, and frequent adaptation to new circumstances. By many standards, the final result is a success, garnering interest from many other citizen initiatives, as well as municipalities, across Europe.
But there is also a shadow side. That’s the relation between their small neighbourhood and the bigger working-class neighbourhood around it. When we talked to the manager of a collectively and sustainably run café in the same district, he noted that “we really wanted to be accessible and welcoming to the surrounding neighbourhood but in all these years it seems that we only attract people like ourselves”. The DIY builders struggle with the same distance to their more senior neighbours. While they put much effort into sharing the lessons they learned from their endeavour, they are clearly not reaching the surrounding neighbours. In fact, some of them described the newcomers on social media as “ecolite” (a portmanteau for eco-elite): people with financial capital that are able to afford sustainable ways and products, while judging others for not doing so (ignoring that not everyone has their means).
This essay is about in- and exclusion dynamics in sustainable innovation trajectories. As we will show, class is an important dimension in these dynamics. Exclusion happens through the feedback loops that occur when socially or culturally similar people band together to tackle complex challenges. The concentration of converging perspectives endows them with power, but it comes with drawbacks. Being closed off from other perspectives also reduces the wider uptake of the solutions they come up with and risks consolidating inequalities through exclusion. To counter this tendency, to balance closure and openness, both of which are necessary, innovation processes need systems that invite outsider input and allow it to intervene in an endeavour and change its course. We argue that social innovation¹ offers a valuable framework to create such systems. With social innovation, stakeholders are taken seriously, not only by listening to them, but by sharing power over the course of shared effort.
This essay is also about our struggles as anthropologically trained action researchers who try to facilitate social innovation. To us, action research means doing field research of a solution to a problem as it is being tried out. Generally speaking, action researchers work directly with those affected by the problem, whose perspective is crucial to finding a solution that works. In our work² as process monitors and facilitators in sustainability transitions (e.g., renewable energy, sustainable construction), our role is generally to do just that. We accompany new techniques, technologies and practices as they’re being piloted and implemented, and especially their reception in participating households. Most often we do this as part of (EU-funded) demonstration projects. We conduct field research with residents or users as well as stakeholders and partners to uncover their needs and capacities, after which we organize co-creation activities to tweak the ‘solution’ under development. It’s social innovation in action. Now, our training as (applied) anthropologists encourages us to focus on experience as meaningful interpretative framework in contexts of change. This dovetails usefully with our action research. We try to surface the experience of citizens, (end) users, or other stakeholders, in order to make sure problems are correctly identified and solutions actually address those problems. Now, while (we hope) this sounds all fine and dandy, we struggle with this role because we structurally exercise it in the margins of the innovation trajectories we accompany. For social innovation to truly realize its potential, innovation needs structural change too. We come back to this point at the end of this essay.
In what follows then, we first describe the dynamics of opening and closure, of inclusion and exclusion in two case studies of our work. We picked these two cases, because they are in a sense each other’s mirror image. Class, in particular, operates as the looking glass. In the second case, we reflect on our role in dealing with these dynamics. We conclude by examining the prospect of inclusion in the energy transition and the potential for applied anthropologists.
Let’s first dwell a little longer on our pioneers from Amsterdam West.
A tale of two cities
Let’s call their initiative the Wild New West. Not because they were cowboys and cowgirls, but because they did have to pioneer they were doing something that hadn’t been done before: a combination of DIY home construction and their own, semi-independent (energy) infrastructure. It was not easy. They lost various members along the way due to rising costs, logistical difficulties and lack of institutional backing. A core group remained though and was able to attract new members in their own extended social circle. In other words, resources, focus and community cohesion was crucial to make it work. However, these very conditions of success made it difficult to really engage with their surrounding neighbours. As a founding member told us: “We actually want to be socially sustainable: to collaborate with the neighbourhood, join forces and contribute to a better living environment. But we’ve been unable as a group to make that happen; it’s just some members here and there, you know, who do some volunteering by themselves.”
