Reflections on the AAG Annual Conference

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend my first American Association of Geographers conference to present preliminary findings from the EVALUATE project, and what an experience it was! I eased in to my trip with a boat trip around San Francisco Bay to celebrate the recent launch of the Global Development Institute at the University of Manchester. It was great to connect with researchers in the fields of international development and economic geography, and to hear about the ways in which issues relating to adequate energy services cut across their own research.

Around 8,500 delegates gathered for a jam-packed week of conference sessions across the whole spectrum of geography. Some of the stand out sessions that I attended included:

  • Theorizing Energy Transition in the Global South, organized by Jeff Popke and Conor Harrison. During these presentations we were introduced to some of the challenges of managing energy systems within informal settlements in South Africa, how solar energy is not perceived as electricity by some residents, and issues of energy security in Chile. Presenters also talked about the conflicts that can occur when there is a plurality of actors involving with producing energy futures, the lack of transparency provided in renewable energy investment programmes in South Africa, the contested role of private sector delivery of development pathways, and the oil assemblage in the Caribbean.
  • Two sessions on Critical policy mobilities: thickening theorizations of circulated knowledge, organized by Astrid Wood. My own background in social policy is grounded in the traditional policy transfer literature, so it was interesting to learn how this discourse builds on the policy transfer concept. From the speakers assembled for these sessions, it was evident that the policy mobilities literature offers a more flexible framework that is able to account for the messiness of real life policy circuits, with circulation of ideas and politics up and down, back and forth. The role of policy activists, also sometimes referred to as transfer agents or policy entrepreneurs, was a strong theme across many of the sessions, as was the importance of recognizing the role of historical legacies and path dependency in hindering or enabling certain policy approaches.
  • Rachel Macrorie and Matt Watson’s session on Reimagining ‘smart’ and low-carbon urbanism offered a diverse critique of ‘smart’ low-carbon innovations and sustainable urban transitions, through the lens of social practices. During this session we heard how infrastructures and practices are in a recursive relationship, and were introduced to the concept of infrastructuruation. Presenters also discussed the application of socio-temporal approaches, the role of behavioural change and politics of participation, as well as the prevailing techno-rational approaches taken by policymakers to date, such as in UK housing policy, which fails to account for individual energy needs and practices.
  • Fellow CURE member Jana Wendler and Tim Edensor organized a really thought-provoking session on Playing with methods, which introduced attendees to the use of dynamic playful methods within research practice. The presenters outlined novel work on graffiti and street art in Norway based on psychogeography, the integrated nature of surveillance society within the urban fabric, and using play during fieldtrips with students – which involved some audience participation!

My own presentation formed part of a double session on Affective and Emotional Spaces of Vulnerability, organized by Simon Dickinson and Sarah Tupper. These sessions critiqued the notion of vulnerability, and provided insights into the spatial and geopolitical aspects of vulnerability. Presentations ranged from discussions on medical waiting rooms, older people’s practices and performances of post-disaster recovery, art practice, refugee, immigrant and asylum seeker status, through to my presentation, which explored the legal concept of ‘vulnerable customers’ within EU energy policy, and the implications this had for energy vulnerability in Europe.

Within this presentation, I drew attention to the de facto usage of the term vulnerable customers by the European Commission since 2003 when talking about energy poverty. I also outlined the present situation in which many EU countries have limited their new definition of vulnerable customers to just households receiving key social welfare benefits, such as disability-related benefits, and/or unemployment assistance, which has wide-ranging implications. Firstly, this approach fails to recognise the specific energy needs and practices of households, secondly, there are related issues of narrow eligibility, significant downward steps or ‘cliff edges’ in entitlement to support at particular income levels, and low uptake of social benefits in some countries. Furthermore, it diverts attention away from other core infrastructural issues that are driving energy vulnerability, such as housing stock quality, and access to energy carriers. In sum, I stated this new approach is likely to create and reinforce the policy marginalisation of some household groups, especially those already affected by austerity agendas.