4.1. Overview of Learning Processes and Outcomes
In the following, we outline and illustrate different types of learning observed in the pilot projects, starting with the more cognitive learning categories and then moving on to reflect on situated learning. Table 3
indicates the types of learning observed in each case.
Testing functionality, market demand and user acceptance
is one of the most widely observed forms of learning among the case studies. It is one of the most obvious ways in which local experimentation can contribute to learning, offering a contemporary alternative to a linear and much slower model of product development [35
] where solutions are refined before they are brought to the market. This is one of the most fundamental types of learning highlighted in the strategic niche management literature [1
Beyond what can be found in previous case studies [1
], we observed some interesting ways to accelerate such learning and support the rapid introduction of low-carbon solutions into real-life environments for testing and feedback. For example, the Smart Kalasatama living lab environment in central Helsinki has pioneered a programme for “agile piloting”. This is a twice-yearly call for 3–5 concepts for more sustainable, digital solutions to be piloted for functionality and user feedback. Ideas can derive from user communities or start-ups, but they need to be mature enough to be tested within 6 months at a cost of €1000–8000 [36
]. Examples of concepts tested include ride-sharing for goods, smart charging of electric vehicles with solar power, a service enabling housing associations to produce and share solar power, and the development of climate-smart practices and incentives for residents. As these climate-related experiments are currently being tested, it is impossible to tell their impacts as yet. Nevertheless, the concept of agile piloting initiated in Smart Kalasatama has spread within the city of Helsinki to another experimental location, Climate Street. A project, Resource Efficient Existing Buildings (Reeb), within the Programme for Agile Piloting in Climate Street tested the functionality of software that could estimate how many building users were in the building in real-time so that the owner could better follow up the energy consumption of the building and the degree of its utilization [37
]. The pilot project produced important information for the improvement of the functionality of the software and it is further tested in other sites in Helsinki.
Improving solutions is another relatively obvious way to learn from pilot projects, and all our case studies involved some measures to improve initial designs. However, such improvement is critical when several smart energy technologies (even mature ones) are combined in a real-life environment.
One example of the effort required to improve technologies and make them work together even in one site is the Adjutantti smart pilot building [38
], which has attempted to combine smart energy monitoring and control technologies in an advanced building automation system deployed in a new-built owner-occupied multifamily house, including solar power and electric vehicle (EV) charging, and initially also a shared EV. In this type of case, ownership and responsibility for the building is transferred to residents, represented by a residents’ board. Since they are dealing with a combination of technologies, it often takes several months or even years to get building systems to work together with each other, and to find the right ways to manage and adapt the novel systems. For example, the residents’ board, together with the companies Skanska and ABB who designed the building, made significant efforts to make the heating system automation work as planned. While the system has not been transferred as such to other sites, the learning processes in adjusting the system in real-life conditions were important for the companies involved for subsequent system redesign.
Transfer to other sites, systematic improvement and scaling up is a more advanced form of learning, where lessons learned at one site are transferred to other sites, and potentially larger scales. We observed some form of this kind of learning in most cases, though improvement and scaling up were often sporadic. This is partly due to difficulties in funding subsequent pilot projects, often also because funding bodies may lose interest after a novel concept has been tested once. Some concepts might require more long-term support in order to develop into viable solutions. If the time-lag between pilot projects becomes too long, conditions may change so much that the solutions originally tested might not correspond to technically improved, new solutions available on the market. This was observed in many of the urban pilots, where the time-lag from zoning plans and feasibility studies to construction may take several years.
Solutions that require limited infrastructure appeared to be easier to transfer and scale up rapidly. One example of systematic transfer, improvement and scaling is the case of joint purchasing of solar panels. This is an initiative to bring together customers (consumers, farms, municipalities) to jointly invite and evaluate tenders for solar panel systems in order to reduce costs, gain information support and wield consumer power. Originally initiated by a private person, the Finnish Environment Institute took up the idea and has multiplied and scaled it up. These initiators, as well as several municipalities, have organised a total of 14 joint purchasing initiatives since 2012 [39
]. Based on lessons learned from previous initiatives, these have grown in scale and level of professionalism, and most recently extended to other low-carbon technologies alongside solar panels.
