01. March | 2018

Breaking the Rules! Energy Transitions as Social Innovations

Call for Sessions for International Conference in June, 2018

The transformation of energy systems has profound implications for the ways in which our societies are organized, and must therefore be understood as process of social change and social innovation. In many ways, energy systems structure our economies and mirror our attitudes and values regarding the definition of public goods, of justice, and of equity. The transition from one system to another calls these habits, values, practices, and norms into question, and replaces them with others, in a process that is necessarily conflictive and that may surpass our traditional (educationally formed) knowledge and understanding of energy. Among others, energy transitions challenge our basic understanding of what energy means for our everyday lives, where and by whom it should be produced, and how it should be distributed and traded. The range of possible transition pathways is spurring the imagination and the creativity of individual entrepreneurs, large companies, collectives, utilities, and many more. At the same time, these highly innovative dynamics are being resisted by incumbents and increasingly also by local protest groups.

The conference invites international scholars to discuss social innovations in the context of energy transitions, and to spark a debate about their meaning for theories of social innovation, for questions of energy governance, for the evolution of social energy innovations and how they challenge existing power structures in the energy sector. The conference is guided by four overarching themes, each of which will be explored in at least two conference sessions.

For a detailed overview of conference themes and sessions please click here.


  • Theorizing social energy innovations
  • Governing social energy innovations
  • Drivers and obstacles to social energy innovations
  • Transforming existin gpower structures through social energy innovations


  • Politicizing clean energy transitions: transformative politics and the popularization of social innovations
  • Social innovations in energy transition through transdisciplinary research
  • Governing urban innovations in energy and climate governance: closing the gap between leaders and laggards
  • Real life experiments as a governing tool for social innovations in the energy sector
  • Digitized energy transitions and social change
  • Backward oriented social innovations: How populist movements can stop clean energy transitions
  • Enabling citizens to engage in energy-related decision-making processes: The role of education, participation and ownership for a successful energy transition
  • Subsurface energy – challenges, constraints, acceptance

We invite paper presentations that either

  • explore one of the broader conference themes, or
  • relate to one of the specific conference sessions.

Abstracts should not exceed 500 words, and must be submitted in English language to Leslie Quitzow by March 15, 2018 (leslie.quitzow(at)wzb.eu & CC session convenor). Please be sure to include your name, institution, and the name of the conference session that you are applying for. Please direct all questions regarding the session design, presentation format, expected content etc. to the session convenor. Questions regarding overall conference organization may be directed to Leslie Quitzow.

Sessions chaired by IRS researchers

Two of the eight sessions of the Conference will be chaired by members of the IRS research department "Institutional Change and Regional Public Goods". Below you find the full Calls for Abstracts for both sessions. The application process is similar to all other sessions.

Governing urban innovations in energy and climate governance: closing the gap between leaders and laggards

Session chair: Prof. Dr. Kristine Kern, Leibniz Institute for Research on Society and Space (IRS)

Today, it is widely acknowledged that cities have become important players in energy and climate governance at national, European, and global scale. Leading cities did not only start earlier but have also set very ambitious goals. Cities and city networks have become active players in energy and climate governance. This panel focuses on different dimensions of the spread of social and political innovations in and among cities, the differences between leaders, followers and laggards, and the options to replicate and upscale urban policy experiments and thus close the gap between them. This includes, first, the spread of social and political innovations within cities, i.e. the transfer of local pilot and demonstration projects to other parts of the city and the options and challenges to govern such transfers. Second, this panel concentrates on the relationship between leading cities, followers and laggards in multi-level governance because urban energy transitions are needed in a wide range of cities and towns. In Europe, most leading cities in climate and energy governance are located in Northern Europe, Continental Europe, and the UK. Although leading cities such as Freiburg, Stockholm and Amsterdam share many characteristics, the development in each of these cities is path-dependent. Transition paths can be traced back several decades and may differ considerably, but certain types of transition pathways for leading cities and drivers for social and political innovations can be identified. The dynamic between leaders, followers, and laggards in multi-level energy and climate governance is driven not only by internal but also by external factors, particularly the participation of cities in city networks and their embeddedness in national, European and global energy and climate governance. While leading cities became active even before the states in which they are located, followers depend far more on national and European programs, such as national subsidy programs. In addition, there is evidence that upscaling of local experiments may require national minimum standards and strategies to coordinate local action among small towns and villages. Papers in this panel will ask how leading cities, followers and laggards interact with each other and with other actors in multi-level governance systems to support the development and spread of social and political innovations in energy and climate governance.

Politicizing clean energy transitions: transformative politics and the popularization of social innovations

Session chair: Dr. Timmo Krüger, Leibniz Institute for Research on Society and Space (IRS).

The growth-oriented development model causes socio-ecological crises (economic crises, increasing inequalities, climate change, loss of biodiversity and so forth). Thus, the development model itself is in crisis - i.e. more and more actors assume that the current institutions are not able to solve the socio-ecological problems. Against this background, it is obvious that an energy transition can only be sustainable (understood here as strong sustainability) if it is embedded in a comprehensive transformation of society through social innovations. However, a comprehensive transformation of society is in conflict with supposed constraints deriving from the imperative of economic growth and the normalization of an imperial mode of living (for the concept 'imperial mode of living' cf. Brand/ Wissen 2013). Accordingly, energy transitions are to a great extent technocratic projects, in which prevailing power relations and hegemonic structures remain unchallenged. Social criticism and claims for fundamental alternatives - that are discussed under the headings buen vivir, climate justice, degrowth or energy democracy etc. - remain marginalized. Nevertheless, in the course of politicizing processes counter-hegemonic alternatives can become more important. The quest for such opportunities and potentials of politicizing energy transitions is the focus of this session, which is based on a broad understanding of energy transitions (including politics of sufficiency as well as changes of cultural norms and institutional arrangements). Politicizing processes are driven by transformative politics. The term 'transformative politics' comprises very different networks, initiatives and social movements that work on popularizing social innovations. Their actions are transformative insofar as they don't ensconce themselves in a small niche, but aim at changing social values, norms and institutions (Calvário/ Kallis 2017: 599ff). Such transformative politics from below thrive to a large extent on locally embedded social innovations. In general, the localization or regionalization of economic cycles plays an important role in the debates about degrowth, energy democracy, sufficiency etc. At the same time, locally embedded innovations very often are integrated into global networks. Manzini (2013) calls this phenomenon "cosmopolitan localism". Submissions for presentations on the following issues are welcomed:

  • How can one grasp, conceptionalize and operationalize transformative sociopolitical innovations from below?
  • Which insights - regarding potentials and obstacles for politicizing energy transitions - can be gained from empirical studies on transformative sociopolitical innovations from below?
  • What is the significance of re-localization processes for the aspired politicization of energy transitions?
  • Is the concept 'cosmopolitan localism' suitable for grasping re-localization processes?

About the Event

"Breaking the Rules! Energy Transitions as Social Innovations"

International conference hosted by the Leibniz Research Alliance on Energy Transitions

  • June 14th & 15th, 2018
  • WZB Berlin Social Science Center

Further Information and Call Submission: