Innovation supporting intermediaries needed in advancing low energy building and housing

The emergence of new innovations and their diffusion is extremely important in the field of low energy building and housing. As buildings throughout their lifecycle account for around 40% of total energy use in Europe (with over half by residential buildings), reducing the energy demand of the existing building stock and increasing non-carbon micro-generation in connection to buildings is crucial.

Due to the poor energy performance of our buildings, the sector is also amongst the most significant greenhouse gas emissions sources in Europe. Renewable energy, including solar power and ground source heat pumps, have gained increasing interest from house owners in Europe. Recently, we have witnessed increasing rates of diffusion for these technologies. Simultaneously, however, the need to improve the energy efficiency of the existing housing stock has received too little attention in many European countries, including the UK.

Why do we need this kind of low energy innovation now and not later? Because the building stock renews very slowly and investments into buildings made today will continue to impact for a long time after. This means that less efficient investments will be using more energy for a long time. It has also been acknowledged that the rate and extent of renovation needs to be increased across Europe to meet the EU climate and energy targets for 2050. In practice, this means that all of today’s buildings will need to be renovated by 2050, doubling the current building renovation rate. While EU legislation is in place to address some of the challenges, one of the problems is that renovation is still less addressed than new build. Regulations regarding the former are more problematic as unreasonable claims cannot be made to home owners. Therefore, we need to rely more on ‘carrot’, ‘sermon’ and voluntary action by a range of actors than regulation.

Increasingly, so-called intermediary actors have been found important in innovation processes. Innovation intermediaries are organisations or individuals that can act as go-betweens for people, funds, knowledge and ideas that in combination may result in innovation. Intermediaries may (1) bridge actors that have not previously connected with each other, (2) fill knowledge deficits by transferring information from one source or actor to others, (3) match-make between actors to connect human and financial resources with innovation processes, or (4) create demand for policy change without driving the interests of any specific party.

Examples of successful intermediaries in driving the energy efficiency of the building and housing sector do exist in Europe. For example, the Finnish Independence Fund Sitra, in Finland, has mediated innovation processes for more energy efficient buildings by facilitating the piloting of new types of buildings and renovation models and by aiming to create a market for these through influencing the making of new policies. As another example, the Passive House Platform, established with funding from the Flemish Agency for Innovation, in the Netherlands, grouped together innovative companies in energy-efficient housing. By intermediating between the companies with different skills and capacities it enabled the creation of a system level innovation in passive house construction as a new commercial product produced jointly by the new network companies.

To promote low energy innovation in building and refurbishment in order to reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, we need to set up new intermediary actors (politically and financially neutral bodies, energy service companies with system focus, etc.) driving for change and to empower existing actors to take on roles as low energy intermediaries. Presently, many actors with power to influence the diffusion of low energy innovations, such as architects, have little interest in this. Therefore, we are faced with two questions. How to interest more ‘low energy intermediaries to come to operate in this field? And how to strengthen the influence of existing and new intermediaries to facilitate speedier change towards less energy consuming building stock? The Centre for Innovation and Energy Demand will soon start a new project to address these questions. In this project, CIED will explore the roles of intermediaries in the UK housing and buildings sector and draw from experiences reported elsewhere in Europe.

Some of the ideas presented in this blog are based on the article: P. Kivimaa (2014). Government-affiliated intermediary organisations as actors in system-level transitions. Research Policy, Vol. 43, Issue 8, pages 1370-1380. doi:10.1016/j.respol.2014.02.007