This is one 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.
We wrapped up our first instalment of monthnotes with thoughts on how to tackle our overarching enquiry:
“How can we support communities to organise locally around a simple and achievable home energy action?”
Since then we’ve been sculpting the skeleton of a digital service that we’re planning to test in June. Currently it outlines the benefits of collaboration and enables neighbours to connect with each other, by forming teams.
Questions lead to questions
You may have noticed that our timescales have slipped a bit! After an initial burst of brainstorming we spotted an impending crunch and decided to extend our partnership for another month. This provided breathing space to organise workshops. And it allowed us to unpack a few questions that are bubbling up as we revisit the drawing board and iterate.
Here’s a flavour:
- How can digital technology facilitate purposeful connection, and on what basis (eg proximity, housing type, tenure, existing relationships or motivations)?
- What mechanisms enable teams to form, evolve and progress together?
- How strongly do we want to encourage a particular sequence of actions?
As we crumble these and related questions into more granular design decisions, we’re regularly referring back to the research questions in our plan for this Alpha phase to maintain focus. We’ve made strides on the first three, and our attention is now turning towards the remaining two:
- How a service like this could signal demand to the council or to retrofit organisations, to help build the supply of retrofit finance and services in an area.
- How a service like this could connect residents with suppliers for services across parts or whole of the retrofit journey.
I’m gonna get myself connected
We’ve also been laying foundations for the co-design workshops that we’ll use to test and learn with communities in Frome, Birmingham and hopefully at least one more location. Due to their distinctive characteristics, these communities allow us to run parallel experiments.
In Balsall Heath, John Christophers is at the heart of a community-led effort to make the most of government funding that involves Birmingham City Council, MECC Trust, Midlands Net Zero Hub to name a few.
And in Frome, thanks to funding from The National Lottery’s Climate Action Fund, the town council has partnered with the Centre for Sustainable Energy so that its Healthy Homes team can advise residents.
We’re interested to see how people’s perspectives on Neighbourhood Warmth may be shaped by these diverse contexts, histories and experiences. By shining light from different angles, we hope their responses will help us to resolve some of the questions that we’re still grappling with.
Thanks to generous engagement with fellow travellers on the road to community-led retrofit, our thinking continues to be stimulated in the meantime. Thanks to everyone who read and shared our previous monthnotes, and made time to meet in the interim.
In relation to the research questions above, we’re honoured to have been invited to drop in to the UK Green Building Council’s local authority retrofit forum. This is a golden opportunity to share our work with council officers. We’re curious to know how a richer picture of home energy action could bolster their efforts to support residents. If Neighbourhood Warmth provided a clearer view of demand, how could that help in the development of local supply chains? And zooming out a bit further, we’re exploring the potential for knock-on benefits at regional and national levels with the West Midlands Combined Authority.
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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.
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.
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
Following hot on the heels of our first two prototyping weeks, we took a foray into the topic of ‘access to nature’ for our third one this month. In the spirit of reflective practice, continuous improvement and our core values of justice, openness and collaboration I implemented Louise’s suggestion to blog about the week beforehand. The post included a form for people to express an interest in participating, and was promoted using our social media channels and in online communities in which we’re active such as the Collective for Climate Action. Previously I’d only identified and approached potential participants to invite them directly.
Our fourth prototyping week from 13-17 June will explore the role we might be able to play in catalysing a fair transition, with a focus on the UK’s world of work. We’ve recently published a post inviting people to express their interest in getting involved, so please take a look and share it far and wide. As with all of these weeks, we’re keen to bring together a diverse range of people with different experiences and perspectives to help us understand the challenges and potential solutions in this space.
Zarino’s been busy documenting our progress in reports, and along with some of the other outputs from our weeks so far these are now available on a dedicated Climate Prototyping page. Having reached the half-way mark we’ve used a bit of breathing space to reflect as a team on the prototyping weeks we’ve done so far, how we might be able to refine and test some of the prototypes that emerged and how we might use our remaining weeks.
In trying to scope out a potential set of research to commission around energy efficiency in the private rented sector, Alex found a huge existing report that pretty much answered all the questions we already had. His summary and contextualisation of what it means for our fifth prototyping week – which will focus on this topic – can be read online. This week is heavily-pencilled for 5-11 July and there’s a blog post in the pipeline but if you’d like to express your interest right away please complete this short application form.
Coming full circle, Zarino and I presented our public procurement prototype and wrap-up to Hampshire-based council climate officers. We were kindly invited to do this by a participant in our first prototyping week, which explored procurement as a potential lever for local climate action.
Outside of our third prototyping week we met a lovely bunch of organisations this month, exploring collaboration opportunities around prototyping and beyond!
Here’s a flavour:
- Green Finance Institute
- The Climate Coalition
- Brighton Peace and Environment Centre
- Friends of the Earth
- Rights : Community : Action
- Innovation Alliance for the West Midlands
- Tranquil City
This month our relatively-new #civic-tech channel on Climate Action Tech’s Slack started to bubble. Myf and I volunteered to host the channel and we enjoyed our first Community Circle Meeting with some other volunteers from around the world, to get to know each other and discuss ways in which we can support this amazing community of tech workers using our skills to take and accelerate climate action. If you’re part of the civic tech community and you work around or are thinking about climate, please do come and join the channel!
