An ecology of participation

31 Oct 2017

It is now widely understood that transitioning to a low carbon energy system is a social as well as a technical challenge. This demands large-scale system changes coupled with the meaningful engagement of wider society.

While modelling and technical work has been undertaken to assess viable transition pathways, the social sciences have often struggled to rise to this ‘whole-systems’ challenge, particularly when it comes to the question of public engagement with energy.

Beyond energy engagement silos

While there has been no shortage of effort to engage people, current approaches often remain compartmentalised. Research programmes and policy initiatives regularly focus on specific forms of engagement in particular parts of the wider energy system.

Public opinion and deliberative processes focus on ‘social acceptability’ of energy policies and technologies. Behaviour change studies centre on reducing energy demand in the home and workplace. Other initiatives are more interested in supporting forms of community action.

On their own terms these and other engagement efforts can perform quite well. The problem is they do not match up to the system-wide scale of the challenges we face. By thinking simplistically about public engagements in isolation, existing approaches miss the realities of how multiple engagements interact across the energy system. This underplays how we understand, value and can evaluate the success or otherwise of these processes. It also makes little sense from the perspective of publics themselves. We are each engaging with energy-related issues in multiple ways, often simultaneously.  

Better social intelligence about energy publics

Luckily cutting edge work on societal engagement in the social sciences and humanities is undergoing a ‘systemic turn’. This includes work in social practice theory, deliberative theory and public engagement with science. I lead a UK Energy Research Centre project that is applying these ideas to improve how we think about and enhance public engagement with energy to assist low carbon transitions.

Highlights from the first part of this work, conducted with my colleagues Helen Pallett and Tom Hargraves, are summarised in a new briefing note that we are launching today. It reports on a new approach we have developed to map system-wide public engagements with energy. This systematic mapping has identified and analysed 258 diverse cases of UK public engagement with energy that occurred between 2010-2015.

The briefing note demonstrates how mapping public engagement can provide more comprehensive social intelligence to inform policy developments and social change. It reveals forms of engagement that exist beyond mainstream social acceptance and behavior change approaches, including grassroots forms of innovation and activism, through to new and emerging forms of energy engagement. It reveals broader evidence about public values and concerns that may present barriers to the adoption of energy technologies like fracking and smart meters. And, importantly, it provides new insights into how multiple engagements interact as part of a wider ecology of participation.

Remaking energy participation

Our approach forms one of a number of mapping methods emerging in the social sciences and humanities. These new methods have much to offer energy research and policy. They will play an important role in developing public engagement in the energy field and beyond. They also have the potential to form the basis of new architectures of evidence and policy advice – such as our recommendation to establish a UK observatory of public engagement with energy. This would provide ongoing social intelligence and enhance the capacity of organisations to respond to public values about energy system change.

Mapping existing engagements should not replace the need to create new public engagement opportunities. In fact, the two things must go hand in hand. Our mapping has identified critical energy engagement gaps that have informed a series of experiments in energy participation that we are taking forward in the second part of our UKERC project.

Jason Chilvers is a Reader (Associate Professor), and Chair of the Science, Society and Sustainability (3S) Research Group, in the School of Environmental Sciences at UEA.