Design thinking as a tool for activism

click here to save the world


In the context of key social and environmental challenges facing societies, finding ways to make real and meaningful change happen in our communities can feel like a daunting prospect. Design thinking or Human-Centered Design is a creative approach that seeks to engage communities around problem solving in applied contexts. It is a way for people to get tangible by generating ideas, experimenting, and iterating to help others experience a vision of the future for your community and applying this in practice. To learn more about it you can watch the video about it here.

This evening, at Transition Galway and Galway’s Feminst Collective, we are hosting my colleague Anne Schiffer (Leeds Beckett University and Friends of the Earth) to run a free workshop on using Design Thinking for grassroots action. This workshop is open to anyone who is keen to learn how they apply a Design Thinking approach to the community work they do. No previous experience is necessary. Just an interest and passion in social and environmental change issues.

This interactive event centers on providing an overview of Design Thinking and how to apply it to activism and community work by concentrating on 5 key steps:

1. Empathy – developing an understanding the challenges and needs of your local community.

2. Defining what the common needs and challenges are.

3. Coming up with ideas of how and what can be done.

4. Prototype – create quick and tactile representations of your ideas.

5. Test & iterate – Getting feedback on proposed solutions and iterating until it meets their needs.

Dr Anne Schiffer is a senior lecturer in the School of Art, Architecture and Design at Leeds Beckett University. She holds a PhD from Queen’s University Belfast which critiques the role of designers in international development. Schiffer uses human-centred design research methods to uncover opportunities and conflicts in the context of grassroots action on environmental issues, including energy and more recently water transitions. She previously worked for Friends of the Earth Scotland where led the Scottish part of a European funded project on community-owned renewable energy ( She serves on the board of Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

RIA Charlemont Scholarship


Last week I travelled to Dublin to attend the 2018 Royal Irish Academy Charlemont Award Ceremony. Recognising the importance of travel and cross-pollination of ideas, the Charlemont scholarship scheme awards high impact travel grants to early career postdoctoral researchers. Small but impactful sources of funding such as this are crucial for early career researchers, for whom international exchange and networking is of particular importance and relevance.


The event took place on the evening of the 19th February at the welcoming and opulent RIA Academy House. As a successful applicant in the 2018 scheme, I was joined by a cohort of fellow scholars who had travelled from various universities in Ireland to receive their Award from RIA President, Prof Michael Kennedy. Between us, we spanned a wide diversity of disciplines in the social, natural and engineering sciences. The Award Ceremony provided a great opportunity to network with researchers from across the country for whom the Award would facilitate travel to locations across the globe, including Romania, Barbados, South Africa and New Zealand.


recieving awardBuilding on my recent research in The Gambia earlier this year (more information on which can be read here), The Charlemont grant will support me to expand my research to new geographical locations. This time I am traveling to New Zealand over the summer period. There I will collect novel data that will facilitate further cross-cultural data from which to explore the intersections of social change and daily consumption. Replicating my doctoral research methodology with older aged New Zealanders will generate comparable data, allowing me to draw comparative insights between Ireland, New Zealand and The Gambia. This will enable me to further advance understanding of how different consumption cultures evolve. The findings generated from this comparative investigation will be of central utility to sustainable development policy.


class-of-2018-charlemont-scholars (1)

2018 Charlemont Scholars


During my time in New Zealand, I will be hosted by Juliana Mansvelt at the School of People, Environment and Planning at Massey University. I’m very excited about the invaluable opportunity this will present to collaborate with an international network of colleagues sharing my interest in exploring the intersections of lives, practices and contexts in shaping environmental behaviour. In addition to collaborating on the field-based research, I will attend and present a paper at The New Zealand Geographical Society – Insitute of Australian Geographers Conference which will be held in Auckland during my stay.


