Training industry professionals on the added value of social scientists in the context of the Dutch Energy Transition

  • PEOPLE project, ERasmus+, training for industry professionals, energy, energy transition in the Netherlands, VU Amsterdam, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Alliander, value of social sciences for industry

Maud van Merrienboer, Junior Lecturer & Researcher, Faculty of Social Sciences, VU Amsterdam

On 31 January, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam offered a workshop to a group of professionals working for Alliander, the largest energy grid company in the Netherlands. In one afternoon, the industry professionals were offered a glimpse of what anthropology is and how anthropologists work, aimed at demonstrating the added value of social scientists for industry. The Alliander professionals came from different areas within the organization, from external and internal strategy departments to more client-oriented units. The training was facilitated by PEOPLE project coordinator Marrije Prins and presentations were given by Alliander’s project coordinator Peter Pos and VU anthropologist Freek Colombijn.

A human perspective

“I am in need of a more human perspective in our organization. Most of my colleagues think in technical solutions”, is what one of the trainees said at the beginning of the workshop. This sentiment was shared amongst all of the trainees. When asked why he was in need of social insights, one of the PEOPLE case managers, Elbert, replied: “The energy transition will affect people in many ways, on a financial level, but also on how they handle energy” Some of the trainees already (unknowingly) use ethnographic methods in their daily practices. “I regularly receive Excel spreadsheets with spending hours from employees. But from these spreadsheets I cannot see how these hours were spent. To get an idea of what these numbers mean, I set off with one of our mechanics for a day.” However, it seems these kinds of methods are not receiving support in the rest of the organization.

Erasmus+, PEOPLE project, Netherlands, VU Amsterdam, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Alliander, training, social sciences, anthropology, value of social sciences for industry, energy transition, energy

Social sciences in practice

Peter: “Before I started cooperating with the Vrije Universiteit, I believed that anthropologists went to faraway places to study exotic tribes. But social scientists are actually able to help us gain insights into ‘Big Unkowns’ in our own country, such as the energy transition. We do not know how, why or when people will choose alternative sources of energy. They will have financial, but also social and cultural considerations”. Several methods used by anthropologists were illustrated by VU anthropologist Freek Colombijn during a presentation on his current research on waste in Indonesia. “When you talk to government officials in Indonesia they seem to have a clear image of the situation when it comes to waste disposal and what needs to be done to improve it. However, when you actually start to follow the waste, and speak to for example waste pickers, it becomes clear that the situation is a lot more complex.”

Some of the industry professionals recognized this of the Indonesian case. “We believe we have the solution for everything. But, what unintended consequences will our solutions bring? Do the people even want this?” In small groups, trainees discussed their own daily work practices. “About a year ago we were experimenting with a flexible tariff for energy. People would receive a text message when the energy costs were low. My colleagues did not think about how this innovation would fit into the lives of our clients. In today’s busy world, do people really want to worry about the cheapest time to do laundry?” Besides market research, social science methods can also be used to improve internal practices. “I am unable to see whether a 4-hour meeting was worth it, or whether this could have been done in 2 hours. Social sciences can help us understand the value of certain activities.”

PEOPLE project, Erasmus+, VU Amsterdam, Alliander, training, social sciences, value of social sciences for industry, anthropology, energy, energy transition, the Netherlands

Future plans

The final part of the workshop was aimed at exploring ways to embed the human perspective in the organization. It became clear that this is possible on an individual level. Yannick says: “This day has made me realize that I need to leave my desk more. I need to go inside the organization and talk to people”. However, it remains a challenge to give social sciences a place within the whole organization. “Of course, you can start with your own practices. But your influence in the company is limited, since it is such a large organization.”

The Vrije Universiteit is happy to have gained some enthusiastic new members in the PEOPLE community and hope that they will spread the message of PEOPLE within the organization. The work  of Vrije Universiteit and Alliander within the PEOPLE project is a step towards the recognition of the importance of social sciences in the industry of sustainable energy. In the words of case manager Elbert: “People at Alliander love successful pilot projects. If we can show a situation where social sciences were of added value through the PEOPLE project, we are in. We just need those success stories to reach the CEO so she can ask: Why have we not been doing this before?