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User driven innovation to improve the efficiency of urban energy systems

Despite recent efforts, existing urban energy systems still hardly meet the demands of climate protection or sustainable development. Meeting these targets will thus require innovations that use energy much more efficiently and emit far less greenhouse gases than today. These innovations need to be made on all levels on the production as well as the consumption side, and need to cover not only technical aspects, but even more service solutions. Examples are low energy houses, electric cars or integrated mobility systems. While many of these solutions still need to be developed, some are already invented but exist only in limited market segments.

Open innovation methods which employ pluralistic engagement can help to find those ″hidden″ innovations and improve their market penetration, but also to make new inventions. These methods, which comprise stakeholder dialogues, (open) innovation workshops, ideas competition, web communities and tool kits, draw on the large and practice oriented, but often tacit knowledge base of consumers. Especially ideas competitions and innovation workshops have become a crucial method to generate and develop ideas in product innovation processes. However, these methods are not useful in all industries or fields of activities and in each phase of the innovation process. Moreover, Hipp (2007) has shown that service innovations require different conditions in a user integrated innovation process due to the immateriality and the intensity of information of services. Thus, user innovations in the field of Mobility and Housing should be examined on the basis of an ideas contest and innovation workshops conducted with so called lead users and non lead users. Lead users are persons that have many ideas for new product innovation and the ability to improve products or develop innovations ″months or years before the bulk of that marketplace encounters them″ (von Hippel 1986, p. 796). Thus, lead users obtain special characteristics. Von Hippel (1986) suggests that lead users are a source of novel product concepts. He defines this type of users by two distinguishing characteristics: (1) they face needs that will be common in the marketplace, but face them months or even years ahead of the marketplace and; (2) they benefit significantly by obtaining a solution to those needs. When products and services are not available in the marketplace, von Hippel (1986) argues that lead users are more likely to innovate than typical users.

While these methods are already used by several companies to find and develop new designs and products, there is yet little experience with service solutions and energy efficiency. However, embedding consumers at an early stage allows matching individual needs with political and social targets of sustainable development.

We conducted an idea competition and innovation workshops together with lead users on finding energy efficient solutions for housing and/or mobility in Munich. Starting from that empirical basis we address the following questions: Do lead-users promote sustainable or energy-efficient (service) innovations? Can energy-efficient innovations, generated and developed by users, improve and accelerate a sustainable development and climate protection? What are the limits and possibilities of open innovation processes in the field of energy efficiency? With the help of content analysis our study emphasises the possibilities and limits of selected open innovation methods to create more energy-efficiency and to initiate a bottom-up transformation of the energy system. Our findings highlight the role of user integration in order to push present energy-efficient ideas forward or to change urban energy systems incrementally.