Experimentation as societal knowledge production
was a widely recognized aim and most of the cases received public funding in one form or another. However, only part of our case studies engaged in systematic documentation and evaluation, and even public funding bodies have quite variable expectations concerning how and what should be documented and evaluated. We did observe some systematic evaluations by or for individual cases: For example, the ECO2 project in Tampere has conducted several evaluations of different parts of the programme (some of them quite critical) and drawn some more general conclusions across the entire programme [41
]. These evaluations have given rise to an identification of problems to be solved locally (for example, lack of skills and care in installing and combining new low-carbon solutions in buildings), but little of this information has percolated to national-level debates on competence needs [42
Moreover, we found limited evaluation across the case studies or across projects of similar types, which would allow for investigating the relationship between solutions tested, contextual features and outcomes [20
]. This is partly because some of the local experiments featured in our database are still ongoing. However, we did find one example of a funding body (The Housing Finance and Development Centre of Finland, Ara) contracting a cross-pilot evaluation of 16 low-energy housing pilots (including ones in our database) which rendered relevant observations and recommendations concerning the most promising and important lines of further development [44
We next turn to consider forms of situated learning. This type of learning deals with the creation of new identities and practices rather than cognitive, explicit and techno-scientific forms of learning.
Enhancing skills and confidence and the creation of new identities is quite naturally present in all kinds of experimentation—given that it delivers some form of successful outcomes. While a failed experiment can be quite helpful for cognitive learning, it does not necessarily give participants confidence and enhance their identities as practitioners of low-carbon technologies. Conversely, cognitive learning can be quite scattered, but local experiments can still make a difference for participants’ skills and confidence.
This was highlighted in the case of HINKU, a carbon-neutral municipalities’ programme currently engaging 33 small and medium-sized municipalities. While there has been limited systematic testing of any particular technologies or concepts across these municipalities, and evaluation of the programme has focused on carbon reductions (with until now, limited analysis of why they occur), the programme has been extremely successful in enhancing the skills of local participants (municipalities, businesses and citizens). By producing small wins and inspiring success stories, it has also served to give participants confidence and enhance positive local identities. Interviews with local politicians highlighted the importance of these small wins—before they became evident, commitment was limited [3
Another example of the creation of local skills and identities in the Bus Leap experiment. Since the aim was to increase the share of public transport, the experiment served to raise the profile of public transportation in Jyväskylä, which has been a relatively car-dependent town. The local transport planners have adopted a new way of testing and experimenting with new services, such as free transport for people with baby prams, or complementing existing route-based public transport with personalized, on-demand services. Decisions about whether to start a new permanent service are made on the basis of experimentation and development, rather than assumptions. Local planners thus gained new skills and ways of working.
Skills and confidence were also developed in the case of the Finnish Electric Mobility pilot projects, which aimed to accelerate the diffusion of electric transport and related business in Finland, New skills and capabilities were created as a result of the interaction and collaboration between the relevant partners by combining the expertise of several different companies. One example of this kind of creative learning process was the design and deployment of a public EV charging system and related services, as well as the creation of business lines for charging services [45
Engagement with new, low-carbon concepts can also serve to reshape roles, which is likely to be necessary for a broader shift toward a low-carbon society. For example, consumers might need to become prosumers, and new ways of funding renewable energy investments might need to be found (as highlighted, for example, by our EV crowdfunding case). However, the need to reshape roles might also be more fine-grained.
One of the problematic role divisions observed in our cases was the division of labour between different municipal administrations, which makes it difficult to integrate energy and climate issues into decision-making at all levels. The development of the Porvoo Skaftkärr low-carbon district serves as a good example of such reshaping of roles initiated by local experimentation. In Skaftkärr, the planning of the low-carbon district served to initiate a new model of concurrent town planning, where different administrations and utilities worked side by side from the start. Moreover, in this case, the pilot also led to the integration of energy and climate concerns into building permitting and land allocation policy. In this way, a large part of the municipal administration found their professional roles fundamentally transformed.
