International Development, Community, and Environment

Grassroots innovations and socio-technical system change: Energy retrofitting of the residential housing stock

Halina Szejnwald Brown, Clark University
Philip J. Vergragt, Clark University


Introduction The economic and environmental transition to a low carbon economy is now at the forefront of the technology, policy, and socio-economic development discussions in the United States and internationally. A critical arena for this transformation is in buildings, which account for more than 70 percent of electricity use (USDOE 2007) and almost 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States (EIA 2006). Together with transportation, buildings are among the major determinants of the environmental impacts of cities. Buildings are more than just physical artifacts; they are part of a complex socio-technical system. The term ‘socio-technical system’ denotes a stable configuration of dominant technological artifacts and the knowledge how to use them, embedded in institutions, professional practices, cultural meanings, and physical infrastructure, and serving a societal function. A fundamental change in such a system is very difficult because, in addition to technological change, it requires changes in existing institutions, infrastructures, established behaviors of multiple communities of practice, knowledge networks, belief systems and lifestyles. Among the ‘transition research’ community there has been a great deal of interest during the past decade in small-scale (niche) experiments as possibly an effective way to facilitate large-scale system-level changes (Raven 2005; Brown et al. 2003; Brown and Vergragt 2008). For newly constructed residential homes, Austria represents a case of a successful emergence of a niche and a subsequent diffusion into the mainstream (Ornetzeder and Rohracher 2009), driven largely by the professional community with government support. But this seems to be an isolated case (Germany is a distant runner up). Elsewhere, numerous small-scale community-based experiments have been carried out in Europe and the United States, with so far minimal impacts on changing the existing socio-technical system (Smith 2007). But focusing on new construction, even under the best of circumstances, is an incremental and long-term strategy for energy conservation; during the pre-2008 housing boom in the United States, new construction represented less than 1 percent of all homes. Attention must therefore focus on the existing housing stock: on energy upgrades (retrofits) and on microgeneration using non-carbon energy sources. In Massachusetts, this is particularly important for three reasons: with a flat population growth rate, Massachusetts does not expect a housing construction boom in the near future, even when we get the current financial crisis behind us; the characteristic charming New England-style Massachusetts homes are well-loved, but old and leaky in all price categories; the regional climate is characterized by extreme temperatures and humidity levels in the winter and summer, which makes high demands for space heating and airconditioning. Today, every municipal energy action plan (and there are thousands of those) recognizes that reducing energy consumption by the existing housing stock is very important. Just as clear has become the recognition that a transition in that system is more difficult than with new construction. For one thing, the relatively high costs of the upgrades rest squarely on the shoulders of home owners and landlords whose financial resources are often much more constrained than those of new housing developers. Second, it requires mobilizing the homeowners to give energy performance a high priority, which so far has proven to be very difficult. Third, landlords and renters have inconsistent interests. Additionally, the empirical experience accrued in many local ‘weatherization’ programs has so far not translated into a collective learning of how to achieve success in that area. Two central arguments of this chapter are that small-scale experimentation is necessary for affecting a transition in the socio-technical system of residential housing stock; and that in order to increase the effectiveness of such experiments one needs to understand the system and its key actors. The chapter describes an ongoing small-scale experiment in which we have participated over the past two years in Worcester, Massachusetts: the Worcester Housing, Energy and Community (WoHEC) group. The salient features of this experiment are its framing as community development, its design through a multi-stakeholder process focused on higher order learning, and its deep connection to the rich network of grassroots organizations in the city. The theoretical framework for this experiment derives from the theory of higher order learning through experimentation and from the concept of grassroots innovation. We describe the evolution of this multi-stakeholder learning group in the context of the civil action in the city; and we describe the difficulties in achieving learning and change in the face of strong institutionalized traditional framings and experiences in housing retrofit projects. The chapter proceeds as follows: the next two sections present the conceptual framework and the elements of the housing stock socio-technical system. The fourth section reviews local energy retrofits programs in the United States, highlighting their key features; the following one describes the Worcester case where grassroots innovations, multi-stakeholder experimentation, and innovative policies are aiming to get large-scale retrofitting of residential building under way. The final section offers conclusions and suggestions for further research and empirical work in this area.