Interview with Professor Ortwin Renn

Prof. Ortwin Renn, Director of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam, analyses the results of the three other Kopernikus projects and uses them to develop a navigation model. This should answer the question: What do we have to do so that the Energiewende succeeds?

How did the ENavi project come about?

The origin was the collaboration within our Helmholtz Alliance ENERGY-TRANS, in which we addressed the social questions associated with the Energiewende and looked at possible answers. The Kopernikus project is a continuation of this direction of sociological system analysis in which we also look at examples of projects in other countries, supplemented by the technical skills of the Fraunhofer Society and other institutes.

Your project takes a different approach to the other three Kopernikusprojects. Do you see this as strange?

No, but the three other projects have of course a more distinctly technical profile. But that’s good, so that firstly our analysis of the inputs from the other projects goes beyond them and secondly we can also figure out how the research results from the other projects work best in combination. For this we require input from those projects. The good thing about this arrangement is that there are three key technical challenges on which the relevant experts are working, after which we can demonstrate how these can be integrated into an overall system.

How do you envisage the collaboration with the other projects?

We spokesmen for the four projects have already discussed and agreed that we would each sit on the advisory committees of the other projects. This way we contribute our skills to all the projects and stay in close contact. In addition, the heads of the Kopernikus projects meet face-to-face once a year and once more via a video conference.

What are the objectives?

The first objective is clearly the cross-sector integration of heat, power and mobility in line with the Energiewende, i.e. digitally and making efficient use of energy. But there are two further objectives: The second is the so-called intervention impact assessment. By this we mean that we want to find out what impact political decisions have on the complex energy system. One example could be the grant given for the purchase of an electric car. Does this affect the purchasing decision and, if so, how does this impact on electro-mobility as a whole? And the third objective is to define the determining factors that contribute to the success of the Energiewende. This has to do with both the individual behaviour of households and new business models.

What role is played in this by the navigation tool that you want to develop?

That is the key element in our project - a navigation model into which we can enter all the information that we have available. You could imagine this as being like a central computer in a science-fiction film that is fed with all the information and then calculates the results. We will also be working with information - that could be energy scenarios, simulations or behaviour patterns - and our model should indicate how we can reach certain goals. This is a very ambitious aim - we will also of course indicate the limits of reliability of our results. But we already think we’ll be able to present a great deal of complexity with our tool.

What form will the first steps take?

First of all, we will continue to work with all the partners on a matrix setting out what I need from the partner and what information I can make available to the partner. In this way every partner knows what to expect from the others and what they have to deliver. We want to start on the analytical work as soon as November and to also develop the outlines of our navigation model in the first year. We don’t expect to achieve any great results in the first 12 months since to develop these we have to know exactly what the other three projects are doing. This is the only way to achieve integration right from the start.

Does the extended funding period for the Kopernikus project influence your work?

Of course! Projects designed to run for ten years are very rare, so this gives us a really great opportunity. Because we can think ideas through all the way to the end. As we know from experience: To drill thick planks, you need time. We cannot yet foresee all the developments between now and 2026. So there’s a further advantage in maintaining flexibility for the researchers, if the framework changes during the project.

What do you mean by that?

I mean that we are open to changes in the environment, to social and political changes, and can adapt to these. Only then can we sensibly implement our navigation tool.

What are the main hurdles?

There is obviously an enormous organisational effort involved in working on a research project with so many different partners. The navigation tool is a promise that we would really like to make good on. To do so we must build the technical infrastructure, which must also be able to adapt to many future changes.

How are you involving society in your project?

At many levels: We are social scientists. So we obviously see our main task as analytically incorporating perspectives from society into our research. Thus our mission in transdisciplinary research is one of information: We’re involving opinion-formers and decision-makers, and through exchanging views with them we’re developing processes with which our citizens can take informed decisions. For us this means very close cooperation with politics and the authorities, with other scientists, with companies and with other actors from civil society.

Will you influence social debates in this way?

Yes, I hope so and I also believe that we can succeed. In this respect we have - very appropriately for this topic - a “catalyst” function in the decision-making process: We can improve the participation and decision-making processes, simplify or even initiate change processes and create the appropriate structures. In this way we can help to bring the objectives of the Energiewende a great deal closer.