Building new networks can be an important learning outcome of smart energy pilots, which can also allow players which would not usually collaborate to find mutual interests in new collaborations. For example, in Smart Kalasatama case, the project coordinator experimented with a so-called “Innovators’ Club”, which adjourns four times a year to plan, follow and discuss the developments in the smart city district. The Innovators’ Club brings together actors that otherwise might not come together such as start-ups, incumbent companies, developers, city representatives, smart technology providers, researchers and residents, that can also be user innovators and initiators of new service concepts. These new constellations of networks are actively co-operating and even occasionally changing the rules of the market and its balance. They are also expected to spread learning within their networks.
Inspiration and trailblazing is a type of learning that is present—to a greater or lesser extent—in all of the pilot projects. Municipal pilots served to disrupt existing modes of urban planning and development, attract forerunner companies to the pilot sites, and in general to generate pride and confidence in the capabilities of the city or town. New organization and business models served to influence development lines within companies and civil society, and to provide credibility to new solutions. Demonstration buildings are physical embodiments of combinations of new technologies—such as the Viikki Environment House, which serves as an exemplar for nearly zero-energy public buildings within Helsinki and beyond. However, serving as an example and inspiration requires a certain way of presenting and talking about pilot projects, where successful outcomes often overshadow the efforts and difficulties in reaching them.
4.2. Sharing and Transfer of Lessons Learned
Sharing of lessons learned is critical for speeding up the process of societal knowledge development [9
]. It would take very long time for society to learn about low-carbon technologies if everyone needed to “reinvent the wheel”. Among the fifteen case studies analysed, we found a large diversity in the ways in which lessons were shared. One of the natural division lines is that between experimentation by local governments (public projects aimed for learning in the public domain) and individual buildings (private projects aimed to support in-house learning which is not so frequently shared) [4
Most of the literature on transfer of lessons has focused on formal and professional transfer of techno-scientific knowledge [9
]. However, our case studies revealed that the notion of situated learning can also be extended to forms of lesson-sharing that are more informal and situated than formal evaluations.
Informal ways of sharing lessons draw on natural processes of knowledge spillover, where people move about and discuss their experiences [30
]. In our cases, lessons were often rendered mobile though such personal, face-to-face means: ambassadors, study visits, demonstrations, meetings and mobility of people between jobs. Table 4
indicates the prevalence of various forms of knowledge transfer found in the cases.
HINKU is one of the projects that has involved intensive informal lessons-sharing
], partly due to the diverse and bottom-up nature of the project itself. Since the aim is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, most of the formal evaluation (conducted by the project coordinator, the Finnish Environment Institute) has focused on greenhouse gas emission reductions, which has been quite significant [47
]. In HINKU, knowledge transfer was originally rather piecemeal, with Finnish Environment Institute representatives transmitting best practice by travelling from one municipality to another to convene diverse locals (civil servants, residents, local businesses). Later, a HINKU Forum was established, where municipal civil servants and other local activists meet regularly to exchange experiences. Additionally, a scheme called the “HINKU deed of the month” was established, where best practices were awarded and showcased in order to facilitate the transfer of ideas. Forum events organized for participants, study visits, face-to-face meetings and site visits by the coordinators have been important forms of disseminating and sharing lessons among the participating municipalities, as have been the website, media coverage and regular awarding of best practices.
Dissemination of exemplary cases
refers to the development of iconic cases and intensive media publicity for the successes encountered. This type of dissemination is not necessarily based on formal evaluation, though some level of documentation and e.g., calculation of achievements is necessary to make an impression in public. Among our examples, the Skaftkärr case, where the small city of Porvoo employed state-of-the art planning tools to plan a low-carbon new residential area was identified as one of these iconic cases. Some commentators argued that it was not particularly outstanding in terms of technical content (compared to some similar efforts by larger cities). However, other cities have been encouraged to apply these planning principles due to the cost savings in urban infrastructure that it renders. Our interviewees reported that politicians and planning authorities for several Finnish municipalities have visited Skaftkärr. Representatives of Sitra and the City of Porvoo have presented the project results at events for municipal decision-makers, and the project has been presented at international conferences as a local success story. According to Vehviläinen et al. [13
], the results of the Skaftkärr project have been used and further developed, in several other towns in Finland and have gained widespread attention elsewhere.
