The SONNET project

Find out about the SONNET project: Social Innovation in Energy Transitions.


Social innovations in the energy sector are said to enable faster transitions to sustainable energy systems. Initiatives such as energy cooperatives and prosuming peer groups (people producing their own energy), are becoming more common and have attracted interest from researchers and policy makers alike.

A new research project SONNET (Social Innovation in Energy Transitions), will work with a range of stakeholders from across energy initiatives in the community, industry, academia, government, councils, and local actors to create a better understanding of social innovations in the energy sector, critically assessing the success, contributions and future potential of social innovation. Through developing practical recommendations and tools, the project aims to build the innovative capacities and strong networks of social innovation and energy actors, strengthen their networks, identify new market opportunities for social innovation in the energy sector and enable multiple actors to increase their engagement with social innovations.

The project, which is funded by the EU Horizon 2020 programme, will focus on urban areas as major hubs for social innovations and generate practical recommendations for harnessing the potential of social innovation. Bringing together 13 European partners including six academic partners, six city regions and a small/medium-sized enterprise, the project involves the following SPRU faculty: Dr Sabine Hielscher, Dr Rachael Durrant and Professor Benjamin Sovacool. The project is coordinated by Dr Karoline Rogge and Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research (ISI) in Karlsruhe, Germany.


Drawing on sustainability transitions research, energy studies and social innovation research, SONNET aims to investigate which conditions enable diverse types of social innovation in the energy sector, leading to new breakthroughs or helping to successfully overcome barriers to sustainable energy systems, such as limited citizen engagement or the slow uptake of new technologies.

The research will be carried out collaboratively, integrating scientific and stakeholder knowledge in a process of co-creation. Stakeholders are involved as active, equal partners in the project and their influence and involvement towards the goals of the project are essential.

SONNET will combine a variety of qualitative and quantitative methodological approaches that inform and complement each other, including:

  • Six SONNET city labs: These labs are at the heart of SONNET’s transdisciplinary approach. The aim is to collectively initiate and observe current and unfolding social innovation processes in the energy sector, identifying enabling and impeding factors, successes and contribution to sustainable energy transitions.
  • In-depth case studies: Several embedded case studies will be conducted, drawing on an innovation history and critical turning point approach to investigate social innovations in the energy sector initiatives within their local and national context. The case studies will provide a rich description and analysis of enabling and impeding conditions for social innovations in the energy sector initiatives.
  • National citizen surveys: Three citizen surveys will be conducted, designed as demographically representative national online surveys which include choice experiments. The aim of SONNET’s citizen surveys is to robustly and thoroughly develop an understanding of individual citizens’ perceptions of enabling and impeding conditions and acceptance of social innovations in the energy sector initiatives.

Impact and outreach

The project intends to contribute to a better understanding of social innovation in the energy sector and to offer practical recommendations for harnessing the potential of these innovations for improving Europe’s energy systems and addressing challenges in Europe’s carbon-intensive regions.

The implementation of the city labs will have a direct impact in the SONNET cities, as well as allow other stakeholders (such as city councils/local authorities) to learn from these. Policy makers interested in social innovation in the six urban areas involved in the project will become part of a local network that will allow them to exchange experiences and will help to inspire novel ideas and implementation of social innovation in the energy sector.

SONNET also aims to equip policy makers to make more informed, outcome-oriented decisions through co-created policy briefs and training events. Existing social innovations and practitioners will also be helped through practical recommendations and training on how best to engage with policy makers, which they can use in their lobbying efforts.


Associated partner

  • City of Basel