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Living Lab for Energy Innovation

Since 2019 the government of Ecuador, the Galapagos Governing Council, the UK-Ecuador Chamber of Commerce and the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, have engaged in collaborative discussions aimed towards the design of a net-zero fossil fuel energy strategy for the Galapagos archipelago. This collaboration contributed to developing the agenda of the ‘Galapagos Sustainability, Innovation and Resilience Hub’, which is coordinated by the Charles Darwin Foundation in collaboration with academic and government partner organisations.

Context and Aims

Environmental and conservation issues in the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador, a UNESCO World Heritage Site for Biodiversity, are largely driven by development in the inhabited 3% of the territory, coupled with an unsustainable tourism model. Only five of the 18 main islands of the archipelago are inhabited, with over 25,000 people living in the three main towns and villages, while the remaining 97% of the territory is protected by the National Park. However, the islands are affected by extreme weather events such as El Niño, which are becoming more frequent and stronger due to climate change. The National Plan for Climate Change (2015) highlights the key impacts of increasing ocean temperatures, increasing rainfall, rising sea level, and increasing ocean water acidity. The Galapagos province and local NGOs have taken measures to consider such climate change-related issues by developing plans that promote renewable energy and adaptation responses to reduce climate change vulnerability: Energías Renovables para Galápagos (ERGAL); Terrestrial Ecosystems in Galápagos: Potential Responses to Climate Change, In Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment of the Galápagos Islands, WWF and Conservation International, 2010 (Trueman, M. et al., 2011); Adaptándonos al Cambio Climatico en las Islas Galapagos, WWF-CI, 2010; and zero fossil fuels program for Galapagos (2011).


Prior to the Covid-19 crisis, over 200,000 tourists visited the islands every year, generating significant economic revenue for local people and the Ecuadorian nation. The heavy reliance of the Galapagos economy on the tourism sector caused a severe economic shock when restrictions were implemented in relation to the pandemic, raising issues of job and food security.  Although the tourism sector has picked up since the initial lock-down, diversification of this unsustainable economic model is key for the future resilience of the archipelago. Furthermore, the limited natural resources of the archipelago, such as water, are severely compromised due to population growth, urbanisation, pollution and the high demand from the tourism industry. Tourism activities also require energy, mainly supplied through imported fossil fuels to generate electricity, transport people by boat between islands, around the various wildlife sites, as well as transport for food imports due to the limited land area available for agriculture. In addition to the growing influence of climate change, some of the main environmental concerns include the introduction of foreign species (for example on the hull of boats that the archipelago relies on for imported produce), the potential for oil spills from boats used for transport, and food and water security for local people.


The Galapagos province has set the ambitious goal of zero fossil fuel use in the islands by 2040, requiring a transition in the energy and transport sectors. However, research at the Univrsity of Edinburgh has shown that achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals in Galapagos requires a complex system approach, with mapping and modelling the multiple interconnections between the energy, food, and water sectors as a key element for understanding the synergies and trade-offs between sectors (Garcia Ferrari et al., 2021). For example, increasing local agricultural production has the potential to improve job and food security and help tackle invasive species by reducing dependence on imports, but will require additional fresh water for irrigation. Furthermore, the provision of clean water for local people and tourists is an enduring challenge due to limited freshwater resources, but surplus energy from wind farms at night could be used to power desalination plants. The expansion of biodigesters in the province could provide a sustainable source of biogas as well as fertiliser for local agriculture, but this system requires systemic changes to provide sufficient organic waste as an input, and agricultural land to receive the produced fertiliser. A complex systems approach would therefore be highly valuable to guide policy-making in Galapagos, as this could allow the optimisation of system outcomes, avoiding the pitfalls of allowing one sector to thrive at the expense of others.


This initial research at the University of Edinburgh has also demonstrated that deliberative scenario planning around resource use and resilience must include diverse stakeholders (e.g., from the tourism, agriculture, and fishing sectors, local NGOs, local community groups, and government), in order to shape policy integration across sectors. The co-production by these stakeholders of realistic simulation models could represent a fruitful approach to successfully implement sustainable resource governance, and allow evaluation and monitoring processes to take place. This model of adaptive co-management of water, energy and food resources between legitimate government, third sector and private sector stakeholders is likely to yield more inclusive and sustainable resource governance. Furthermore, such inclusive and adaptive mechanisms are needed to enable local adaptation and build resilience to the effects of climate change, which will increasingly alter the interrelationships between the water, energy and food sectors. Change requires innovative approaches to sustainable development and resilience, which ensure stakeholder engagement and enhance their understanding of the challenges at the local level.


Within this context and through the collaboration between the University of Edinburgh, Universidad San Francisco de Quito and British-Ecuadorian Chamber of Commerce, a ‘Living Lab for Energy Innovation’ is proposed, aimed at delivering the objectives of the recently approved Galapagos Plan 2030, and at the same time provide opportunities to recover from the Covid-19 crisis, reinforce existing strategies and opportunities to enhance resource self-sufficiency, reduce climate crisis impacts by developing and testing innovative clean energy systems, and promoting the economic diversification to avoid tourism-sector over-dependency. The Living Lab will empower local communities to adjust to a rapidly changing economic, cultural and environmental landscape, creating an integrated resource and energy system that is appropriate and sustainable.


The proposed Living Lab for Energy Innovation will represent:

  • A platform for knowledge exchange between different stakeholders in the Galapagos province and international partners. The Living Lab will provide the ‘ecosystem’ where communities of local residents, business leaders, entrepreneurs and policy makers converge, with access to the tools, methods, spaces, technologies and training required to create resources and renewable energy systems that are respectful and adapted to the local biodiversity and cultural heritage, as well as local skills and knowledge.

  • An incubator where innovative ideas around the challenges of local climate change impacts can be identified and understood and new sustainable energy and resource systems can be developed and grow into local businesses tackling the specific local needs, challenges and opportunities.

  • A laboratory for research, innovation and policy development for the region and other island nations facing similar challenges. The Living Lab is expected to help in identifying agendas for research and innovation aiming towards energy transition, promoting suitable and sustainable partnerships and attracting funding. 


Four areas of work structure the proposed Living Lab:


  1. RESOURCES: Explored and understood from and for the local context

  2. KNOWLEDGE: Gathered globally and developed locally through dialogue and exchange

  3. POWER RELATIONSHIPS & NEGOTIATION: Across local and global stakeholders for sustainable and innovative energy solutions policies and programmes

  4. ACTION BASED ON PHYSICAL SCIENCE: Linked to local and global research and innovation.

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