Research focal areas

The Sustainable Innovation program carries out research into innovation policy. This research focuses mainly on the analysis of technological change and innovation, and on the way in which different people and organizations try to influence technological change. The research takes place within the Innovation Sciences research group.

A few examples of research projects are given below:

Sustainable growth in Asia
We read in the newspapers every day about economic growth in Asia. Even in times of a global economic crisis, China and India continue to show amazing growth rates of around 10%. So while the incomes of people in Asia are constantly increasing, their energy demands are also rising explosively. New power stations are being built at a rapid rate, and the new middle class are buying more and more cars. The question is whether and how fast-growing economies can build their futures in a sustainable way. We are increasingly seeing that these countries are making big investments in new and sustainable solutions for energy supply and mobility (sustainability experiments).

In this research project we are identifying sustainability experiments in India and Thailand. We are also studying a number of these experiments in more detail, such as an innovative bus system in Bangkok and the generation of solar power in the Indian states of Gujarat and West Bengal. What international links do they have? How do they contribute to changes in social rules and routines which are necessary for adoption on a broader scale? And how can the ‘transition potential’ of these experiments be increased?

Smart grids
Solar cells on our roofs and wind turbines may well be ‘green’, but they also have a big disadvantage: the production of electricity depends on whether the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. That creates big problems for our electricity grid. To solve these problems, our grid needs to be ‘smarter’ – it must be able to respond to fluctuations in both electricity supply and demand. A lot of things will have to change to make that possible. Appliances will be able to be switched on or off depending on when power is available, or when the tariff is low. We also won’t all be able to charge our electric cars at the same time. The intelligence – in other words sensors, smart meters and software – will have to make all these things possible. At least, that’s the theory. The promise that everything will be more reliable, greener and cheaper is very appealing, but putting it into practice won’t be easy. We are researching what all of this will mean for individuals and households, whether they themselves will be able to play an active role, and whether that will even be allowed by government – and if that isn’t the case, whether the rules can be changed so that it is possible. We’re focusing mainly on concrete projects by citizens, municipalities and action groups, which we are trying to support and facilitate.  

Long-term development of biomass gasification
Biomass gasification is a process that uses wood and agricultural crops to produce electricity, fuels and chemicals. There has been continuous interest in further developing and applying this technology since the oil crises of the 1970s, although the results have so far not been very successful.

Through this research we want to find out more about the trends and drivers in the long-term development of biomass gasification (1976 to the present), and we are interested in questions like: a) how has the technology developed; b) to what extent has this development been influenced by societal and economic factors, such as visions on its application; and c) to what extent has this development been influenced by engineers, who apply technical logic in perfecting its technological and economic performance.

Resisting change?
Policymakers and large numbers of organizations and citizens want more sustainable energy supplies. There is no lack of alternative options – from biogas power stations, offshore wind power and solar power plants in deserts to drastic energy savings. However… increasing the sustainability of energy supplies may depend not so much on alternative options, but more on support or resistance from the existing energy supplies and their organizations. Is the status quo a force that resists innovation, or is it actually a driver for sustainable change?

The origin of the climate debate in the Netherlands
Reports about climate change, the environment, biodiversity and the tremendous challenge of making our future society more sustainable appear on an almost daily basis. But today’s society is complex and not easy to understand. Technology plays a crucial role in society. Raw materials are processed by numerous industries to provide us with food, products and energy.

To be able to understand our future challenge and to bring about change, we need to look at the origins of these growing needs. A historical analysis of the material flows in the Netherlands enables us to understand the complexity of the Netherlands as it is today, and to trace the origins of the present sustainability issues. 

A historical analysis of material flows can show how scarcity and environmental problems were solved in the past, and how new problems arose. It teaches us about the power and speed of changes in society, and about the roles of technology, politics and economics in those processes.