Article Review: “Growing Grassroots innovations

Seyfang, G. and Haxeltine, A. (2012) ‘Growing Grassroots Innovations: Exploring the role of community-based social movements in sustainable energy transitions’, Environment and Planning C  Vol 30(3) pp381-400  doi:10.1068/c10222

Pah. I bet this is going to be another wordy academic article full of passive sentences and dense thickets of jargon; idle scribblers giving useless advice to hard-working doers. Probably written by people who never escaped the … library. Mmm. That bit is quite interesting. Fluke! Useless bloody academics in their ivory… towerswow, hadn’t seen activist strategic needs laid out so clearly befo… They got lucky twice is all… It’s bound to disappear up its own… Wow, I need to tell Arwa and Mark about that conceptual framework. These guys are …. No, no!! Activists = Good, Academics = Parasites. Simple Worldview, Comfortable. Must defend…. Does not compute….. whrrrr [smoke comes out of author’s ears, and he cries out, falls to the ground clutching his head.]

This article, written by two Tyndall UEA academics, Gill Seyfang and Alex Haxeltine, clearly and cleverly thinks about climate campaigning (or rather “Transition Town”-ing) using lessons and frameworks from technology development – where innovations are given time to get de-bugged and supported until they can compete with the established technologies. In their terminology these experimental spaces are “niches” and therefore “strategic niche management” (SNM) is required if you’re to, um, manage your niche strategically.

Niches are variously defined in the literature, but we find the most constructive use of the term here is as follows: a protected space where suboptimally performing experiments can develop away from regime selection pressures. Niches comprise intermediary organisations and actors, which serve as ‘global carriers’ of best practice, standards, institutionalised learning, and other intermediating resources such as networking and lobbying, which are informed by, and in turn inform, concrete local projects (experiments). (p 383)

The authors immediately continue

In the SNM literature Kemp et al (1998) identify three key processes for successful niche growth and emergence: managing expectations, building social networks, and learning. (p 383)

And, in a bit more detail…

Expectation management concerns how niches present themselves to external audiences and whether they live up to the promises they make about performance and effectiveness. To best support niche emergence, expectations should be widely shared, specific, realistic and achievable.

 Networking activities are claimed to best support niches when they embrace many different stakeholders, who can call on resources from their organisations to support the niche’s growth.

 Learning processes are held to be most effective when they contribute not only to everyday knowledge and expertise but also to ‘second-order learning’ wherein people question the assumptions and constraints of regime systems (Kemp et al, 1998). (p 384)

This is all very commonsensical, but to have it laid out so clearly is, imho, bloody useful…

So, niches are nice, but what then? There’s not much point having a green ghetto, is there (cough cough)?

Successful niches facilitate the diffusion of innovative sociotechnical practices and systems, and theory suggests three ways by which niches can influence the regime: by enabling replication of projects within the niche, bringing about aggregative changes through many small initiatives; by enabling constituent projects to grow in scale and attract more participants; and by facilitating translation of niche ideas into mainstream settings. (p 384)

The authors  make the sound point that the Transition Towns movement “does not intend to trigger a transition, but instead responds to landscape pressures at a microlevel and seeks to grow a niche of new infrastructure and practices to replace the incumbent regime when it fails to function.”

After laying out who the TTers are, and what they’ve been up to, Seyfang and Haxeltine offer up some sound advice. Yes, you can say it’s banal, but I’d rather call it obvious (in the same way that so much hindsight is; this is foresight, and precisely what I loot the Ivory Tower for…)  Clippings from the two of the three headings below –

6.1 Foster realistic and achievable expectations

 Managing expectations among the wider public is a vital part of SNM, but there is more to consider than branding and logos. It would be valuable to consider how TTs publically convey messages and visions about what the initiative can deliver in terms of practical opportunities for action. In addition, the majority of participants will not want to be involved as organisers, so the movement must communicate what it offers a wider, less-committed public, who may nevertheless become engaged through tangible projects offering immediate benefits. Our analysis found a lack of realistic and achievable expectations both among members (internally) and in relation to the wider public (externally), which hampers movement development and growth.

…. offering realistic and achievable goals, in order to engage participation more effectively. Additionally, if marketing efforts focus on this type of practical, local action, rather than on the enormity of the system transformation required, then community engagement is much more likely to spread beyond committed environmentalists and the movement will generate a reputation for delivering solution-oriented results. Finally, this strategy might be more successful at retaining the interest of those who initially come to meetings, but drift away because the group is stuck in an ‘awareness-raising’ phase and not attending to the needs of those who want to take action.  (p 393)

6.2 Network widely outside the movement, with resourceful stakeholders.

6.3 Adopt social and experiential learning strategies

Transition initiatives aim to offer practical activities in numerous areas —such as food growing and learning skills —which are all valuable opportunities for social learning. Currently, the movement promotes educational information-giving events (which largely fail to attract audiences beyond a core of already-committed activists) as a prerequisite for action —employing a deficit model of behaviour change. But is changing minds necessary in order to change behaviour? Research on behaviour change for sustainable consumption largely rejects simplistic linear cognitive models in favour of more sophisticated approaches which consider social and psychological aspects of decision making which are familiar to marketers (meeting nontangible needs such as identity, self-expression, belonging, aspiration, and recognition) and sociological and infrastructural influences on behaviour choices (such as the configuration of systems of provision: availability, accessibility, convenience, habit and routine, inconspicuous consumption) .

In their conclusion, after admitting that technology development isn’t a perfect analogy, Seyfang and Haxeltine add

“Therefore, moving above and beyond technical and cognitive questions of information provision and behaviour change, our efforts to diffuse social movement niches must attend to these social – psychological aspects of the movement as they seek to grow and spread into wider publics: strategising how group identity is formed and maintained, how group cohesion is fostered and built, and how a sense of collective purpose is critical to ongoing participation and niche consolidation. However, such strong internal identity formation and community building might equally be an inhibiting factor to wider groups of participants who do not wish to adopt the identities offered by participation.

Consequently, an additional critical factor for niche diffusion of grassroots innovations is to carefully negotiate this element of group identity and community building and to manage the competing voices comprising the niche. In terms of theory for grassroots innovations, what is required, then, is an understanding of how identity, belonging, purpose, and sense of community underlie niche growth and the evolution of goals and priorities over time.” (p 396)

This has come along at exactly the right time, just when the first phase of the “Steady State Manchester” project is being conceptualised.

This paper will get turned into a two page bluffer’s guide, and also into a youtube (the SNM/S&M gag writes itself, after all)

And best of all, it’s downloadable, for free, via this post on the from the “grassroots innovations” website.

Marc Hudson
mcmonthly@gmail.com

(1) Dr Seyfang has form when it comes to being useful

PS I’ve now had a google-around and see that Strategic Niche Management is quite a cottage industry, especially Dutch-wise.  Still, don’t want to edit the post above to appear jaded and knowing – this really is a good piece of work, dead useful to activists who want to reflect and use intellectual tools to reduce their organisation’s internal muppetry.

About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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