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Sustainability News

May 22, 2019

Sun setting over Tempe Towns LakeThe Sustainability Education and Energy Knowledge-sharing (SEEK) Project catalyzes the values-driven leadership of cohesive social networks, such as congregations and nonprofits, to accelerate societal energy transitions through education, technical assistance and social innovation. An action research project of the Spirituality and Sustainability Initiative, SEEK relies on a novel model for leveraging existing assets and in-kind resources from multi-sectoral partners (including universities, congregations, commercial energy professionals, federal programs and local leaders) to provide tailored mentoring and technical assistance in various online and face-to-face formats that facilitate progressive knowledge development, knowledge sharing and mutual problem-solving.

The SEEK Project tests, under real-world conditions, the capacity for social values and cohesive networks to drive accelerated energy transitions in their communities and build social resilience. It explores how information-framing and knowledge-sharing methods affect public understanding of energy and climate issues — factors which shape energy decision-making; the relevance of social, cultural and economic value propositions; and the benefits of multi-sectoral partnerships in a diffuse, complex environment. By prioritizing both practical outcomes and the creation of new knowledge, the project enhances educational experiences for students, faculty and others.

Project participants can measure their individual and collective impacts on energy usage, migration to renewable energy products and services, greenhouse gas emissions, energy expenditures, and reinvestment of cost savings into social service.

Why faith-based communities?

Faith communities are socially networked at local, state, national and global scales. They demonstrate deep social cohesion based on shared values of service and stewardship, and high levels of motivation to take action on sustainable energy and climate solutions. Actions can take many forms, including through energy consumers in the marketplace.

The growing solar industry and other energy market innovations offer many opportunities for consumers to take values-based action, but faith communities are considered underserved by the market. Their energy projects tend to be comparatively smaller and require more technical assistance than average projects, making them more costly and less lucrative for private sector developers. Ownership structures may not be well-suited for conventional financing.

Nevertheless, in terms of societal scale, these communities can exert substantial aggregate impact. In the United States, 350,000 congregations in 236 denominations provide a spiritual base for more than 150 million people, organized as networks from local to national scales. Given the complexity and cost of interacting with such a vast system, the SEEK approach catalyzes greater impact by helping partners leverage existing resources and assets with minimal new inputs but substantial added value.

Building upon relationships

As an analogy, the sharing economy is based on similar design principles that utilize existing infrastructure (e.g., Uber, Lyft and Airbnb). Rather than infrastructure, the SEEK Project builds on existing relationships among universities, the energy industry and faith communities — all of which are socially networked from local to national scales — adding strategic resources and organizational design to expand existing capacities. The project is the first of its kind.

Key elements of the project include energy use benchmarking, simplifying audits to identify priorities for savings and impact improvement, adaptive tracking of individual and aggregate impacts with assistance for course corrections, and ongoing knowledge-sharing about opportunities and strategies for acting on shared values. Overall, the project aims to generate synergies and creative problem-solving that accelerate energy transitions in line with service and stewardship values, along social innovation pathways. We propose a three-year intensive window for mobilization and impact assessment, followed by recalibration to fit then-current conditions.