In the 12 years since its founding, IKEM has evolved from a start-up aimed at filling a gap in legal research to an international and interdisciplinary research institute – and UN-recognised NGO – that drives climate change mitigation and the energy transition in a variety of ways.
Despite all the changes, in certain respects the institute remains much the same. Case in point: Anika Nicolaas Ponder, who became IKEM’s first employee when she joined the institute as an unpaid, idealistic intern in 2010, continues to put her idealism into practice today as the Sustainability & Innovation Team Lead and manager of the annual IKEM Academy.
We caught up with her about the institute’s evolution, the projects that are closest to her heart, and what makes IKEM so special.
IKEM: from start-up to star player
In the climate field, IKEM was an early standout. ‘When we started more than 10 years ago, there weren’t too many think tanks and organisations working on climate and the energy transition,’ said Nicolaas Ponder. ‘To many people, climate change still seemed like a faraway, abstract topic.’
That has changed in recent years, she observed, pointing to the massive momentum of grassroots movements like Fridays for Future. ‘The past decade has been a defining one in terms of bringing the topic of climate change into the mainstream. We’re seeing a sharp increase in awareness and interest in all things climate and energy transition – and IKEM has played a pivotal part in that development, with our interdisciplinary research and societal engagement work.’
IKEM itself looked different 10 years ago. After all, an institute operates differently when it has a handful of employees than it does with more than 60. ‘Back then, we didn’t need Team Lead structures. Who do you want to lead? You are the team!’ she said, laughing.
Today, IKEM brings together numerous experts from different disciplines. Growing is an organic, iterative process that proceeds ‘very collectively and democratically’ at IKEM, so that everyone can be part of the solution,’ Nicolaas Ponder said.
After four years of building its reputation and establishing itself as a relevant player in the energy transition, IKEM found itself suddenly gaining momentum: ‘That’s the thing about organisations like IKEM,’ said Nicolaas Ponder. ‘Once you’ve finished your first projects successfully, you have your credentials, and it gets easier and easier to acquire new projects.’
These developments allowed IKEM to both refine and expand its mission. Today, the institute addresses challenges related to the energy transition, focusing on issues at the intersection of politics, economics, law and society.
‘What we’ve grown into covers very important facets of the fight against climate change,’ she said. ‘So, law, certainly, but also socio-economic perspectives, innovation, empowerment, gender equality,’ as well as the synergies between these issues. ‘I think that’s very unique, that interdisciplinary perspective,’ she added.
Baltic InteGrid: a successful debut
For Nicolaas Ponder, this interdisciplinary approach took off when IKEM became the leader of the Baltic Integrid project, working with partners to develop a concept for an offshore power grid in the Baltic Sea.
The project faced certain obstacles, especially initially: in the early 2010s, offshore wind energy was not as widespread as it is today, especially in the region. ‘There was a lot of hope, but also a lot of criticism, even from the sustainability spectrum, as to whether this was even the most efficient way to go about things,’ Nicolaas Ponder recalled.
At the same time, another player, the Offshore Wind Energy Foundation, had very similar project plans. ‘So we either had to compete against each other or join forces. We quickly found that we complemented each other in our skills. And it worked.’
‘In the beginning, it was this difficult, expensive new technology, and over the course of only five years, the market completely changed,’ she said. ‘That was really fun to see.’
Nicolaas Ponder enjoyed playing a part in the progress on this issue. Several projects were implemented without subsidies – a feat few energy technologies achieve.
Sustainability and innovation
The Sustainability and Innovation Team that Nicolaas Ponder leads was originally created to organise international projects, such as the annual IKEM Academy: Energy and Climate. The team has grown significantly since then, and its work now addresses multiple aspects of the energy transition – sometimes in a non-traditional way. For example, the idea for an Infographic Energy Transition Coloring Book emerged from the team’s research for the Baltic InteGrid project.
‘To fight climate change, we need to understand it,’ said Nicolaas Ponder in 2019, when an updated edition of was published. The colouring book, which was the product of a collaboration with Ellery Studio, garnered international acclaim and became one of IKEM’s most celebrated projects.
The work of the team – like that of the institute as a whole – puts people ‘front and centre in the energy transition,’ as Nicolaas Ponder likes to say.
‘What makes IKEM really strong is our emphasis on social empowerment, such as the direct involvement of people in the energy transition and the feeling that they can influence this transformation,’ she said. ‘We convey the message that people play a role in this transition and also have a chance to benefit from it.’
Much of the technology is already in place, she observed, but a lack of social support and political will can thwart the practical implementation of technical solutions. Communication and exchange can bridge social and political gaps.
IKEM’s work promotes an empowering take on the conventional climate change narrative, framing the energy transition not as a mere obligation, but as an opportunity to create a more liveable society. In a 2019 article in The Beam Magazine, Nicolaas Ponder warns that the association between climate change mitigation and dire imagery can be ‘counterproductive, causing people to disengage rather than inspiring them to become part of the solution.’ She concludes: ‘We will be more effective ambassadors if we reframe the way we talk about climate change and the energy transition.’
A bright future
Nicolaas Ponder is excited about the future of IKEM and the energy transition. ‘The coming generations have a hunger for change,’ which makes it clear that ‘we need to do things differently,’ she said. That means opening new doors – and passing the mic.
‘We just need more diverse voices on board,’ she observed. ‘Right now, when you think about innovative solutions, we’re only using 50 to 60 percent of the brain power we have,’ forfeiting much of society’s capacity to solve urgent problems. Confronting a multi-dimensional issue like climate change will require a multi-dimensional approach, she said: ‘Women bring a greater diversity of perspectives to decision-making, which helps find new, innovative solutions. Companies with more women in leadership positions tend to achieve better results, in terms of both profit and employee satisfaction.’
Nicolaas Ponder sees IKEM as an ideal place to realise these goals. ‘IKEM is very good at this because we’ve integrated interdisciplinary and visual thinking into our DNA,’ she said. This approach empowers the public to take action, promoting the values of ‘equality, diversity and representation.’
IKEM is ‘on a really good path,’ she added. ‘I’m excited to see where we go next, because it’s probably going to get even better.’