Generating societal change via computational models

Eefje Cuppen is a professor in Governance of Sustainability at Leiden University. Her research focuses on decision-making in sustainability transitions. Since October 1, 2022, Cuppen is also the director of the Rathenau Institute: a public knowledge institution that aims to stimulate societal debate and political judgment on science, technology, and innovation.

All municipalities have to make decisions on how a neighborhood will transition to sustainable energy provision. There are often multiple options to choose from, such as a collective heating network or individual heat pumps. To determine what is best for a specific area, there are computational models. "These models are currently mainly based on efficiency – achieving the goals of CO2 reduction - and technological criteria," Cuppen explains. "There is no built-in concept of justice. But everyone considers it very important to make fair choices. We want policy decisions that are not only effective but also fair to all stakeholders."

Real societal change 

Incorporating a context-dependent and partly subjective concept like justice into a computational model is quite a challenge. Collaboration with various parties is essential for this. From municipalities, energy companies, and housing associations to the companies that develop and build these computational models. Cuppen says, "Together with TU Delft and eleven different collaboration partners from the sector, we come up with new modules that are then added to the computational models. We work in the neighborhood and with each other to determine what a model should take into account to say something about justice. We build the models and discuss the results with each other. Thanks to this broad collaboration, we gain new insights into how the energy transition can be both effective and just. And we ensure that it can be used in various ways in practice, now and in the future. The goal is not only to improve the computational models but, above all, to change decision-making. That's when real change happens."

Cuppen is also involved in other initiatives, such as Buurtlab 070, which originates from the Campus The Hague of Leiden University. "With Buurtlab 070, we apply our knowledge to sustainability issues in our own backyard, namely the city of The Hague. Here, we also deal with questions about a just and inclusive energy transition, among other things. We gather the knowledge questions that residents and stakeholders have and translate them into concrete research projects that our master's students can work on. But it can also be about healthy nutrition or questions about mobility or biodiversity. It can be anything, as long as we stay close to the residents' living environment. That way, we can genuinely help people."