We already saw that some old-time residents looked warily at this highly visible initiative. This is in no small part due to its historical coincidence with re-urbanization and its ensuing gentrification. While the community was busy building their homes, the surrounding (social housing) neighbourhood was being retrofitted and redeveloped and made more accessible to ‘outsiders’ to settle, causing rising housing prices and (a sense of impending) displacement among current residents. Some of them protested the changes. A rapper popularized the term “cargo-bike gang”: he perceived people on cargo-bikes, this relatively expensive mode of ‘clean’ family transport that take up quite a bit of space on bike paths and sidewalks, as a menacing symbol of the fact that their presence meant displacement for him and other old-time, disadvantaged residents. The pioneer newcomers were well aware of this. “He sings about us.”
It’s a painful reflection of their ideal in the looking glass of the neighbourhood: sustainable living becomes signifier of exclusivity. Class is key here. It’s not only about purchasing power in a hot real-estate market. It reverberates in other dimensions of everyday life as well. As the aforementioned nearby café manager acknowledged: “What we have on offer is also intended for a specific audience: our “organic coffee” has no particular appeal here”.
Inclusion and exclusion in sustainability
Now, our role in Amsterdam West was limited: through focus groups and interviews we researched how community living was experienced by members, to draw lessons for other (aspiring) communities. There was more research than action in our role, in other words. Before moving on the question of what applied anthropology can bring to the table, then, we would simply like to pause here to underscore the fundamental tension: a lot of innovation in sustainable housing and living happens around neighbourhoods and communities that are relatively wealthy. On the one hand, this happens for purely economic reasons: for commercial parties they are a relatively easy niche market to corner. On the other, it also happens because economic capital tends to go hand in hand with cultural and social capital: citizens who are so-called ‘frontrunners’ tend to have sufficient time, money, connections and qualifications to run up front. Conversely, people from more vulnerable backgrounds are often not included in these processes, and in fact may even perceive sustainability as a plaything of the privileged.
We therefore want to zoom in on the experiences of members of such vulnerable communities, to learn what we may about what it would take to correct course and make sure those who are now perceived as “laggards” (those who come last in the transition to a more sustainable way of doing things) can actually become frontrunners in their own right. We turn therefore to a pilot of an energy community in a working-class neighbourhood.
Unusual suspects for the energy sector
In a middle-sized town in the middle of the Netherlands, let’s call it Goudstein, we were asked, as part of a different EU-funded research project, to help launch a new energy community. An energy community refers to a collective whose members often produce energy locally and increasingly also collectively manage their energy consumption. In contrast to Amsterdam West though, the initiative to start the community in Goudstein didn’t come from the neighbourhood residents, but from an energy services developer and a construction company.
The idea of the community was this: thirty-nine row houses had recently been upgraded (at no expense to the residents) with PV panels and insulation to become net-zero energy homes. To make sure a maximum of locally generated electricity would be consumed within the area, residents from ‘regular’, non-upgraded homes could join the net-zero homes to become a collective that would absorb all that local green energy. Practically, that would mean trying to shift their energy consumption to the moments the rooftop solar panels would generate electricity.
These are all very new concepts and new technologies though, so some co-creation would be required to make it all stick. Our role was to assist in recruiting participants for this pilot energy community, understand their needs, help them get acquainted with the technology, facilitate their reflection, to ultimately understand whether the technology was adequate to their needs and capacities, and feed those findings back into the technology development process.
The project ran into a number of challenges that can be related directly to the fact that the intended participants were not the usual suspects of most (energy) innovation projects in western Europe: middle or upper class, white and academically educated people. For example, through door-to-door interaction we learned that we failed to anticipate the communicative needs of residents. We weren’t able to explain the complex story about an energy solution in an appropriate way. We relied too much on the technical language native to the energy technology sector, because it hadn’t been clear the extent to which this might be unintelligible and even alienating.
We were also met with mistrust: some people figured we were just trying to sell them something. Later, when they exchanged views about what it meant to act in a climate-conscious way, participants expressed a sense of futility in an energy community like this, when the powers-that-be continued to do as they pleased. “It doesn’t matter what we do, with large corporations like Tata Steel or Schiphol Airport, or companies dumping waste across the border”. Politicians were no better. “The big men in The Hague, they just talk”. They’re not taking any real action, they felt, to reduce consumption or to go against infractions. Of course, dissatisfaction about government (in)action is nothing particular to them, but for them it meant that there was little point in taking matters into one’s own collective hands. The fact that many of them expressed a sense of isolation in their neighbourhood only strengthened that conclusion. They articulated the experience of not being part of things, of society, of a collective endeavour.
