The theme of this week's Community Energy Reading Group was ‘psychology and community engagement’. The readings assigned for the week were very interesting, but very detailed, so this blog piece does not attempt to capture their content! Instead some of the interesting points of discussion are covered.
Nick Banks from the Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE) started us off with a great talk on engagement with different communities – discussing some of the theory behind community engagement, and sharing some invaluable lessons learned (the failures and the successes) from the work that CSE has done over the years.
From the lessons learned, some key insights/conclusions were discussed:
- Where engagement is with low income communities, it’s really important that the realities of life on a low income are appreciated (e.g. how a low income inherently increases risk aversion); that the engagement strategy really works for low income groups, and that their needs guide the strategy, rather than the needs of the programme guiding the strategy.
- Where engagement includes an ‘offer’ being made to a local community (e.g. free insulation), there needs to be trust in the offer
o How credible is the offer? And does it feel relevant to the needs of the person being offered it?
o How credible is the agency or messenger – how embedded in the local area is the ‘agency’? What is their agenda? Does the householder/community think that their needs are being considered in this agenda?
- In the case of free offers, often take up is really low, with the sense that it must be ‘too good to be true’ – this is exacerbated by the fact that people are continually referred to as consumers / customers, rather than people, so they think of themselves in commercial terms, and so with a free offer there must be a catch
- Any offers need to be communicated in an engaging way – the strength of narratives was noted here; it was also felt that engagement needs to get more creative! – potential for greater collaboration with the arts sector??
- Sometimes it is felt within communities that grass-roots, community engagement is not the right way of addressing broader social issues (i.e. economic and social deprivation), and that this should be the remit of national-level policy and initiatives.
We delved into some of the theorising around community engagement – looking at models of engagement – the readings detail these (so I won’t), but the discussion reminded me that how one views energy (e.g. energy as a commodity, with consumers adapting their usage in response to price signals, compared with energy use being about the daily activities and practices that we carry out which lead to energy consumption (but with the energy itself being quite invisible)), will greatly shape the engagement strategies one adopts/seeks out. And whether this view of energy resonates with the view of those you’re engaging, this will shape how successful the engagement is.
We discussed how the different types of ‘capital’ within a community can shape both engagement initiatives and how able a community is to take advantage of opportunities available to them. Capital spans human capital (e.g. skills and education); social capital (e.g. social networks); built capital (e.g. access to amenities); natural capital (e.g. access to green space); and economic capital (e.g. income, savings or government grants). The theory goes that healthy and resilient communities that thrive and are able to take advantage of such opportunities have an adequate portion of each, whilst disadvantaged communities will be deficient in one or more. Interestingly, having lots of social capital is thought to have the potential to make up the gap in deficiencies in the other forms of capital. Also, whilst low income does not equal low social capital, with the transience of a community seeming to be more critical, low income will exacerbate the effects of low social capital. Social capital concertinas into: bonding capital (the close ties between people in similar situations, such as family and close friends); bridging capital (the looser ties to a wider mixture of other (different) people, such as loose friendships or colleagues (or people we meet virtually)); and linking capital (the ability of groups to access networks of power and resources beyond their immediate community).
Interesting further reading?
This JRF study looks at lessons from a scheme that helped residents of a York neighbourhood to make their community more environmentally sustainable and adaptable to change. The Good Life Initiative in New Earswick tried different ways of engaging residents and this research considers which were the most effective.