Grassroots innovations are community-led solutions for sustainability. They can offer promising new ideas and practices, but often struggle to scale up and spread beyond small niches. This website presents the latest news and updates from a series of research projects on grassroots innovations, including sustainable energy and complementary currencies, based at the University of East Anglia and University of Sussex. Our research aims to better understand how these innovations develop and grow, and how they can be harnessed to meet sustainability policy objectives.
This research agenda around Grassroots Innovations developed from an ongoing collaboration between Dr Gill Seyfang and Dr Adrian Smith, which began with a conference in 2005 and a subsequent journal article in Environmental Politics.
Why Are Grassroots Innovations Important?
Everybody, it seems, is committed to sustainable development. But not everybody is practising or seeking sustainable development in the same way. There is something qualitatively different between, say, a community supported organic vegetable box scheme and the range of organic products sold at a supermarket. Or a locally financed renewable energy scheme compared to an offshore wind farm operated by a multinational utility company. In each case, the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainable development are traded-off differently. They are practising quite different kinds of sustainable development.
We understand ‘grassroots innovations’ as follows:
- Grassroots initiatives are innovative networks of activists and organisations that lead bottom-up solutions for sustainable development; solutions that respond to the local situation and the interests and values of the communities involved. In contrast to conventional, incremental green reforms, grassroots initiatives seek to practice deeper, alternative forms of sustainable development.
- The initiatives involve committed activists who often seek to experiment with social innovations as well as using greener technologies and techniques in areas such as housing, renewable energy, food, and alternative money. They frequently seek to create new social institutions and ‘systems of provision’ based upon different values to those of the mainstream. Examples include community renewable energy initiatives, eco-housing, local organic food schemes, and community currencies such as time banks.
Attempts to meet our needs and desires more sustainably are generating a variety of social innovations as well as innovative technologies – new organisational arrangements and new tools – in a many different areas.
Our research explores the ways in which grassroots initiatives seek to practice sustainability. It will assess the potential relevance of grassroots innovations as a source of mainstream innovation for sustainable development. Our work addresses:
- The way grassroots initiatives provide different interpretations of sustainable development in practice.
- Benefits that these practical interpretations of sustainability might provide compared to mainstream government and business reforms.
- The degree to which grassroots initiatives can actually provide a source of ideas for mainstream innovations. In other words, the scope of interaction between grassroots niches and mainstream reforms.
Studies into past transformations to technology systems and social organisation suggest it can be difficult to break away from existing ways of doing things; and when transformation does happen, it tends to begin within a network of pioneering organisations, technologies and users that form a niche on the margins of the mainstream. Contrasts between niches and the mainstream can be drawn in many sectors, such as housing, food, energy and banking. Time banks (community-based time currencies) facilitate community activity differently compared to cash grants, because their structure nurtures reciprocity and social capital in a neighbourhood, valuing and rewarding the involvement of residents. Eco-houses built by green builders address sustainable housing in a very different way to the incremental improvements in energy efficiency offered by volume house-builders.
- Are these initiatives exemplars for a deeper sustainability?
- Just how realistic is it to expect such niches to seed change from the bottom-up in the absence of top-down processes of support?
- Do they contain lessons about sustainable development that are of mainstream relevance and that can promote wider change?