These opportunities attest to the importance of small-scale research grants for early career researchers. They provide vital stepping stones needed to facilitate us in springboarding our careers. The Charlemont Scholar provides me with a fantastic opportunity to expand my doctoral research and forge new links with an international community of scholars in my field. It is intended that these experiences will provide a means through which I can build a specialised international research network and develop larger-scale research projects in the future.

Demanding Energy: Space, Time and Change



demanding energy


I  have published a new chapter on the dynamics of energy demand over the lifecourse in the exciting new book ‘Demanding Energy:  Space, Time and Change’ (edited by Dr. Alison Hui, Dr. Roise Day and Prof. Gordon Walker’). “Demanding Energy: Space, Time and Change critically engages with an important but rarely-asked question: what is energy for? This starting point foregrounds the diverse social processes implicated in the making of energy demand and how these change over time to shape the past patterns, present dynamics and future trajectories of energy use.”


Understanding the patterning of energy demand in different spaces, and at different scales and temporalities is essential for understanding how and why our everyday practice has changed. An important but under-researched temporal scale of analysis for energy demand is that of biographical time. In Ireland and beyond, radical changes in social, cultural, political and material landscapes have transformed the way everyday life is experienced and performed over the lifecourse, with major implications for how energy is demanded in the household. However, to date our understanding of how and why patterns of domestic energy demand change over biographical time within the context of wider changes in society remain poorly understood.


My chapter in the book explores the value of a biographical scale of analysis for revealing insights into complex experiences and processes of change. Here I argue that a biographical, retrospective scale of analysis that considers individuals’ energy practice as dynamically evolving through the lifecourse in the context of a changing socio-technical landscape offers immense potential for improving understanding of the ways in which lives, practices and contexts intersect in energy systems change.  Adopting a biographical perspective that involves looking back over individuals’ lives to explore how their conduct has changed over time, I investigate the question of how wider structural processes, including changes in societal institutions and ‘non-energy’ policies, interact with patterns of consumption and energy demand. In doing so I present data that highlights a web of institutional changes, such as family structures and gender policies, that have shaped how we do things and the energy implications that arise from them. I demonstrate how changes in the biographies of men and women and the gender structures of society were made possible by concurrent changes in the technological and material landscapes shaping our everyday lives. Changes associated with the technologisation, and increasing resource intensity, of daily life, have altered women’s lives most significantly and the evolution of contemporary domestic and work schedules.

For more information on the Demanding Energy book collection see You can also watch a visual trailor for the book here.

Call for papers for Energy and Everyday Life session at the RGS-IBG Conference 2018

The RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2018 will take place from 28-31 August at Cardiff University with the theme “Geographical landscapes / changing landscapes of geography”. You can find more information about the conference here.
This is a call for papers that address the lived experience of energy systems change and is sponsored by the RGS Planning and Environment Research Group.
Session Title: Energy and Everyday Life: Exploring the Lived Experience of Energy Systems Change
This session explores the lived experience of energy systems change in diverse landscapes. In the context of the predominant neoliberal approach to development, energy policies in (post)-industrialised and developing countries have been predominantly techno-centric in nature. However, it is increasingly recognised that energy is not just a technical but a deeply social issue, reflecting and shaping the social, economic, cultural and political structures of societies. Energy geographies has recently emerged as a rapidly growing cross-cutting subfield of human geographical inquiry in which contextualised approaches to understanding dynamics of energy system change are emerging to challenge eco-modernised and techno-centric approaches to transitions. Furthermore, the importance of the lived experience and practice of daily life as it plays out in domestic and community contexts is also increasingly recognised by both scholars and practitioners working in energy transitions contexts. However, despite these promising developments towards more situated, contextual insights, many questions remain. For example:
  • how do lives, practices and contexts intersect in the context of energy systems change?
  • In what ways do power, capability, inequality and social differentiation (e.g. gender, class, race) interact in energy systems change?
  • How are patterns of social relations, interaction and social capital shaped by dynamics in energy systems?
  • What potential do qualitative, experience-centred methodologies have for revealing insights into hitherto overlooked contextual processes and mechanisms shaping everyday energy practices?
  • What can be learned by analysing the lived experience of energy transitions as it plays out in diverse spatial (e.g. developing or developed) and temporal (e.g. contemporary or historical) contexts?
  • How might situated, ethnographic energy transitions research inform policy at local, national and international scales?

