The Reos Partners team in the Netherlands has been working with stakeholders involved in the North Sea since 2016. The North Sea Energy (NSE) Lab aims to gather diverse players from the Dutch part of the North Sea to accelerate the transition to sustainable forms of energy. The process involves building a shared understanding of this complex system and designing social innovations to accelerate this transition.
This multi-year Social Lab has created a platform for shared learning and collaboration on innovative sustainable energy initiatives. Over the past several years, six large Lab sessions brought together a diverse group of 180 key stakeholders, who worked together in three innovation teams: Participation in Offshore Wind; the nexus of Fishing & Offshore Wind; and the nexus of Nature & Offshore Wind.
The Lab created a space for stakeholders to build a deeper shared understanding of the complexity of the task at hand and to work together on scalable innovations that would enable sustainable development of the North Sea as a source of renewable energy.
The North Sea Energy Lab was initiated by Topsector Energy’s Socially Responsible Innovation initiative, which is a public-private innovation program, and RVO, a Dutch government agency responsible for energy policy. The Lab is supported and facilitated by Reos Partners. The Lab’s goal is to support and accelerate the transition to sustainable energy on the North Sea by stimulating and supporting the societal innovations needed to make it happen. A Convening Group was formed including stakeholders from RVO, NWEA (Dutch Wind Energy Association), TKI Offshore Wind, the Province of South Holland, TNO (a research institution), Nogepa (Dutch Oil and Gas Association), and Stichting Noordzee (North Sea Foundation). Members of the Convening Group take co-ownership for the Lab and its results.
For the Netherlands to meet its sustainable energy goals and its 2050 CO2 reduction goals, it is crucial to employ large-scale offshore wind on the North Sea. Both the Dutch government and the EU recognize the importance of generating energy from offshore wind on a large scale. However, this is a complex challenge, because the Dutch part of the North Sea is heavily used for multiple purposes, including fishing, freight transport, oil and gas extraction, nature protection, and tourism. Each of the stakeholder groups involved with these uses have their own interests and perspectives.
Although the last years offshore wind is scaling up rapidly, thanks to political ambitions and lowering costs, there are numerous questions. For example:
- How might we combine the space claimed by offshore wind with the space needed for fishery?
- Can we create the space for innovation and nature-inclusive building, despite a “race to the bottom” to bring down the costs of offshore wind?
- Will the success of offshore wind lead to resistance to it? How might we engage citizens to feel engagement and a sense of ownership with offshore wind, and could (financial) participation contribute to that?
Also, the innovation and policy-making fields in the North Sea are crowded. A lot of initiatives run next to each other, with limited coordination and collaboration between them. The resources needed to transform the energy system are enormous, and the uncertainty about future possibilities is big. These factors add to the complexity involved in moving forward together and in creating a shared vision of what’s needed and which way to go.
Collaboration, increased trust, and an expanded perspective among stakeholders
A diverse group of stakeholders came together in Lab sessions to better understand the different perspectives, for instance, those of fishermen and of people involved in nature protection. Through shared conversations, stakeholders developed mutual trust and a willingness to work together. The Lab created a space for stakeholders to be truly heard and included.
Insights into the “knots” in the North Sea as a sustainable energy source
By using systemic approaches, dialogue interviews, learning journeys, and other methods, stakeholders developed an understanding of the systemic “knots” that hold the status quo system in place and prevent meaningful progress. Visual representations of different knots helped support this understanding and provided insights into the interventions needed to make progress. During the Lab, stakeholders came to realize that a new development logic is needed for how we approach the North Sea: a shift from the perspective that the North Sea is merely a source of energy to a view of the North Sea as a source of renewable energy, a source of various proteins from fish and seaweed, andan ecosystem. The Lab is testing and advocating this shift toward a more integrated approach in policy, innovation, and implementation.
Collaboration to create pilots
Innovation teams formed in the areas of Nature & Offshore Wind, Fishing & Offshore Wind, and Participation in Wind. All three are important areas where societal innovation is needed to accelerate sustainable energy development in the North Sea. Teams are working to identify productive interactions between the energy, ecosystem, and protein functions of the North Sea for synergies or combinations in the use of space. To create stronger social involvement with offshore wind projects, the Participation in Wind team is focusing on establishing a fund. The Fishing & Offshore Wind group is designing a pilot for small-scale passive fishing in a wind farm and a related monitoring and research program to learn quickly from the experiment before scaling it up.
In the North Sea Energy Lab, the participants found out the needs of a large number of stakeholders in the North Sea. It is a crowded arena, and the actors are different from the onshore wind system. The wind sector is increasingly open to cooperation but is still finding out how, while increasing its role in the energy system. Also, many processes to determine the future of the North Sea in the Netherlands are organized in parallel, so the NSE lab decided to focus on good examples of “walking the walk,” with the fishery, ecology, and gas sectors and with civilians who would like to [financially] participate in offshore wind. It is fun to step outside the comfort zone and learn about other interests!
—, director, GROW Offshore Wind
Every part of the energy transition is a social as well as a technical transition. We cannot leave offshore wind to the engineers alone; we need to involve all relevant stakeholders. That is what the North Sea Energy Lab addresses. It is not about complicating things, but about guaranteeing a smoother and more efficient implementation in the long term.
—, TKI Offshore Wind
In a highly complex, politically sensitive arena with a tech orientation, the Social Lab method helped create deep trust and understanding with all key stakeholders. A whole field of actors now believe in the need to proceed in a co-creative way and develop the North Sea ecosystem so that it not only serves as a source of energy, but also as a source of sustainable food and is a place we can be proud of, a space we can feel ownership for.
—, program manager, MVI (Socially Responsible Innovation) of the Topsector Energy