Discussing Design Activism and Community Energy at the AAG conference

Sabine Hielscher from the CISE team attended the American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting in New York at the end of February. The conference brought together over 7000 delegates with around 50 sessions running at the same time over a period of five days. It was ‘big’ conference, making it a great place to meet other researchers and hear some interesting presentations.

The CISE paper was accepted as part of the ‘Design, Design Activism and the Democratic Production of Future Natures’ session. This session considered ‘the tensions and possibilities that design activism and the idea of social design politics generated for a politics of space and possibly a new politics of the environment’. The session organisers (Damian White and Cameron Tonkinwise) asked for sociological and geographical explorations of phenomena like the Transition Town movement and forms of design politics/ activism.

The CISE team took this call for papers as an opportunity to explore some of the similarities between design activism and community energy and to reflect on the ways they can learn from each other. Both areas:

  • Instigate and experiment with sustainable grassroots changes
  • Focus on practical actions and regard lobbying activities as secondary
  • Aspire to spread and amplify their efforts

Drawing on the CISE work (i.e. in-depth community energy case studies, interviews with key inter-project community energy intermediaries) and secondary literature on design-based social innovations, the presentation examined these ‘niche spaces’ in order to discuss in more depth the dilemmas between either concentrating on project based practical action or engaging in strategic lobbying efforts.

In our presentation we concluded that experiences with community enery in the UK indicate that in order to spread current practical action, design based social innovation needs to become more strategic and engage in lobbying activities and alliances that help to create broader political spaces that increase the possibilities for practical project based actions.