We invite papers addressing these and related themes in exploring the lived experience of energy systems change in a range of present-day and historical contexts, including domestic, community, urban, rural, developed and developing.

Please send your abstract of no more than 300 words to Mary Greene ( and Anne Schiffer ( by Friday 9th February.

Trashing the Planet – Who is responsible?


Do you ever feel like a drop in the ocean when it comes to efforts at achieving sustainability?

In today’s neoliberal free market context, the onus is frequently placed on individual consumers to drive the transition towards sustainability. However, while individual behaviour change is, without doubt, a crucial part of the process of transitioning, the emphasis on the individual consumer neglects a discussion of how wider social, cultural and political contexts are locking individuals into unsustainable patterns of consumption.

This month, with Transition Galway and the Galway Feminist Collective, I am hosting a public talk on this topic with Green Drinks Galway. With myself and members of Galway’s Feminist as guest speakers we will discuss the importance of uncovering and challenging the social, structural and institutional contexts that lock citizens and consumers into unsustainable ways of living.

I will set the scene in speaking about my historical research on the factors shaping changing domestic consumption practices in Ireland. Drawing on oral history interviews with older aged Irish people, I’ll discuss how the experience and practice of daily living have changed. My analysis identifies a range of societal, infrastructural and institutional factors that have shaped individuals’ everyday consumption towards increasing resource intensity over time.

Turning light on current day contexts, Ireland is currently facing a continued expansion of our fossil fuel infrastructure. Discussing current activist efforts to challenge unsustainable contexts and practice, members of the Galway Feminist Collective will introduce and discuss direct action for environmental justice and introduce the “Not Here, Not Anywhere” campaign. “Not Here, Not Anywhere” is a national campaign group that is calling for a ban on all new fossil fuel infrastructure projects in Ireland, specifically offshore drilling for oil and gas and the building of terminals for the regasification of Liquefied Natural Gas. In addition, members of Galway Feminist Collective will speak of their participation in a recent mass action against fossil fuel extraction in November which took place on the eve of the Climate Talks (COP 23) on the outskirts of Bonn where the talks were being held. 4,500 activists travelled from all over Europe to join the action which shut down the lignite coal mine operated by the company RWE.

Presentations will be followed by a group discussion. The event ‘Trashing the Planet – Who is responsible?’ will take place at 7 pm on February 12th in The Secret Garden cafe.

The Facebook event for the event can be found here.

Green Drinks Galway is a free public talk about environmental issues where a guest speaker gives a short talk and then takes questions from the audience. Green Drinks Galway is organised by local environmental group Transition Galway. A wide range of teas, coffee and other drinks are available at the venue. Green Drinks are organised in over 670 cities around the world and it allows people with an interest in green issues get together to chat, share ideas and raise a cup/glass to a brighter future.

Expanding my doctoral research to The Gambia

shape energy


As a successful applicant of the H2020 SHAPE ENERGY Research Design Challenge, I have begun a collaboration with Dr. Anne Schiffer (Leeds Beckett University). Exploring the lived experience of energy systems change as it plays out in diverse temporal and spatial landscapes, we are combining and expanding our respective doctoral research projects to conduct comparative contemporary and historical ethnographic energy research in (post)industrial and developing world contexts.