Fortunately, the project offered us the opportunity to come back more often and continue to work with people in the community. This allowed us to a modest degree to address the sense of feeling ‘out of the loop’ and to make the technology more accessible. Our project budget allowed us a small number of neighbourhood workshops: events to learn about the energy community, to play around with the software, as well as to deliberate with neighbours about the values and wishes for this community concept. As a result, we could be a listening ear. By giving a stage to people’s thoughts and feelings, they got a better sense of their (potential) role in this big energy transition, which gave their engagement with the process a boost. They felt valuable. With this, we could see the potential in our approach to reverse the sense of marginalization and futility they had expressed earlier.
We want to stress we see it as a potential though. While we could bring the volunteer participants together, we could not grow the whole community with more neighbours. While we could help them ease into the energy platform and form an opinion about it, only half of our observed needs were implemented by the developer. The space for our community engagement – for co-creation, in other words – was insufficient to overcome the shortcomings built into the project. To conclude this essay, we’d like to take these limits as the basis for a reflection about the prospect for action researchers in (energy) transitions.
We start our reflection with an unoriginal but necessary observation: there is little value in a technocentric approach to innovation. When an actor wants to try and change the way something is done (for instance to manage energy flows locally, in a collective with new technologies), it needs input from a wide range of stakeholders, including in this case, neighbourhood residents. In a technocentric vision, the latter are reduced to simple ‘(end) users’ of a technology. “Users” are not people who live complex social lives, who have histories, different capabilities, and complicated relationship to this new way of doing. There is no way around these relationships if innovations are to be fair and successful.
What can we as applied anthropologists in the role of action researchers do here? What is the prospect for intervention? In our experience, we can empower participants to a certain extent. We can make complexity accessible, by breaking it down into more digestible bits. We can use input from one workshop to prepare the next one, making sure it suits their learning needs. As a result, people tell us, they learn things. That in turn elevates the discussions we have with them, about the merits and shortcomings of the project’s approach to community energy. They become more equal partners in co-creation, breaking out of the ‘user’ mould.
More subtle, but perhaps more fundamental and powerful, is that we listen. As anthropologists, we have learned to listen closely, and appreciate the context and wider implications of what people tell us. We are better positioned to step outside of the interpretive framework of the project we work in (its design scope, if you will), often pretty narrowly defined around what energy systems ‘need’ from end-users. In the case of Goudstein, this ability allowed us to address the lack of trust, sense of isolation and futility that we encountered.
But if our ultimate goal as action researchers is to help citizens-residents-users shape new energy solutions to their advantage, by creating a more inclusive and fair process that enables them to integrate their interests, then we find ourselves in a limited role indeed. That role is circumscribed by a specific mandate – usually, one set by the leading partners in a consortium. When we discover from our interactions with residents that the problem definition that guides the project might not be the best one, we have limited scope to renegotiate this problem definition. Projects are pinned down pretty tightly, and any renegotiation would involve multiple partners to converge. Resistance to change is built in. For citizen participants, the balance of power also tilts in favour of the developers, who have more knowledge and more direct influence over what gets built. As a consequence, residents will often complain that their concerns are not being heard by developers. While our added value is that we can translate these concerns to project partners, whether they put it into action is, structurally, out of our hands.
While innovation, as funded by the EU, has evolved over the years to demand more attention to the social dimensions, there is still a lot of room to grow: right now, technology developers still get to set the terms of innovation, by defining the initial design scope. Innovation still follows where the money already is. But if social innovation is to be taken seriously, as the EU has acknowledged³ it should be, for this long period of transition to be fair and just, then citizens need to become problem (co-)owners. More space for co-creation needs to be made at the initial scoping stage of innovation venture. Funding terms should emphasize process over product. When that happens, the role of action researchers (and perhaps applied anthropologists in particular) as context-sensitive intermediaries and translators might become more fully realized as well.
¹ Social innovation
² Our work
³ EU acknowledged social innovation is to be taken seriously
 Details of the projects in this article have been changed to safeguard anonymity.