Getting to know Copernicus grant winners

At the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, our interdisciplinary researchers are working to help advance the transition to a just, sustainable world. Five of our colleagues were recently awarded impressive grants by the European Research Council (ERC) and the Dutch Research Council (NWO). We sat down with them to celebrate their success, get to know the ambitions behind their research and learn how these projects will contribute to developing new ways of thinking and doing that can help us tackle the multitude of complex sustainability challenges facing societies today.

Copernicus grant winners

Tatiana Acevedo Guerrero: Homescapes make the world we live in? Learning from homes in the urban South 

The ‘modern home’ was made possible by the development of infrastructure, for example for water, during the 19th century. This mainly happened in cities in the Global North. In Global South cities, the way you access water often depends on your social status. Low-income neighbourhoods seldom have regular access to piped water in their homes. Instead, they rely on intermittent systems, small-scale service providers, rain harvesting, and other ways of getting water. What happens once the water is transported and stored inside patios and kitchens? This question forms the basis for HOMESCAPES, a research project led by Tatiana Acevedo Guerrero, which was awarded an ERC starting grant. 

What I find interesting about this project, is that after training, community members will work together with social scientists to pool their lived experiences and interpret them. And everyone will be compensated for their work.

HOMESCAPES aims to understand how social power relations intertwine with the ecological realities of urban households in the South, taking water as an entry point. “It is in these homes that many of the processes sustaining city life take place, often in circumstances of precariousness,” explains Acevedo Guerrero. “Especially facing increasing impacts of climate change and the burden of the pandemic.” 

Flor Avelino: Power dynamics in transformative social innovation 

Today’s challenges demand more than just technological fixes. They also require social innovations that can shake up existing power dynamics that lead to injustice and unsustainability. Flor Avelino’s POTRANSI project investigates such social innovations. It will study groups and networks aiming to create alternative practices and look into how social innovations connect across and between local networks. Avelino was awarded an ERC consolidator grant for the project. 
Avelino names decentralized energy production, the sharing economy, eco-communities, and participatory democracy as examples of such groups. While technologies like solar panels and windmills are part of the picture, the real essence of social innovation lies in reshaping social relations, and in the new ways of doing, thinking and organising. 

Social innovations can be transformative if they challenge, alter and replace the dominant power relations in society

However, a challenge surfaces: for innovations to make a real impact, they must spread across society, potentially losing their novelty and risking being co-opted into existing systems. The project questions who or what wields power through social innovation, how existing power relations transform, and the unintended consequences of power shifts. 

Avelino: "We strive to advance power literacy, sparking informed debates about power in social innovation and transformation, and putting power at the center of discussions that often overlook this crucial aspect."  

Toon Meelen – Retro-innovation for long-distance travel 

Sustainable innovation is often only associated with brand-new technology. Toon Meelen wants to show that sustainable innovation can also mean combining old, existing and new practices and technologies. He was awarded a VENI grant by NWO to conduct his research. “I will look at the cases of night trains, zeppelins and hitchhiking,” says Meelen. “I think it is fascinating that various companies are trying to revive these forgotten technologies and practices, but using modern digital platforms.” 
But Meelen expects this to be surprisingly difficult: many old technologies have a bad reputation, even though they could be a sustainable way of transport. Think of the Zeppelin, which is still associated with the Hindenburg disaster of 1937.   

I am happy that in this project I can also explore radically different futures, like a sky filled with gently gliding Zeppelins that people once dreamt about.

Meelen’s overarching goal is to show that there is much potential in the combination of elements of practices from all kinds of times and places. “For international rail travel specifically, I aim to influence policymaking at the EU and national levels,” says Meelen. “I think there is quite some room for improvement there.” 

Iryna Susha: Business-to-Government data sharing for societal challenges 

More and more, governments strive to make evidence-based decisions using the best available data. Currently, businesses hold more relevant data that can be valuable for tackling societal challenges than governments do. Governments in the EU have started taking steps to compel businesses to share data with the governments when public interest is at stake. Iryna Susha started DATA ALLY to research this dynamic. She was awarded a VIDI grant by NWO to kickstart the project.  
“DATA ALLY aims to investigate how Business-to-Government (B2G) data sharing for societal challenges is being institutionalized at the EU, national, and local level,” explains Susha. This project is the first of its kind. 

With my research, I want to empower governments across the EU to leverage data that is crucial to solving societal problems

The project will compare data access strategies of governments and outcomes of data use across various domains, like emergency services, production of statistics and urban mobility. “Why do cities seek access to business data for certain problems, and not others?” asks Susha. “Such questions are valuable for explaining how governments deal with data issues.” 

An overarching aim is to help government organizations in their relations with the private sector. “In the short term, I want to consolidate experiences across the EU about the various approaches to Business-to-Government data sharing,” says Susha. “The long-term impact of the project is to empower governments, with the help of evidence and lessons learnt across the EU, to increase data sovereignty.” 

Xiao-Shan Yap: Planetary stewardship in view of Earth-Space sustainability 

Human activities in outer space have increased in recent years, from satellite infrastructure systems in Earth’s orbit to the potential mining of minerals on other celestial bodies. At the moment, we know far too little about how they might impact the planetary crisis that humanity is already facing.  
Xiao-Shan Yap’s PLANETSTEWARDS project investigates how different stakeholders, each propelled by distinct values and objectives, may strategize to address sustainability crises on a planetary scale. The project was awarded an ERC starting grant.  

My research deals with environmental and societal challenges that are rapidly changing the relationships between humans, Earth, and space

PLANETSTEWARDS will analyze three different approaches —specifically, those driven by the state, the market, and the community. The state-driven approach involves active intervention by governmental bodies, driven by intensifying geopolitics. Meanwhile, the market-driven approach relies on market forces and private enterprises to steer sustainable practices in outer space. Lastly, the community-driven approach places emphasis on the collective efforts of diverse communities across the globe to protect the loss of cultural values due to increasing space activities. 

Yap's research promises to shed light on the intricate dynamics between these planetary stewardship approaches and their consequences for both Earth's and space sustainability. Yap: “By delving into the environmental and social dimensions of sustainability, the project aims to inform future policies and practices that will shape the evolving landscape of human activities beyond our planet.”