I met Anne at the RGS-IBG 2017 annual conference where I saw her present on her doctoral research on energy transitions in The Gambia. Despite our research being conducted in different temporal and developmental contexts (Ireland and The Gambia), there is a large overlap in terms of our respective findings on the intersection of social processes in energy systems change. Specifically, key themes emerging from my retrospective historical exploration of the lived experience of past energy transitions in Ireland strongly resonated with insights emerging from her ethnographic research of the ongoing energy transition in The Gambia. We expressed excitement about this and discussed our desire to potentially collaborate together in the future. So when I saw the SHAPE ENERGY call suited for researchers seeking to collaborate on social science energy research, Anne was the first potential collaborator that sprung to mind. To my delight, upon approaching her, she was as equally excited about the possibility of collaborating together. With only a few days to the Research Design Challenge deadline, we quickly began to work together on developing a research proposal.

In considering the mainstream approaches to development, policies around sustainable energy and development in both (post-)industrialised and developing countries focus predominantly on technological fixes and solutions. A key consequence of this is that the social contexts and implications of resource use are often overlooked in current policy discussions. However, among social scientists, such as myself, it is increasingly recognised that energy is not just a technical but also a deeply social issue, reflecting and shaping the social, cultural and political-economic structures of societies. Within this context, our work seeks to highlight the importance of understanding and analysing the lived experience and practice of daily life in the context of energy systems change.

Following this, Anne and I are working together to demonstrate the potential of ethnographic energy research for revealing insights into complex contextual processes shaping lives and practices.  In doing so we are conducting a comparative analysis of the intersections of lives, practices and contexts in energy systems change in Ireland and The Gambia. While Anne’s doctoral research had explored energy systems change in a contemporary context, we felt that it would greatly enhance our analysis to explore how change has played out over a longer historical timescale. To this end, we proposed to travel to Africa over the Christmas break to replicate my doctoral methodology and conduct novel biographic research on past energy transitions in The Gambia. With our application receiving positive reviews and acceptance, we began preparations for travel to conduct fieldwork in The Gambia over the New Year and early January period.


The Gambia

Map of The Gambia 


During the duration of our field research stay, we immersed ourselves in the local culture and life of the community of Kartong to investigate the intersections of energy systems and social change as it plays out at the scale of situated everyday practices. Kartong is a village located in the South coastal region of The Gambia that recently underwent electrification in 2013. However, some sections of the community continue to remain unconnected to the fossil fuel powered grid system.


Transforming energy landscapes in the community of Kartong, The Gambia


Employing an immersive ethnographic methodology that combined elements of our respective PhD methodologies, we lived with a local family, participated in local daily practices and conducted a series of biographic interviews with elderly local residents of Kartong to explore how life has changed over time. The pictures embedded below depict me participating in daily food preparation and myself and Anne with one of the elderly women that we interviewed. We supplemented this data with visual photographic and audio-visual ethnographic accounts of local ways of performing energy practices as well as the changing material landscapes and infrastructures which frame these performances.


Gambia pic1

Participating in cooking practice



Anne (left) and I (right) with one of our interviewees (centre)


During our stay, we also traveled to Serekunda to meet with governmental officials at the Ministry for Petroleum and Energy and participated in a meeting focused on curriculum design for sustainable energy practices. This meeting was also attended by UNESCO and staff from The University of The Gambia.

The fascinating narratives, images and accounts of change emerging from this research are revealing crucial insights into the intersections of lives, practices and contexts in energy systems change. To this end, we are specifically interested in exploring a number of key questions, such as: How are social relations and forms of interaction shaped by dynamics in energy systems? How are already existing patterns of social inequality and difference (e.g. gender, race and social class) reproduced or transformed in the context of broader socio-technical and political-economic transitions? How might ethnographic, situated energy transition research that considers diverse lived experiences inform sustainability policy at local, national and international scales? What can be learned by analysing the lived experience of technological change as it plays out in diverse contemporary and historical landscapes?

In terms of next steps, Anne and I will continue to work closely over the next few months in our analysis of the data. This research will be disseminated through a number of means, including a co-authored paper that will be published with high visibility and sent to the EU’s strategy for research and innovation in March 2018 as part of the H2020 SHAPE ENERGY Research Design Challenge.