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Green idealists - valuable innovators?


New research shows how radical activists have triggered innovations that are helping move the UK in a more sustainable direction. Long seen as the bane of rational economic progress, these devotees to a greener lifestyle turn out to have been a key source of ideas that have seeded new industries in areas such as food, housing and energy. Rather than dismissing activists as hopelessly idealistic, mainstream business and policy should recognise how they create a diversity of options for sustainability, and improve their own capacities to learn from them.

The study, carried out at the University of Sussex and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), clearly shows the value of “green niche” initiatives in influencing mainstream activities. The study examined three radical niches; wind energy, organic food and eco-housing. In each case, the activists’ original ideas went far beyond what actually became mainstream. Yet the role of the niche ideas in providing solutions for ‘newly’ perceived problems within the mainstream should not be under-estimated.

The report’s author, Dr Adrian Smith, said: ‘Activists often struggle to keep projects going and fail to produce the radical transformations they originally envisaged. This lack of breakthrough inclines them (and others) to under-estimate the effect of their ideas. But we found that although their influence is more subtle and beyond their control, it is still hugely significant in many cases’.

In the case of wind power, activists kept the idea of wind power alive during its wilderness years in the 1970s and 1980s when it was ignored or actively opposed by those involved in mainstream power provision. The idealists envisaged small-scale off-grid autonomous systems that were community owned. The mainstream appropriation of wind power has resulted in large wind farms connected both to the grid and to the commercial market.

In food production, niche thinking demanded sustainable local food economies based around organic farming. These ideas were transformed into an organic food industry, when mainstream farmers, food processors, and large retailers perceived the potential commercial advantage of going green, but not to the extent envisaged by activists in the organic movement.

Niche ideas in housing around environmentally friendly, reclaimable materials, autonomous buildings and self-build in small communities, have also had an influence. Here policy and regulatory pressures have directed mainstream builders towards green building ideas pioneered by activists.

Dr Smith said: ‘The fact is that elements of radical niche thinking do get adopted and incorporated. Radical green niches create diversity for when the mainstream runs into trouble, as it is at the moment over climate change. Whilst not all of the idealists’ ideas turn out to be a model for wider changes in the short term, they are important sources of innovation. And as the mainstream moves, activists re-radicalise, adapt to the new mainstream, and seek to shift it on again.’

Alexandra Saxon | alfa
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