We also identified another semi-formal form of lesson-sharing by running trials in parallel in different sites and training by participants from previous pilots.
The Mestariasunnot nZEB elderly care building, constructed by a local social housing company, was built in parallel with another similar building (student housing Kuopas constructed by the City of Kuopio). Together, these two building developers obtained expert support from a research institute, VTT, and from qualified suppliers, e.g., in building automation. Finances for covering the extra 15% needed for the zero-energy development were gained from three public funding bodies: Tekes, Sitra and ARA, the Housing Finance and Development Centre of Finland. Furthermore, some lessons were carried over from previous similar development projects, for example, the maintenance staff from an older building demonstration site came to train the staff of this building [48
]. The practice of running parallel pilot projects in different sites was also common in those of our cases that were (often only partly) part of a European research or demonstration project, where similar measures were taken in several European cities or towns.
Not all cases were well documented or widely disseminated
in a formal sense. However, for example, one of the small experiments leading up to Bus Leap was evaluated along with several other trials in Jyväskylä in a research report [49
], which focused on environmental, social and economic effects and the potential for scaling up, and one part of the trial has been extensively analysed in a dissertation [50
]. Some of the other urban/regional pilots have also been studied extensively, such as HINKU [41
], and others are the subject of ongoing research. The large variety is naturally also based on the nature of the cases: pilot business models are not as widely covered as large municipal projects.
4.3. Learning from Challenges: Identification of Missing Competences
A critical question for societal knowledge development is whether we learn from the challenges encountered in local experimentation [11
]. Our case studies delved into the challenges encountered when conducting the pilot projects, and sought to identify the kinds of missing competences that were identified in the course of the pilot project. This was something that few of the pilot projects had systematically communicated during the course of the pilot project or in its documentation or evaluation. However, such observations might be important, if we view the pilot projects as representing “critical niches” [55
], where the problems encountered serve to reveal ways in which current competences and institutions are misaligned to the needs of a low-carbon society.
shows the main categories and the prevalence of missing competences brought to light by our case studies. These were competence gaps experienced as barrier to the implementation or scaling up of the pilot (at least initially), or issues where special efforts had been made to find or develop these competences. For example, we have identified the competence as missing if external experts from national research institutes were needed for a purpose in which they do not usually participate (e.g., assessment of heating systems for a building or residential area).
Evaluation of low-carbon technologies was often a problem, due to the lack of standardized criteria, for example for comparing low-carbon decentralized heating and power production solutions with existing centralized ones. However, problems of evaluation could be even more complex, when decision makers need to compare prospective low-carbon solutions with each other and make judgments on which system will be the future “winner”.
This was highlighted in the case of Public Procurement for Smart Energy, in which the City of Lappeenranta attempts to develop a smart energy ecosystem by aligning its public procurement efforts to create sufficient demand for a new, renewable, decentralized local energy system. A particular problem in this case has been the choice between gas and electric vehicles. If all of the around 200 vehicles owned by the city were converted to gas, this would allow for the development of a local combination of power-to-gas (electrolysis station) and a biogas plant. However, there are concerns that electric vehicles might be the standard solution of the future, and thus concerns that an investment in gas vehicles might be an investment in an obsolete technology. This example shows that issues of evaluation can be quite complex.
Combination of low-carbon technologies in the built environment: Several of the cases focus on combining diverse technologies (e.g., solar thermal systems, solar power, and heat pumps) and integrating them in the built environment. This can be supported by urban planning, but is strongly influenced by building design and ultimately, the installation and operation of building systems. This was one of the most critical areas where missing competences were identified: even though designers have ambitious ideas, these are often undermined by poor installation.
