Alwin Veldboom - July 2022

3 things municipalities can learn from Design Thinking to facilitate an inclusive energy transition

With new coalitions forming in municipalities all over the Netherlands, more and more plans (coalitie akkoorden) to tackle the challenge of the energy transition are being presented. Most of these plans have one very positive thing in common: they strive for an inclusive and just transition in which everybody (income, age etc.) can partake. 

Now that energy bills are soaring since the Russian invasion in Ukraine, the need to introduce (policy) solutions that positively impact the planet, and at the same time reduce poverty and inequality has increased even further. In the coming years, the task to design and enact policies that benefit the climate and also alleviate poverty and reduce inequality will be a tough nut to crack. But it’s a, if not the nut we have to crack if we are to use the little time we have left to avoid climate disaster

In my role as Innovation Lead at Outside Inc. & Tekkoo I've spent quite some time in the past 5 years designing and implementing programmes for citizen participation in the energy transition. I’ve worked with inspiring citizens from diverse neighbourhoods, who spend their valuable (spare) time to speed up the transition to clean energy. This article is an attempt to share some of the things I've learned along the way about how municipalities can use Design Thinking to create what some have called a ‘triple win’: benefits to climate, poverty and equality. 

Where and how do we start to involve a broad group of citizens? What can we expect from them, and how can we facilitate them to take action? 

Let’s first dive into the theory of Design Thinking.

Design what?!

Design thinking (DT) is a process for creative problem solving. It helps to focus on the people you are creating (anything) for, which leads to better (fitting) solutions. Instinctively makes sense. The idea is this -when you want to create a solution, the first question should be: what is the human need? 

A typical DT process follows these steps:

  1. Discover/empathize - Understanding the problem instead of assuming it. This explorative step is about empathizing with the people you are designing for. How do they experience the problem, talk about it and deal with it? 

  1. Define - Scoping and clearly formulating the challenge that needs solving. The better you understand the challenge and its root cause, the more likely you are to come up with a fitting solution.

  1. Develop/ideate & prototype - Ideating and trying out different possible solutions for the problem with the people you are designing for. Letting go of assumed solutions that fail and refining the ones that get the desired results.

  1. Test & deliver - Implementing the final solution(s) and using feedback from users to improve them and inspire others (using for example stories) towards action. If possible scale solutions to new users. 

3 Design Thinking-inspired ways to facilitate an inclusive energy transition 

  1. No pain no gain - take citizens’ real pains and gains as a starting point

Tapping into the unique pains and gains of a specific group of citizens you want to involve in a transition, is key to finding the right problem-solution fit. It’s easy to generalize what people need, while making assumptions about the ways people will be willing to consume less energy or use renewable sources of energy. DT teaches us that we should not just assume, but instead to find out what really triggers people by doing research. The key here is to not only take into account energy related factors, but also include income and lifestyle in your scope. Through observation, data analysis or  interviews you might for example find out that people value safety or privacy in their neighbourhood. Then assumed risks related to new technology or stable energy supply could be the nr. 1 reason they are unwilling to invest in, for example, solar panels or heat pumps. Taking away these assumed risks, their ‘pain’, might then prove the most effective way to facilitate the adoption of a solution and speed up the energy transition. 

  1. Make it real - help people understand local challenges and opportunities

If you want people to care about adoption of solutions for saving energy or using renewable energy, you first need them to understand the status quo and why it is problematic. Part of a local community I worked with in the province of North-Holland, for example, was sceptical about the energy transition, because they had a negative perception (through media) of wind turbines, and so that was their primary association with this topic as a whole. A group sentiment like that can stand in the way of the adoption of even the smallest energy saving measures, despite wind turbines never being introduced in their neighbourhood. Bringing the conversation to the level of their own experiences in their local environment helped shift attention to for example draft in homes or noise disturbance, and fitting solutions like wall insulation. Clearly defined local challenges are a great way to inspire brainstorms (ideation) about hands-on solutions instead of getting bogged down in abstract what-if-debates on whether wind-, solar- or nuclear energy is the ultimate source.   

  1. How can I make this about me? - to scale solutions, share stories people can relate to

To allow all to benefit from opportunities in the energy transition and scale solutions widely it’s essential to create compelling stories for all. People are most likely to adopt new habits or solutions if they are perceived positively by others in their community they feel connected to. Generic stories and images of home-owners with an electric car in front of their house and a roof full of solar panels will only appeal to a small group of people. They will for example send out the message that a big upfront investment is required to adopt energy saving measures. Powerful stories get close to people’s own experience and thus trigger imagination. The most effective way to build stories that resonate is to distill them from (pilot) projects. For example; in The Hague two people came up with the idea to save energy by changing the way they ventilated their homes. They recruited 10 neighbours willing to install alternative ventilation systems in their homes and then monitored results. They now use the experiences and feedback of this first group of users to scale successful solutions to other neighbourhoods. 

I hope that these learnings at least trigger some awareness about how energy and climate policies can be designed to contribute to an inclusive society. Let’s design these policies not only to create equal chances for future generations, but to create affordable and clean energy for everyone starting now.

Do you have a question about applying the principles of Design Thinking or are you curious to use it in your project, send an email to alwin@tekkoo.nl.