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Area-based niches

Sixth video lecture by dr. Christian Zuidema on area-based niches, energy potential mapping and thinking about local contextual circumstances.
The next topic I want to discuss with you has to do with what I call the area based niche. The niche was one of the words we used earlier during these courses, with regards to the idea of innovation that happens in a localised setting. If we indeed look at how the idea of a niche is being framed currently, within the idea of transition management, we also see that the niche is such a localised spot where innovation takes place– usually a spot a little bit outside of the common system.
So basically a place for somebody like a scientist might be inventing something new or maybe a place where an entrepreneur is trying to invent a new way of creating a business case or where a farmer’s trying to entrepreneur with some kind of new way to deal, for example, with bio mass. What I, however, would like to say is that these transitions might just need a little bit more than that, that a niche might be more than just technology or economy. This also relates to the very simple idea that, if we think about these transitions and if we think spatially, we immediately start to see that niches can’t really happen in isolation from the rest of the societal context.
They take place somewhere where people are involved, where existing systems are involved, which also means that, immediately, if you start to see that, innovations have to, to some degree, relate to other societal domains. These domains can do both physical and socioeconomic. Essentially what we now end up with is, again, the idea of an integrated energy landscape. That is, an energy system that is embedded within both its social, economic, and physical landscape. But if we look at that at a little bit more detail, what do we see then? Well, what we actually start to see is that, indeed, innovation becomes a little bit more than technology or economy.
We are also looking about innovation with regards to how the physical landscape might change. We are also looking at innovation with regards to the social economic landscape. We are talking, for example, about contracts, about new ways in which new actors and existing actors interact with each other, which means that innovation goes a little bit further than the technology. It is really also social and physical innovation. Now, if we then look at that in a little more detail, especially when we look at the spatial dimension. If we want to integrate energy systems within the physical landscape, it might be good to use an example, the example of a place called Haarlose Veld.
This is somewhere in the Netherlands, but it’s just an example. What happened here was something interesting. There were a few farmers that we’re starting to notice that actually the fields they were working on were fairly poor in soil quality. So they needed a lot of fertilisers to actually make the land fertile. These fertilisers were not that healthy, so what happened was, when there was rain, it actually went into the groundwater. Therefore, the water company wasn’t very happy. The farmers thought, we have to change this model.
What they started to do was use energy crops they could choose in winter, which meant that they had a little bit of extra revenues because these energy crops could be put in a bio digester. The bio digester not just created gas and not just created heat, it also creates substrate that can now be used on the land to strengthen the soil quality, which means that less fertiliser is needed and also that carbon capture takes place. They could get a few subsidies.
The water company wanted to pay with them and what we started to see was that, instead of having a nice embeddedness of space within the landscape, the energy aspect of it, bio gas and heat, was actually only one of the benefits. The other benefits related to cleaner water, less fertilisers, more agricultural output. That is agriculture and water benefited from the energy issue. A real synergy was found, where we saw that an integration of an energy system in the landscape might be beneficial.
Another example can actually be linked to the idea of social economic aspects because, also, when you start to actually work with people, it might just be that energy solutions can be a mode to deal with existing issues in villages. Livability, population decline are examples of issues that some villages are now coping with, in Europe, but also in other places. Energy might be one of those avenues where you can create some extra finances to, for example, help keeping the school opened or making sure that public transport can stay there.
And then energy is not necessarily only a problem that arrives as a not in my backyard phenomena, it might just be one of those things that you want because it can help you deal with issues in your village in the here and now. It doesn’t mean it’s always that simple but it does mean that, if you start to see how energy links to existing interests, how it links to the people who are now there, and how it links to the landscape, new opportunities also start to emerge. And that is the important thing, I think, about the area based niche. Innovation is not just about technology. It’s not just about new economical models.
It really also is about trying to understand how energy solutions fit into society, how they link into the people, and how they also link within the landscape that is already there.
In this video, Christian argues that using a spatial perspective can help for understanding and influencing a transition towards a sustainable energy system. He does so by introducing and explaining the idea of an ‘area-based niche’.
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