Building sustainable local nexuses of food, energy and water: from smart engineering to shared prosperity (The Local Nexus Network)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Engineering Science

Abstract

Historically, human industrial and economic activities have been shaped greatly by the pattern of resource utilisation in favour at the time. For thousands of years pre-1800, material and energy resources, mostly renewable, were extracted and used locally. With the widening exploitation of energy-dense fossil fuels, post-1800 industry has been diverted to more centralised production primarily based on geographically concentrated resources, accompanied by large-scale distribution infrastructures. Whilst the scale economies of these large systems have served us well in certain respects, continued reliance on centralised resource extraction and production has contributed to the formation of a range of acute issues facing the global society today, such as insecurity of essential supplies, climate change, and social-economic imbalance and injustice.

Driven by the desire to improve resource utilisation and broader sustainability in response to the above issues, a special chapter of re-distributed manufacturing is concerned with localised production with indigenous sustainable resources to support local economy and communities. Among products and services that can potentially benefit from localised production, food, energy and water represent the most essential commodities for every society. Furthermore, it has increasingly been recognised that there exist close ties between these commodities, manifested by (1) the significant energy and water footprints in food production and the mutual footprint between energy and water production, and (2) their intertwined connections with land and the broader ecosystems. The inseparable challenges from the three sectors require an integrative approach as opposed to tackling them in silos.

Local nexuses, involving localised food manufacturing and decentralised energy and water supply that interact with the food system, are a special chapter of re-distributed manufacturing (RDM) with a focus on the sustainable local alignment of resources, production and consumption. To-date, a comprehensive technological, economic, and social/political understanding of local production/manufacture of food, energy and water, or local nexus, is still yet to be developed.

By collaboration between engineering and social sciences, the Local Nexus Network will carry out feasibility projects and events to (i) establish the technical and socio-economic state-of-the-art of local productions of food, energy and water, (ii) generate initial insights for guiding researchers, businesses, policy makers and communities who are enthusiastic about exploring the potential of local nexuses, (iii) develop an evidence-based research agenda, (iv) form an inclusive research and stakeholder community, and (v) inform other related research on RDM. Two "master" case study locales, representing "new development" and "retrofitting" respectively, will be employed for empirical data collection and used as the background for developing new thinking.

Planned Impact

We envisage that the activities and outputs of this Local Nexus Network will benefit the following stakeholders:
1. Academic communities
The proposed network spans a number of important research areas highlighted by EPSRC, such as manufacturing technologies and systems, energy efficiency and storage, water engineering, as well as the broad theme of living with environmental changes. The top research questions identified as well as the initial insights gained on some of these questions will guide research on (i) small-scale technologies and systems for food manufacturing and energy and water supply, (ii) process systems engineering and industrial ecology on the design of ecological industrial systems, (iii) agile business models and supply chains, and (iv) innovation in policies and governance. In the context of RDM, the outcome of this network has the potential to benefit research on the RDM of other goods and services, with (1) knowledge of the local alignment of resource, production and consumption and (2) approaches to scale-flexible and closed-loop energy and water services.

2. Industries
Sectors involved in the food value chain, including agriculture, food manufacturing, logistics, and retail will all potentially benefit from the understanding generated from this network on the economic potential of localised production, as well as the knowledge about opportunities and barriers in this field which will allow the businesses to plan ahead strategically. Energy and water suppliers will also be informed of technology and business perspectives of a local nexus, allowing them to prepare themselves to become active and successful players in the emerging RDM and the broader (re-)distributed economy. The above benefits will apply to not only small, local companies, but also large companies with interests to introduce or adapt their local operations.

3. Policy makers and public bodies
Localisation of food production and the associated energy and water supply will have a significant impact on a number of important issues that concern these stakeholders at both national and local levels, such as food security, safety, land management, environmental sustainability, employment, and social resilience. The activities and outcomes of this network will be able to inform them of opportunities, challenges, and learnings from other countries (e.g. on public procurement policy) which may be adopted in the UK. An understanding of the possible changes in the geographical span of food, energy, and water activities will allow governing bodies at different administrative levels to re-think inter-level co-ordination for effective governance, in addition to what is already considered in the politics of localism.

4. Communities and the general public
This network will promote the vision of shared prosperity between businesses and communities and between human society and the natural ecosystems. The outcome of this network will identify potential environmental and socioeconomic benefits of local nexuses as well as initial insights on approaches to realising these benefits. These will include particularly the positioning of community-based social and economic initiatives, offering guidance for "grass-root" participation in local nexuses and the arena of the wider re-distributed economy.
 
Description We have now identified a number of key research questions from the completed feasibility projects and events.
Exploitation Route These research questions will guide the development of future research programmes in the area of re-distributed food manufacturing and related water and energy supply.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Energy,Environment,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology
URL http://localnexus.org
 
Description Some of the key challenges for local food production identified by the network motivated a network collaborator, Good Food Oxford, to develop a community project focusing on the provision of shared space and facilities for small food producers in Oxford area.
First Year Of Impact 2016
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink
Impact Types Societal,Economic
 
Description Local Nexus Network Website and blogs 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Official website of the Local Nexus Network, to introduce the mission and structure of the network, publish findings from feasibility projects and blogs.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015,2016,2017
URL http://localnexus.org
 
Description Local food processing and supply: Challenges and Opportunities 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Business/policy-oriented workshop organized by Birmingham Business School, including presentations from governments, local agencies and industry, and discussions on business and policy strategies for local food production.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Localising Food Systems: The food-energy-water nexus issues of re-distributed manufacturing 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact A conference with a morning session of presentations from the network and other organisations on the topic, and an afternoon workshop session to discuss and rank key research questions identified by the network.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Made in Oxford 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact The Made in Oxfordshire workshop was organised by the Local Nexus Network in collaboration with Agile-ox and Good Food Oxford. It was attended by 36 people - around half of the attendees were representatives of local food chain organisations ranging from coffee roasters to drinks makers and flour millers. Other participants had a range of interests and came from a range of backgrounds including planning, retail and consultancy. This event identified key issues to be addressed by policy and future research to make localised food manufacturing practical.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://localnexus.org/events/workshop-made-in-oxfordshire/
 
Description National workshop on localised food manufacturing 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact We held a workshop to exchange ideas with stakeholders involved in the food and drink sector and learn about what we both understand by 'localised food manufacture'. Following a summery of the progress of the network, the workshop identified a set of opportunities and challenges in technological, socio-economical and political perspectives.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://localnexus.org/events/eventsdiscovering-if-our-food-systems-could-operate-sustainably-at-loca...
 
Description Network launch event 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact An event to launch the research network. Participated by practitioners, policy makers, industry, and academic researchers. Workshop sessions identified key motivations, potentials, and challenges for the food-energy-water nexus at a local scale.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://localnexus.org/events/launch-event-and-scoping-workshop/
 
Description Newletters 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Newsletters published twice a year to introduce key developments in the network.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015,2016,2017