Practices and complex system change – talk at EC Joint Research Centre


The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre is a daunting place to go to deliver a paper. The entrance to the enormous site resembles a border. A row of control cabins, each with an armed guard outside, check every vehicle. Anyone without the necessary permissions goes to a desk to handover ID in return for being checked as an expected visitor. On the way out another armed guard with a german shepherd dog scans your new visitor badge and checks it against your ID again.

My first visit there today was to kick off the two days of panel presentations and discussion at a JRC Exploratory Workshop, Energy Sustainability in the Transition to Renewables: Framings from Social Practices and Complex Systems Theories. The workshop aimed to bring together these two contemporary approaches to see how they could help policy – including through identifying further research needs – to confront the broader societal challenges of moving towards low carbon energy through deployment of renewables.

I drew on the research that I helped lead in the DEMAND centre to talk on Energy Infrastructures, Social Practices and Low Carbon Transitions. Exploring the relations between infrastructures and energy demand, through attention to the dynamics of practice and their relations to infrastructural change, I worked with material from this paper and from another currently languishing interminably with editors of a special issue. My slides along with all the others from the workshop are available here.



Energy demand if clearly important to confront in a transition to renewables on two key counts. First, the intermittency of renewables means demand has to be more flexible and responsive to changing levels of supply. Second, providing sufficient generation capacity to meet demand is clearly easier if demand is lower. Our research as part of DEMAND showed how infrastructural change over time is intimately related to changes in practice, generally constituting increasing dependency on energy provision for the conduct of ‘normal’ daily life. More broadly, though, exploration of the relations between infrastructures and energy demand demonstrates how practices shape each other across different locales comprising socio-technical systems – such as that of energy. Practices of planners, energy company employees, bankers, policy makers and more come to shape the routines of households, not least through the shaping of infrastructures. This relation so provides evidence of how practice theory can be engaged with complex socio-technical systems, demonstrating how these systems are always constituted and reproduced through practices and the flows of human action comprising them.

I was followed in the session by Franco Ruzzenti, talking through complex systems approaches, following different tracks of systemic relations to show how markets, digitisation of financial trading, pension schemes – amongst so many relations – are all part of energy systems and how they change.

The discussion that followed was excellent, kicking off with protest that there was no connection between the approaches – what could attention to the details of our daily lives, so much of which are in resistance to the logic of markets and finance, say about the overarching dominance of money and corporate power. Before I could jump in, voices from the floor answered, recognising that the locales constituting markets and power of money are themselves sites of practices. Clark A Miller from Arizona State University proposed that research aims to map the locales comprising complex systems and then the practices comprising them. Laura Watts, IT University of Copenhagen, pointed out the ready existing work that attends to such locales, particularly from Science and Technology Studies.

So, the session seemed to get the workshop off to a great start. Subsequent sessions confronted the profound challenges posed to a transition to renewables by the existing fossil fuel dependent regime of energy; questions of governance and justice, particularly in relation to community energy initiatives; the challenges of envisaging energy futures through scenarios and forecasting; and finally the roles of bodies, capacities and norms in the energy transition.

Given the JRC’s close relationship with the European Commission, it will be interesting to see where this goes, given the profound challenges of meaningfully brining relational approaches into the practices of policy making.

Author: Matt Watson

A Human Geographer at the University of Sheffield, interested in how everyday human action and social orders make each other, with implications for sustainability and wellbeing.

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