Radical Efficiency and sustainability

October 6, 2010 at 2:04 pm 1 comment

By Peter Baeck

“Consider your local place as the center of the universe, this is where you start the movement, and this is also where your first responsibility lies. We have all these talks about global warming and that’s really important (..) but for the individual I think its much more important that you do the best where  you are, if you do your bit and your neighbour does his bit we have a snowball effect where everyone will start changing.” (Soeren Hermansen, leader of Samsoe’s sustainable island project)

How does the Innovation Unit’s work to green public services fit with the challenge to develop clean public services?   You can see the answer through our work on Radical Efficiency – in the examples we have found of different, better, cheaper public services.  In many of these examples, a fundamental re-think of how resources are used has saved both cash and carbon.  They show how efficiency and sustainability are not competing ideas but the same idea.  However, they also show that whether you want to promote the self-reliance that saves money or the green behaviors that might save the planet, engaging citizens is key.  Despite the urgency of these challenges, the best public service innovation projects start by understanding those they serve and the problems they face.  And their lesson is simple: If you want to change behavior, first understand it.

For example, D.Light is a project that began with the aim of improving access to learning in rural India.  However, its ultimate focus was not the school system but the home lighting system.  The project has provided solar-powered lights to remote villages, which do not require a ‘grid’ or other expensive infrastructure. The strength of D.Light is not just a smart gadget – their powerful solar lamps. It’s the combination of a technological insight with an insight into how people live their lives and what is really standing in their way.

While public servants are often encouraged to develop a ‘relentless focus on delivery’, D.Light achieved this breakthrough by standing back from delivery and starting with the people.  Living and working in remote villages, D.Light developers built a deep understanding of need.  While the result is a lighting system for remote communities that is radically cheaper and radically greener, the starting point was users themselves.

In 1997, Samsoe won a competition to become Denmark’s Renewable Energy Island. By 2008 its energy system had become completely self-sufficient. All electricity is provided by the island’s 11 turbines and 70 percent  of the heat supply comes from its sustainable heating plants.

As Soeren Hermansen, a retired school teacher who now leads the sustainable island project on Samsoe explains in the video below, the key to the success of Samsoe was the project’s ability to engage users. By asking islanders what they wanted, and more importantly what they were willing to give, the sustainable island project managed to engage users and empower them to drive the greening of Samsoe.

“We had long meetings where we drank gallons of coffee and ate tons of cookies, because it’s a dialogue, we need to talk about this, what is the dream of the island, what is the dream of the individual, it’s important that people feel like they are connected to the process, because otherwise you are out of the process.”

The most important stragegy was involving local providers in building and delivering projects. This created local ownership over the greening of Samsoe and generated new ideas and enthusiasm.  Check out the link below to hear Soeren Hermansen tell the story of the Samsoe sustainable Island project.

From a radical efficiency perspective, D.Light and Samsoe are great examples of successful green projects that manage to combine technological expertise with local insight. By understanding people’s lives and the potential for co-production, they have made public services that are both leaner and greener.  In the rush to deliver these kinds of solutions across the UK, the challenge is nevertheless to start with people and the problems that they face.


Entry filed under: Green Next Practice, Innovation Worldwide, Local Innovation, Public Services, Radical Efficiency, Research, Social Innnovation.

Start working on plan B Seven green wonders of the public service world

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Innovation in India « Disciplined Innovation  |  April 5, 2011 at 7:59 pm

    […] helps explain why two of our radical efficiency examples show ‘solutions’ based here (D.Light and Narayana Hrudayalaya), the only country that boasts more than one. And there is such incredible […]


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