What is social innovation?

Social innovation is roughly defined as,

New ideas that work in meeting social goals

(Mulgan et al., 2007)

Social innovation in the energy transition

With social innovation in the energy transition the concept of social innovation is contextualised in the domain of energy systems transitioning into more sustainable ones that also allow for more distributed generation of energy. This does not mean that the concept should be misunderstood as all social or human (i.e. “non-technical”) factors that are at play in the energy transition. In the recent past misunderstanding was very common. To cope with this misunderstanding we were convinced there was a need for a new definition. This led us to conduct a literature review that would eventually be published in a special issue that followed upon the 2017 Symposium we organized. In the guest editorial note of the special issue we defined social innovation in the energy transition as,

Innovations that are social in their means and contribute to low carbon energy transition, civic empowerment and social goals pertaining to the general wellbeing of communities.

(Hoppe & de Vries, 2019, p. 141)

This triggered an academic debate to search for a more holistic interpretation that would surpass the mere instrumentalist interpretation of the concept, that would “reduce it to a tool (merely) serving particular policy objectives.” This led to coining social innovation as an important dimension of current transformations in energy systems, and broadening its understanding, providing a broader imagination and strategizing of structural changes in energy systems. This includes 1) more attention to the normative complexity of the concept; 2) more appreciate of the multi-actor nature of social innovation; 3) understand it as an analytical entry point for socio-material intertwinement; and, 4) to understand social innovation as premised on experimentalism-based intervention logics (Wittmayer et al., 2020).

Application in the energy transition

With social innovation in the energy transition the concept of social innovation is contextualised in the domain of energy systems transitioning into more sustainable ones that also allow for more distributed generation of energy.

Key topics relevant to social innovation in the energy transition are for instance:

  • Community energy initiatives (e.g., renewable energy cooperatives), its implications for society and impact;
  • New governance arrangements, policies and modes for inter-actor collaboration in the energy domain, in particular supporting grassroots movements;
  • New business models and institutional arrangements that support them in support of citizen-led action and projects in the energy transition;
  • New participative approaches like co-creation and co-production of energy transition policy; (e.g. in (r)urban living labs);
  • Social incentives to ‘nudge’ behavioral change;
  • Serious energy games (like Go2Zero).

At Delft University of Technology

At Delft University of Technology researchers work on several projects that address the matter.

Here are a few examples:

EU-Interreg 2Seas SHIFFT:

On co-creation in sustainable heating transition projects in six pilot sites in four EU countries (Belgium, France, the Netherlands, the U.K).

RVO “Schools as energy embassies in neighbourhoods”:

On co-creation at the neighbourhood level where schools serve as focal actor supporting multi-actor co-creation processes resulting in low carbon actions.


Climate targets will not be met by reducing emissions alone - negative emissions technologies that remove and sequester carbon dioxide are also necessary. Land-Based Mitigation Technologies (LMTs) and practices are part of the solution. Agriculture, forestry, and other land use sectors are potentially able to absorb huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. LANDMARC is a 4 year project (2020-24) that will improve our understanding of how and where Land Based Mitigation Technologies can be most effectively deployed. We will bring together stakeholders, Earth observation technology and computer modelling to estimate the global realistic potential of the Earth’s land surface in absorbing additional carbon from the atmosphere.  We develop new assessment methodologies and tools. Our work will help Governments identify suitable LMTs for their countries and quantify their impact.

EU-H2020-SCCALE 20-30-50:

Sustainable Collective Citizen Action for a Local Europe (SCCALE) 20-30-50 intends to bring Europe closer to its citizens. Building on the work of local communities across Europe, the project looks to further scale the development of European energy communities. SCCALE 20-30-50 is looking to continue and amplify the work of the previous (EU-FP7) REScoop 20-20-20 project, and the Covenant of Mayors. TU Delft is involved in work package 2 (academic research and validation) developing and validating a community energy progress development tool whilst using it to monitor progress in five community energy pilots.


TIPPING+ provides an empirical in-depth social science understanding of fundamental changes in sociodemographic, geographical, psychological, cultural, political, and economic patterns which give rise to Social-Ecological Tipping Points (SETPs), both positive and negative in relation to socio-energy regional systems. Such empirical and theoretical insights will shed light on the interdependencies between changes in regional socio-cultural structures and the technological, regulatory and investment-related requirements for embracing (or failing to embrace) low-carbon, clean-energy and competitive development pathways in selected coal and carbon intensive case study regions (CCIRs). The overall goal is to understand why and under which conditions a given social-ecological regional system heavily dependent on coal and carbon-intensive activities may flip into a low-carbon, clean energy development trajectory.

On the Move - Mobility in Transition:

Mobility must become sustainable. That requires not only technological but also social innovation. In this research project, researchers, public stakeholders and private companies collaborate to systematically reveal behavioural patterns in the interaction between government, organisations and travellers.


NEON is a multidisciplinary research program addressing three interrelated societal challenges: climate action, renewable energy, and smart and sustainable transport. Integral research projects combine societal, economic and technological expertise to understand and solve today's big challenges.

NWO just prepare:

In underprivileged neighbourhoods, attempts to realize sustainable energy transition face mismatches between retrofit of poorly insulated homes and residents’ energy practices, and between residents and those actors planning and implementing solutions. These mismatches may hamper the energy transition in terms of effectiveness and justice. JUST PREPARE develops the necessary methodological and substantive knowledge in Amsterdam Zuid Oost, Rotterdam Bospolder Tussendijken, Nijmegen and Gemert; uses that knowledge to create solutions in Living Labs with municipalities, housing corporations, residents and other relevant actors; improves these solutions on that basis; and prepares the findings for use elsewhere in a Learning Lab with Living Lab participants and a wider group of municipalities, businesses and other stakeholders.