In the Tampere ECO2 project, several such problems were identified in an evaluation of a number of nearly zero-energy buildings (nZEBs) designed for a housing fair as part of the project. These were highly ambitious designs, but builders and installers paid very little attention to making sure systems operated as planned [56
]. In an extreme case, one of the ground-source heat pumps was not turned on for a year.
Usability and system interfaces are a particular challenge for energy monitoring and control systems (i.e., building automation), which are critical for demand response, i.e., the adjustment of energy consumption according to the production of intermittent energy sources like wind and solar. There are several technologies available for this, but in several of our cases, problems were identified in the usability and system interfaces of such systems.
Particular attention has been paid to open system interfaces in the Smart Kalasatama project, which aims to develop systems that are applicable in both new and retrofitted buildings. Moreover, the aim has been to open up energy consumption data for a variety of start-ups and even user groups to develop their own applications. This is still somewhat problematic since the smart automation installed is based on wired systems (which could be prohibitively expensive to retrofit) and data are proprietary to the energy company and users. Hence, the creation of convenient ways for users to share their energy data is a key development task in the project. Since open digital interfaces for the built environment are a topical R&D subject in Finland, real-world struggles to create open energy data can offer valuable information for scaling up digital solutions.
Integration of new practices in mainstream business is an important aim of organizing pilots and field trials of ambitious low-carbon solutions. However, as long as new solutions are more expensive and require more care in deployment than existing ones, mainstream players like construction companies are not keen to invest in them, particularly if they cannot shift the price of the new solutions to consumers when selling apartments. Customers, on the other hand, place a priority on location.
Three of our cases (Smart Kalasatama, ECO2 Tampere and Skaftkärr) include examples where municipal officials have been somewhat frustrated by the difficulty of mainstreaming beyond-compliance low-energy and renewable energy applications in buildings, despite innovative urban planning and the availability of exemplary demonstration buildings. This observation suggests that at some point, attention needs to shift from demonstrating solutions to aligning market players’ incentives to adopt those solutions across the board.
Integration of new practices in public administration is highlighted as a challenge in several cases. The deployment of new technologies requires new competences in planning, permitting and collaboration between different branches of the public administration. For example, projects could be severely delayed by permitting processes where standard procedures are missing or fall between administrative silos. Often, when combining technologies, several administrations need to collaborate, which also requires new procedures. In general, the support of novelties requires new more flexible ways of working and thinking within public administration, since there are no established ways of dealing with innovation and experimentation within local administrative bodies. Lessons learning in pilots and experiments can contribute, for example, to administrative reforms, such as Finland’s efforts to develop more flexible regulation.
We found several cases where civil servants lacked established procedures to deal with new technology. One example is a pilot by St1 Deep Heat to bore a 7-km-deep geothermal well in the middle of a university campus, enabling the provision of 10% of the local district heat demand [57
]. Since there were no precedents in Finland, there were no established permitting procedures for such projects. Similarly, installation of battery storage in the Viikki Environment House was delayed due to lack of fire safety standards for large batteries inside buildings.
Communications, marketing and service design required particular efforts in several cases. They could pertain to engaging the public in the pilot, finding out about user needs, or packaging low-carbon technologies into easily understandable and usable services.
We highlight here the case where other competences, such as evaluation of technologies, were present, but this particular competence was relatively scarce. The Farm Power service launched by Oulun Energia [58
], an energy company in northern Finland, is an example of a new practice that attempts to support distributed, small-scale electricity production by allowing customers to purchase electricity from a particular provider (often a farm, using small-scale hydropower or micro-combined heat and power production). In this case study, most of the technical issues were already solved by the time the pilot study started, and the issue was to create a marketplace for locally produced, small-scale renewable energy. While the electricity contracts offered by Oulun Energia are actually relatively cost-effective for e.g., apartment building dwellers (since there is no basic charge, but only a charge per kilowatt hour consumed), the marketing and communication of the concept has not been as successful as expected. The case thus highlights a particular area in need of development. In a low-carbon and more distributed energy system, energy companies are likely to turn more into service providers, and hence their traditional technical competence needs to be complemented with additional competence in marketing, customer care and service design.