Smart Grids, Messy Society? An evaluation of the implementation of smart grids in Australia

I recently gave a research group seminar about the Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellowship grant that I am shortly to commence, based in at the University of Tasmania in Hobart. Smart Grids, Messy Society seeks to investigate how is learning is taking place from the early implementation of smart grids in Australia, and with what effect. The Future Fellowship research has two main aims: 1) to investigate the societal drivers for, and implications of, smart grids; and 2) to assess how smart grid implementation varies from place to place, and the implications of this for theories and practices of innovation and learning.

The short presentation covered what a smart grid is (a subject of much discussion, think IT meets utility infrastructures), and the large scale experiments that have been running in Australia trialling smart grids. There was interest in the types and extent of political protest against smart grids – most notable in the State of Victoria – where a political party has recently formed (‘People Power Victoria’) directly to campaign against smart grids. Questions and discussion were about the planned empirical research on the development of smart grid standards, the role of data in learning, and the neoliberal (and international) aspects of smart grid implementation.

Visions, preparedness and chats over a pint: how interdisciplinary proposals (and projects) come into being

On Thursday 30th October the Research Group had a lunchtime workshop on Interdisciplinary Research Proposals. Five minute reflections were provided by Franklin Ginn, Dan van der Horst, Ruth Doherty and Casey Ryan, including:
– a brief outline of the proposal (and subsequent project, if funded)
– their role in it (as Co-I/PI; disciplinary role)
– how the writing of the proposal was organised (and how well this worked)
– the challenges and opportunities of interdisciplinarity
– reflections: things they would do differently next time.

These reflections kick-started questions and discussion which covered practical issues (who wrote what for the proposal? whose idea was it? how crucial was the interdisciplinary framing of the Call for Proposals?) as well as more conceptual ones about the hierarchy (or integration) of disciplines within projects, and the role of language in interdisciplinary team misunderstandings.

Some of the more surprising things we learnt were that philosophers and theologians don’t do research, and that once funded there tends to be considerable flux in how the project is organised and how far it meets its original aims. One thing that struck me was the diversity of the four interdisciplinary proposals/projects discussed, ranging from funding just one person to a huge multi-institutional teams, plus the different ways in which the proposal writing was organised, as well as the management of the project, if funded.
A few pointers/lessons learned arising from the Workshop include:

  • Serendipity (and preparedness): the issue of timing – a Call for Proposals coming up at the right time, but also having an idea ready prepared for such an eventuality;
  • More unknowns and uncertainties working in interdisciplinary teams: there is a strong value in getting to know each other, and not rushing this process, as well as being happy with ambiguity (see Professor Catherine Lyall’s briefing on this issue here);
  • Director/PI of the project typically had a strong vision and ability to pull the interdisciplinary team together. Once funded, interdisciplinary projects ideally need a dedicated integrator – it might be the PI, or even the postdoc – but this person works to connect the different (disciplinary) elements of the project
  • A precondition for successful interdisciplinary proposals/projects is respect for other disciplines, and other types of expertise
  • The challenges in practice of really making an interdisciplinary proposal translate into an interdisciplinary project, ie in ensuring that integration of different disciplines does happen. Often these tensions manifest in the writing of academic papers, e.g. whether papers are written as a team, or on a disciplinary basis, and (relatedly) where they are published (i.e. in which journals). A 2008 paper by Professor Andrew Barry et al on the Logics of Interdisciplinarity, that speaks to some of these issues, was recommended by Franklin.

ESRG Seminar: Combining ecology and social sciences for understanding ecosystem services

The Environment and Society Research Group are pleased to welcome you to a seminar on Thursday 25 September, 12.30-1.30pm, location TBC (but in Geography somewhere):

‘Combining ecology and social science for understanding ecosystem services’
Alison Holt

The rising popularity of the concept of ecosystem services within policy and industry sectors has led to an urgent need to understand how natural systems actually provide those benefits, and what the trade-offs might be when making decisions about them. Achieving this will  require an interdisciplinary approach. I use a combination of ecological and social science techniques to look at how ecosystem services can be mapped, how governance structures for managing them have evolved in urban systems, and how they allow trade-offs in crop production to be revealed.

Dr Alison Holt, Research and Knowledge Exchange Fellow, Animal and Plant Sciences, The University of Sheffield

New Thinking Blog: Women and Energy

Care of IGov

A recent Ernst and Young report has shown that only 4% of executive board members of the top 100 utility companies is female. Not only does the sector have minimal women, but it is also primarily older and white in character – with 60% of its management over 40. The report argues that this is worrying in terms of diversity of thinking given that the current big kit, centralised energy model is in the middle of fundamental disruptive change and needs new and innovative thinking and practices.

The E&Y report focuses on business but there are similar problems across the energy public policy interface, whether in Government, civil service, the Regulator, NGOs, academia and so on. The outright daily sexism of energy in the 1980’s and 1990’s – which I endured – has been replaced with a much less obvious version – but it is still very powerfully there.

To read the full blog visit here

How do policies change over time?

Theories of the policy process (eg as proposed Sabatier, Rhodes, Hajer) suggest that changes in any particular policy sector can only be understood over periods of a decade or more. The response of the UK housing sector to climate change provides a good case study in this regard, as back in 2006 the government announced a policy that all new homes built in England and Wales must be zero carbon by the year 2016. In this radical shift in policy the government was clear about the benefits of providing a period of a decade in order to allow housebuilders and other key stakeholders to plan and adapt. However, in practice things haven’t turned out quite so well. As we approach the end of the ten year period things look pretty messy, and the environment is the undoubtedly the looser. The period since 2006 has in reality turned out to be a prolonged and often pretty ridiculous debate about over what ‘zero carbon’ in the 2016 zero carbon homes policy really means.


