“Community food projects are not about food, and community energy projects are not about energy” was one of the conclusions from an international workshop of experts on ‘grassroots innovations’. These are initiatives which aim to promote sustainable development from the bottom up, and commonly have broad objectives including community-building and social inclusion, as well as environmental sustainability.
The three-day workshop was organised by Dr Gill Seyfang (a senior lecturer in sustainable consumption, at 3S, UEA) and Dr Adrian Smith (a senior researcher in innovation and policy studies at SPRU, Sussex) from May 16-18th, 2012, and held at the University of Sussex.
It drew together thirty-six experts in grassroots innovations to discuss their work studying community-based solutions for sustainable development across a range of sectors including food, energy, housing, finance, governance and consumption. These included community gardens, local currencies, eco-housing projects, community-owned renewable energy, low-carbon lifestyles, community-supported agriculture schemes and local car-sharing projects.
What this growing list of grassroots innovations have in common is that they involve networks of activists and organisations generating novel bottom–up solutions for sustainable development; solutions that respond to the local situation and the knowledge, interests and values of the communities involved.
Gill Seyfang explains “Projects such as these have often been seen as community development, but we are interested in the innovative aspects of what they do – trying to create more sustainable food, housing, or energy systems. We want to understand how can we best support and harness this enthusiasm and innovation?”.
The workshop examined how different types of grassroots innovations operate, how they might be able to create alternative possibilities within mainstream systems, and how we can best understand their characteristics and help them achieve their potential to contribute to more sustainable development.
A key finding from the workshop is how vulnerable such initiatives are, being dependent on grant funding and volunteers, and needing support in terms of funding, information and expert advice. “Another challenge for these types of projects relates to how firmly rooted they are in local contexts, and rely on very specific types of people, skills and resources”, commented Adrian Smith, “This rootedness is what makes these projects successful, but it also presents challenges when it comes to replicating the ideas elsewhere. Grassroots Innovations need considerable support to spread and grow into wider society”.
A poster session and competition for early-career researchers offered a chance to discuss newly-emerging research in the field. The 2012 Grassroots Innovations award for Best Poster was won by Rachael Durrant from SPRU, Sussex, for her poster depicting her PhD on researching grassroots food initiatives.
A selection of the workshop papers will go forward to publication in Global Environmental Change.