Neighbourhood Warmth monthnotes

This is the first in a short series of monthnotes about our Neighbourhood Warmth project. It has also been crossposted on the blog of our project partner, Dark Matter Labs.

Month 0: It’s getting hot in here

Here’s a question posed by Immy Kaur at the Retrofit Reimagined event last year:

“What if the climate transition and retrofit of our homes and streets were designed, owned and governed by the people who live there?”

This is one of those simple questions that holds within it the potential for amazing, transformative consequences. And perhaps the first of those consequences? Dark Matter Labs and mySociety are kicking off a new partnership, with this proposition at its heart.

For the next few months we’ll be exploring how we might realise the Transitioning Together hypothesis, developed by Dark Matter Labs. Together, we’ll build on lessons from testing mySociety’s Neighbourhood Warmth prototype, developed during a series of prototyping weeks in 2022 (pictured below). And we’ll co-create solutions with communities, to test our riskiest assumptions about how collective action on home energy could be catalysed through civic technology.

Neighbourhood Warmth prototypemySociety’s first Neighbourhood Warmth prototype

The spark

But how did we get here?

mySociety’s prototyping weeks allowed their Climate Programme to quickly dip a toe into several potential areas where their skills and experience could have an effect. The purpose was to understand the potential of civic technology to propel local climate action in each field. External participants generously made time to share their experience and wisdom, guiding a path through jungles of challenges and opportunities. mySociety built prototypes and tested these on the final day of each week to gather feedback. These were synthesised into tentative insights, which were woven into reports.

Home energy felt like a particularly complex domain to navigate, despite benefiting from the hard-earned knowledge of pioneers like Jonathan Atkinson during the second prototyping week. This spurred additional research and engagement, to deepen mySociety’s analysis and to explore collaboration.

Eventually, the idea coalesced that collective action on home energy could overcome critical limitations of the default, individualist approach: from the user experience and motivations, learning, risk and its perception, to level of ambition and the economies of scale. This aligns with the first of three shifts in mySociety’s current strategy – to design for the needs of society, not just provide tools for individual citizens.

mySociety discovered a handful of trailblazing initiatives that gesture towards the power of coordinated efforts: for example, Carbon Co-op’s Levenshulme Area Based Retrofit Scheme and Connected Places Catapult’s Community Retrofit Service prototype — but no sign of a mature digital infrastructure to support a shift away from atomised action.

As mySociety edged forwards with their route of enquiry, one organisation’s work proved particularly illuminating: Dark Matter Labs, who suggest that a “systemic shift can be achieved by testing strategic interventions in the ‘dark matter’ of the retrofit ecosystem: through piloting and proving out new infrastructures, new standards, new legal patterns, or new institutions.”

Dark Matter Labs’ explorations around the entanglement of home energy with questions of democracy and justice chime with core concerns for mySociety — for a flavour, check out ‘A Right to Retrofit’.

Their approach is a perfect fit for mySociety’s experimental spirit, and together we’re excited to be exploring how our work could be greater that the sum of its parts.

A vision of a street-based retrofit service, by Dark Matter LabsA vision of street-based retrofit, from Dark Matter Labs’ earlier work in the space

Friction leads to fire

Right now we’re crafting a plan to build a functioning version of our Neighbourhood Warmth prototype. This is geared to answer the immediate question that we’re trying to address by the end of May:

“How can we support communities to organise locally around a simple and achievable home energy action?”

We believe there is a role for a civic digital platform that supports the process of community coalescing and organising, to open doors to the benefits of collective retrofit.

Once we’ve built something that people can interact with, we’re planning to test it in a few communities — a mix of places to learn how different contexts make for different outcomes.

In the final phase, we’ll analyse these lessons and start thinking about where this might go next — perhaps we’ll carry on and build some sort of fully-functioning digital service in this domain.

If we do, questions will inevitably arise about how people might discover it. We’d love to hear thoughts on that and on this work as a whole, so please get in touch and share this in any relevant communities. Thanks!


Image: Belinda Fewings