Social innovation in energy access and energy efficiency


Social innovation is becoming an increasingly important consideration in economic theory and entrepreneurial methods. According to the European Commission, social innovation refers to "the development of new ideas, services and models able to address societal problems". For the Stanford Center for Social Innovation, the key benefit is social innovation’s ability to offer novel "solutions which are more efficient, effective and sustainable, or just than existing solutions ". Social innovation responds to a social need by proposing an alternative framework of actions distinct from that which is usually proposed by traditional players like the government or other public institutions. It seeks to directly involve the affected population in the development of inclusive and community-based projects which are adapted to local situations. The ability of social innovation solutions to adapt to different sectors – such as habitat, unemployment, nutrition and energy – justifies their distinct pluralistic nature and lends support to their complex approach to action However, regardless the sector, the process remains the same with four fundamental steps: theoretical and practical project development, pilot testing, roll-out and impact evaluation. Applied to the energy sector, social innovation makes it possible to propose alternative development models and increase the involvement of the most concerned stakeholders, namely the local populations and end-users.


Why does ‘energy’ need social innovation?

According to the United Nations, energy access remains vital to the development of emerging countries and to improving the lives of the2 billion people that still live in extreme poverty today, particularly in light of the UN-led ‘Decade of Sustainable Energy for All’ [1], programme. Data from the World Bank puts into perspective the ambitiousness of this programme and  the extent of the road ahead. In many less developed countries, the level of energy access is capped at 35%. The situation is similar in countries experiencing armed conflict or major security instability, in which this figure barely exceeds 40%[2]. The UN states that universal energy access would go some way in breaking through the extreme poverty and the alarming lack of public health services of certain countries, most notably by making it possible to heat water and store food products. From an economic perspective, significant progress would be made in agriculture and industry with the quantitative and qualitative optimisation of manufacturing and production.

In the energy sector, social needs remain extensive and obstacles many in the quest for equitable, universal and sustainable energy access. The purpose of social innovation is to bring together the positive synergies of a large number of actors with the help of local experience, while managing to overcome the shortcomings of government and market action. Social innovation in the energy field is also adapted to working on a very small scale.

This makes it possible to train local players in sustainable energy solutions, as is the case in Thailand where the SunSawang project, supported by the Rexel Foundation, educates regional technicians in the construction of solar panels, helping them to build their skills base. Social innovation also has practical applications in developed countries where inequalities in energy access persist. In Europe, for example, Enercoop is working to help the 21 million people facing fuel poverty by providing better access to exclusively renewable energy facilities.


Social innovation and energy access: despite increasingly numerous initiatives, more needs to be done to overcome  the global challenge

Decision-makers and the various actors in the energy sector appear to be increasingly aware of the issue. Recently, ADEME (the French Environment and Energy Management Agency) launched a call for proposals in order to pull together comprehensive analysis of the range of social innovation solutions that exist today, that could respond to the energy challenge[3]. At the same time, there is a growing number of projects that are calling on civic commitment,  and raising money via crowdfunding as opposed to traditional channels of investment. This  appeals to the innovative and enterprising spirit of  people, by giving ordinary citizens the opportunity to become business angels for sustainable, community-based solutions, in which they, the end-users, hold the majority stake. Not only do they feel empowered but they are also able to participate financially in the alternative and sustainable energy projects that will secure better energy access for them and their community.

Universal energy access is still an ambitious goal, with over 1.1 billion people living without access to energy and major inequalities continue to exist, even at a regional level. In Southeast Asia, for example, nearly 100% of people in Vietnam have access to energy, while barely more than 20% of people in neighbouring Cambodia[4] can boast the same. These inequalities reveal a reality that is much more complex than the simplistic division between developed and developing countries. Furthermore, progress in energy efficiency, through the optimisation of energy consumption, is a fundamental factor, yet it has been far slower to take root than initially hoped. Lastly, the energy sector also faces the challenge of climate change. Contributing more than 35% of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions[5], the energy sector is in desperate need of social innovation in order to achieve the objectives set out in international commitments on global warming. The historic COP21 conference, which ended last December in Paris, set the target figure of 2°C as the maximum threshold for global temperature increase, beyond which the consequences for humankind would be disastrous.


Social innovation plays a key role in creating a positive ecosystem at a local community level and in contributing to the overall energy transition. The dynamism it brings and the promising successes to date must be encouraged in order to continue to fuel its development and multiply its impact. Better public knowledge and more funding are essential. Recent efforts by some institutional and private players constitute the beginnings of a large-scale movement, whose rapid growth in the coming years will make a decisive contribution to achieving universal access to energy and energy efficiency in the future.


[1] Launch of the United Nations Decade of Sustainable Energy for All (2014 – 2024), 3 February 2014
[2] International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook (IEA statistics © OECD/IAE
[3] Rachida Boughriet, 'Innovations sociales : l'ADEME lance un appel à projet', 13 April 2015
[4] World Bank (2015). Latest available data: 2012
[5] IPCC (2014), Fifth Assessment Report, Contribution of Working Group III, Summary for Policy Makers


Find out more:

Listen to the recording of the webinar on the Clean Energy Solutions Center website
Discover our infographic: “Why Do We Need Social Innovation in Energy?”
Read our summary of the webinar: “Energy Efficiency for Energy Access: The Role of Social Innovation in Driving Change”

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