In the Spotlight: Anna Harnmeijer

Sep 17, 2014

Anna works with MHG Systems in Finland

Topic: Inclusive business models and sustainable energy - distributed ownership, engagement and incentivization in the digital era

Q: Since the start of CASTLE your topic has shifted quite a bit. What happened?

Initially I set out to assess the potential for whole chain monitoring and transparency of quality and sustainability in bioenergy supply chains.  It has been very difficult to find companies willing to develop and implement such a system, despite new and pending sustainability legislation in biofuel and bio-based heat and electricity sectors. This raised some interesting questions about how companies are responding to emerging value-chain-wide sustainability legislation in terms of everyday operations and strategic management, which I started putting together in the form of a paper. 

Then around May this year, I got an opportunity to work on more radical departures from ‘business as usual’; namely on citizen led renewable energy generation. There is heaps of innovation going on at the fringes of the market, which is generally not lead by large established utility companies. I have not lost interest in the role of networking and communication, and intelligent ICT solutions are a key focus in many up and coming social innovations and ‘smart grid’ concepts.  

Q: Why is social innovation so important to you?

I think there is a fundamental relationship between environmental sustainability and the way we organise production. Throughout history, there have been waves of bottom-up collective action, in the form of local co-operatives for instance, always in response to periods of rapid free market development, when people feel that markets no longer address their needs and the government has to a large extent left them to their own devices. The capacity of the market to co-ordinate and distribute people, skills, raw materials and products is astonishing. But the recession has very much revived the sentiment that we are too detached from each other and from the environmental consequences of our choices, and that there are business models and financial innovations that can rectify that. Economists talk about a more distributed ownership of capital, sociologists talk about ‘bringing the economy back down to the people’- but everybody is talking about it.  Bioenergy is interesting in that sense because it naturally lends itself to more local energy economies.  

Q: How is your work progressing? What do you plan to do over the next 6 months?

I feel that while I am spread quite thin across various topics, I am on the right path. I am juggling four projects, and have a bunch of papers lined up, at variable degrees of completion. I have just finished a very insightful secondment with the Dutch Research Institute for Transitions that has helped me frame my ideas in the context of existing theories for broad societal transition: a mix of complex system theory, governance and social theories of technology. In 2015 I hope to collaborate with a UK woodfuel supplier that is about to implement MHG’s supply chain wide information management system, and hopefully complete the work I started in 2014. I am also going to India with an ambitious Scottish social enterprise (Scene Consulting) to place problems of breakdowns and lack of parts and services for off-grid renewable energy installations in a broader technology innovation systems perspective – also focusing on knowledge and information networks. I suspect that I will be writing up the most part of 2015!  

Q: What would you like to do after CASTLE?

I would like to be involved in the management of complex multi-party projects in which local ownership or engagement plays a role, as well as continue with practice-oriented research in this field. The ultimate challenge would be to tie together the two strands of social innovation and environmental impacts empirically: to investigate the relationship between the scale of production networks, locality and environmental impacts, either experimentally (which would be hard) or doing some modelling. There is an entire related field for community-led natural resource management, which would be worth exploring. I also want to put my money where my mouth is – by investing in renewables myself!

Q: What are your thoughts on the CASTLE project so far, and the training courses in particular?

The idea of setting up a European network of PhD students working on complementary topics is excellent. The trainings provide an opportunity to build a professional network in this field, but also to share and discuss problems and opportunities with other ESR’s on a regular basis as we progress through our respective research.  It is often hard for PhD students to find their way and define their topic, let alone in a new country where you have to prove yourself from scratch and immerse yourself in new research networks. Having each other has been very useful.