A strategic approach to net zero

By Kathy Peach | 16 May 2023

Public concern about climate change is growing, but translating concern into action is much more challenging.

To achieve net zero, millions of people will need to change how they travel, heat their homes and what they consume. Although local councils are already introducing new policies and making new investments to enable this, it’s not always easy to bring the public along and engage them in this work. Meanwhile, the lack of data on the social acceptability of different net zero policy options can make it hard for councils to know what action they can take.

Working in the Centre for Collective Intelligence Design at the innovation charity Nesta, I’ve been considering these issues for a while. Creating new forms of civic participation, building trust between people and institutions, and delivering better insights for decision-making is what we do.

When thinking about what tools councils could employ, I was inspired in part by an alternate reality game from the early 2000s called World Without Oil. It invited people to tell their own imagined story – through video, blogs, emails, phone messages and images – of what would happen if the – then widely feared – threat of a global oil shortage became a reality and they had to adapt. We knew local councils had already been involving the public through climate citizens’ assemblies. We wondered, how could we draw on digital technology and collective imagination (like in World Without Oil) and use it to make a format like a citizens’ assembly more accessible, more scalable and more creative?

To build a new tool that would work for councils, we partnered with the digital story studio Fast Familiar, and the expert academics at UCL’s Climate Action Unit. Together, we developed the ‘Strategy Room’ – an immersive experience which uses digital technology, small group deliberation, and interactive polling to find out what people really think about a range of net zero policies.

During the experience 12 participants sit around a table and on tablet computers watch short clips of actors describing imagined scenarios in which different net zero strategies – related to travel, energy and food – are implemented.

Participants might be asked to imagine a future in which local transport is all covered by one subscription payment, or one where energy bills are paid for by landlords rather than tenants. The group are then asked to rate their support for the option, discuss what they’ve heard and deliberate over which futures sound most desirable, before voting for the options they think will work best in their area.

More than 600 people have already participated in pilot sessions, held within 12 different local authorities, and we’re now looking to roll the Strategy Room out nationwide. Based on what we’ve seen so far, we believe that this format could be revolutionary for both local government and public engagement.

As well as offering a flexible and creative way to engage the public, the Strategy Room generates valuable data about which policies are most popular in each local area. The councils we’ve worked with in the pilot phase are already making plans to use this data to inform their local climate action strategies, to tailor their future public communications and to advise councillors on measures that receive the most support.

Staff from Lambeth LBC said that the format helped local people to better understand what solutions are available, plus the benefits and drawbacks. Participants themselves fed back that the Strategy Room helped them to move beyond ‘knee-jerk’ responses to headlines.

There’s potential for nationwide impact here too. The data from the Strategy Room experience – taken from lots of small group discussions – can be aggregated. This allows comparison between different local authorities across the country and analysis of what appeals to people from different demographic backgrounds.

It can be easy for people to feel fatalistic and that they lack agency when it comes to climate change. And it can be difficult for policymakers to feel they have the insights into public opinion or the mandate needed to make necessary changes. The Strategy Room has the potential to bridge this gap, offering an innovative way of involving the public in climate change policymaking and breathing new life into participatory democracy.

Kathy Peach is director of the centre for collective intelligence design at Nesta


To get involved in the Strategy Room experience visit www.nesta.org.uk/project/strategyroom

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