From 40-page reports (40 pages!) entitled ‘The definition of zero carbon’ (see above), to hidden footnotes in the Budget which reduce the planned carbon savings of the policy by a third, it is a case study that demonstrates both the messiness of policy change and its inherent politics. I discuss this case study in a recent paper for a workshop in Lund, ‘Devices and Desires: the Cultural Politics of a Low Carbon Society’, organised by Professor Harriet Bulkeley, Dr Johannes Stripple and Professor Matthew Paterson.

‘Climate Justice at Home’ -Seminar at ECCI, 26 June

A seminar will be held at the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation (ECCI) on the afternoon of 26th June on the subject of “Climate Justice at Home”.


The aim of this seminar is to bring together academic and policy actors to discuss what climate justice means in the Scottish/UK context and to explore new directions for research in this area. More information about the seminar is available here:

Too much work and not enough play?

A new paper by Martin Pullinger, in the journal Ecological Economics, looks at innovative policies to support working time reduction, which in its broadest sense means a reduction in the total levels of paid working time over the life course, such as through shorter weekly working hours, more days of vacation, career breaks, or early retirement.

Various authors have argued that working time reduction could contribute to reducing the environmental impacts of the economy, and may even be an essential component of a sustainable economic system. Environmental impacts would fall mostly because on average we would do less paid work, and so earn less and consume less.

And whilst a significant minority of us are stuck in the uncomfortable situation of having too little paid work, many of us at times feel the opposite pressure, of too much work. Research into the factors which influence how happy we are suggests that, for particular groups, and under the right conditions, working time reduction could actually be compatible with, and even beneficial for, increasing wellbeing, even with correspondingly lower incomes. As levels of work fall, we would have increasing leisure time that could be used towards wellbeing-enhancing activities that require more time, but which use fewer resources.

The new paper continues Martin’s work in this area, discussing how policies could be designed to support substantial working time reduction in a way that successfully combines environmental and wellbeing goals. The paper looks at innovative voluntary working time reduction policies from the Netherlands and Belgium, which give workers a high level of flexibility to alter their working patterns over their life course, looking at how these policies might be modified to better meet environmental and wellbeing goals.

As well as providing employees with increased rights to alter their working patterns, it also considers the need to provide greater financial support to make use of those rights, particular for lower income and other groups who don’t have the luxury of being able to afford to cut their income. It points a way towards an economic and social system more focused on activities that take more time, and less money and resources, to support our wellbeing.

Full paper (available open access): Pullinger, Martin (2014). “Working Time Reduction Policy in a Sustainable Economy: Criteria and Options for Its Design.” Ecological Economics 103: 11–19. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2014.04.009.

Guest talk by Dr Yolande Strengers, RMIT “Imagining the smart energy consumer: insights from Australia”

On Monday 28th April we were fortunate enough to welcome Dr Yolande Strengers from RMIT to our ad hoc Environment and Society research group guest speaker series. Her presentation “Imagining the smart energy consumer: insights from Australia” tackled a number of ingrained assumptions about resource management in the utility industry, including strategies such as creating ‘the active consumer’ and ‘assigning control to technology’. Her engaging talk also introduced us to the shiny, enthusiastic ‘Resource Man’.

Using social practice theory she helped unpack some of the problems with these dominant producer-led approaches to managing consumer demand. Sporting feedback, the ‘killer app’ for energy management, and the ‘sniff test’ were all introduced to help us consider the types of feedback already in daily use. The example of variable energy pricing in Australia, used to reduce air conditioning-led peaks in electricity demand during heatwaves, provided a fascinating insight into what may come to the UK in time (although probably not to Edinburgh for a while…).



University of Edinburgh consultation on responsible investment

Of interest to all those concerned about the environment, how it is governed and how particular funds shape it in particular ways, the following consultation is an important one…

“The University of Edinburgh was the first university in Europe to sign the UN Principles of Responsible Investment. Now, they’d like to know what staff, students and alumni think about how the University should invest its funds.

This consultation paper outlines and seeks views from the University community of staff and students on options for how the University of Edinburgh might fulfil its commitments under the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment. In order to adhere to the Principles, the University must incorporate environmental, social and corporate governance issues into its investment analysis and decision-making processes.

How to give your views

Image of the consultation paper's front cover

Although the issues surrounding the consultation are complex, we’ve made it as easy as possible to give your feedback. To submit a response to the consultation, complete the following steps:

  1. Read the consultation paper (PDF)
  2. Answer the questions using the online form

If you prefer, you can also submit your response by email. Send an email to with your answers to the numbered questions.

The consultation will close on Friday 7 March.

If you require this document in an alternative format, such as large print or a coloured background, or if you are unable to complete the consultation online please email or phone 0131 651 5588 (during office hours).”

For more information visit

Five year tenure track Chancellor’s Fellowships available

These prestigious awards are aimed at early independent research career individuals of the highest potential who have begun to establish a reputation for the quality of their research at the forefront of their discipline, and who have a commitment to teaching and student support at university level.  The awards are tenure track and for five years in the first instance.

**Note that the application deadline is Feb 7th, 2014, 17:00 GMT**

For further information, and to apply, please see our recruitment page. (, will open in new tab)

We welcome outstanding candidates in any area of the School’s research and teaching portfolio, but identify here some strategic areas.  The School has a strongly outward-facing ethos, and encourages applicants who are interested in building innovative links with other Schools in the University, in particular in areas associated with data-intensive research.

Potential applicants are encouraged to view information about the School’s Institutes, Groups and Collaborations that can be found on our website.  Information on current staff members can be found via their personal profile pages.