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Niche Innovations and the socio political economy

15th March 2022

By Dr Simon Batchelor (Gamos Ltd. / Loughborough University).

In their blog and the associated working paper, Newell and Daley explore the political economy (PE) of modern energy cooking services. They conclude there has been a ‘mutual neglect’ between the PE of access to electricity and the PE of clean cooking. For those of you wanting a shorter summary please find their briefing note.

I like the phrase ‘mutual neglect’ because its not that anyone sat and planned the neglect. Everyone has been doing their best, it’s just the way the world works:- a direction of thinking begins, gets reinforced and soon the majority of people are subscribing to the same storyline. MECS, the programme, was presented to UK Aid as a possible alternative approach, and as such we have sought to challenge the ‘mutual neglect’.

In their paper, Newell and Daly looked at the political ‘landscape’ in terms of the Multi-Level Perspective (MLP) (Geels 2002) and the ways in which it interacts with, supports and frustrates niche developments around electric cooking.  They present a ‘Geels’ diagrammatic representation of niche innovations in sociotechnical transition pathways. They saw this as “the use of electrification for modern energy cooking is seen as a niche intervention competing with dominant regimes around cooking with international organisations, financial institutions and donors operating as landscape actors that can create openings for disruptive and accelerated change by applying pressure to – and ultimately disrupting – the incumbent regime.”

I reflected on their presentation and paper and thought about how the dominant regime itself is changing, and what is currently thought of as a niche innovation (i.e. the use of electricity for cooking in low and middle income countries) might become the dominant regime. In these thoughts I realised that actually electric cooking is already a dominant regime in developed economies – I use it for all my home cooking here in the UK and think nothing of putting the kettle on for a cup of tea.

In trying to represent this, I of course inevitably made the diagram more complex particularly by considering how the ‘niche innovation’ (i.e. ecooking with energy efficient appliances) might apply to both developed economies and least developed economies. In the former, there is a significant change that has begun and will continue into the coming decade…. Climate change is forcing the energy systems to decarbonise, and so while, at the moment, renewable energy is seen as an additional component in the mainly fossil fuel based energy landscape, it is very likely to become the majority norm of a new energy landscape. So I made a band at the top to represent the socio technical system of developed economies, and noted that  electric cooking itself is not a niche technology in developed economies, but that electric cooking with new energy efficient appliances might be considered a niche innovation in the transition to a low carbon economy. 

However in least developed economies, energy efficient electric coking is definitely a niche innovation. So I considered a lower band of a socio economic system of developing economies, and which are in themselves  a landscape that is changing. They may interact directly with the upper band as the developed economy changes to low carbon. 

That left me representing the niche innovation (electric cooking with energy efficient appliances) as something which mainly contributes and flows into developing economies but may also flow into developed economies as part of their transition to low carbon. (I mean, who doesn’t like to save some money on energy efficient appliances, and so something created perhaps for least developed economies could easily find a home in the new low carbon socio technical system developed economies seeking to reduce energy consumption and alleviate costs). 

Finally I tried to map Newell and Daley’s evidence based observations on the transition (black writing in the centre) and pay homage to Geels original explanation of the diagram (green writing).  The result is a complex diagram that takes more than a moment to comprehend, but I hope that once you do, you might see that it is quite a succinct summary of the political economy and could help us to consider the policy enabling environment.

Some colleagues will see the diagram and raise their eyebrows, at such a complex representation that actually makes it harder to consider than perhaps words.  The words can be found in Newell and Daly, and indeed in my own working paper Batchelor 2020, but I present the diagram as an aide memoire and prompt of how the enabling policy environment might transition over the coming years and how the niche innovation might flow into such a transition.

Opportunity: Women in Modern Energy Cooking (WMEC) initiative launched