We also took part in an excellent Ashden event: Government-funded retrofit: how to ensure success? – and Subak’s Data Catalogue Launch. I presented at the Friends of the Earth & Ashden case studies celebrating local authority climate action launch event. And Isaac from Climate Emergency UK and I hosted an open space session at the Transition: Together We Can summit to share the live climate services we continue to collaborate on – the Climate Action Plan Explorer and Council Climate Scorecards.
Myf and I enjoyed recording an episode about our Climate Programme for Delib’s Practical Democracy podcast, and we’re waiting with bated breath for it to be released into the wild over the summer!
Alex took part in the inaugural stakeholder group meeting for version 2 of Council Climate Scorecards. We’re also thinking about how to make the data we produce easier to download and work with, and the first dataset we’ve applied that to is the data for the Climate Scorecards. This data can now be downloaded as an Excel file (with descriptions for all columns), or explored in datasette (this is a bit experimental).
Finally, behind the scenes, Sam and Struan have moved our Climate Action Plan Explorer to new infrastructure and brought the ways it’s hosted in line with our other sites. This makes it much easier to back up the data.
mySociety’s Climate Programme is halfway through a series of six prototyping weeks, and having caught our breath we’re keen to hear from people who may be interested in our next one, starting 13 June 2022.
As a reminder, our prototyping weeks bring together specialists on a topic, for a series of online workshops exploring challenges and successes, and defining a specific approach we can then go on to design and test in the second half of the week.
In the next one we’ll be exploring the role that civic technology could play in enabling a fair (or just) transition to a world that’s reducing climate risks and harm. In particular, we suspect it might make sense to focus on employment in the UK. I’ve shared some thoughts on this below, and we’d be grateful for different perspectives on what the scope of this work could be.
Perhaps we’ll test solutions to skills shortages that are critical to a fair transition, like the desperate need for more multi-trade home retrofitters to tackle the UK’s leaky housing stock. Or we might explore a way to enable empowered career change for workers in high carbon industries. Or maybe build on the growing recognition of undervalued and unpaid labour, such as care work, and related ideas like a 4 Day Week, Universal Basic Income and insourcing. We’ll take our inspiration from the people in the room – so if you’d like to get involved, please fill this short form to express your interest and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.
We know that some people may be excluded from attending these sessions for financial reasons. If that applies to you, we can offer, to a limited number of participants, a gift card or payment of £20 per hour of your time as thanks for your participation.
What is fair transition?
The idea of a fair transition in the context of climate is open to a range of interpretations, because the concept of fairness itself is contested. Within mySociety our Climate Programme, Climate Action Group and Anti-Racism Group provide opportunities to discuss and develop our own understanding, and we’d love to hear your thoughts on this too.
Environmental justice is a related concept that I’ve found useful. This is the idea that environmental degradation and damage tends to disproportionately harm those who are least responsible for causing it. This pronounced pattern can be observed over time and spatially, across a range of issues. For example, polluting infrastructure is often located in communities that are already highly exposed to structural oppressions like racism. Busy roads often cut through communities where car ownership is low. Places created by these injustices are sometimes described as sacrifice zones, and are discernible from local to global scales.
A question we’re grappling with is whether to focus on addressing environmental justice within the UK, or internationally. When I campaigned for clean air in Bristol, I was swayed by an excerpt from the Universal Manifesto of the Emmaus movement that appeared on the wall of their charity shop: “Serve first those who suffer most.” On that basis there’s a compelling case to focus on supporting those constrained in their ability to adapt to climate change, in parts of the world already experiencing the most devastating impacts.
But for a UK-based organisation there are also risks of perpetuating patterns of colonialism. While not wanting to think too rigidly or shy away from working on a decolonised approach, the #DIYAfrica theme of 2021’s Civic Tech Innovation Forum reminds us of the importance of initiatives that are rooted in place: “We are interested in African DIY democracy – how we are co-creating meaning, identity and solutions in and for Africa.”
Another way of accelerating a global fair transition could be to focus on decarbonising the UK as quickly as possible. The UK has a huge historical responsibility for creating climate change and is very capable of action, so as a minimum contribution towards the UK’s global fair share we should reduce greenhouse gas emissions faster than most other nation states.
Our approach so far is in line with this, relying on a theory of change that identifies local government opportunities. And while our services so far have been designed for the UK context, we know that local governments elsewhere in the world are often at the forefront of climate action and hope that by sharing our work openly it will be picked up and reused.
We can also apply a fair transition lens within the UK. This allows us to incorporate the extreme inequalities in UK society when considering pathways towards our global fair share. In 2019 IPPR’s Environmental Justice Commission launched its final report – Fairness and opportunity: A people-powered plan for the green transition. More recently Autonomy’s Toll Gates and Money Pumps report suggests a policy that could spur climate action while redistributing wealth. And their Data Unit is brewing up a multidimensional job database to enable practical planning and implementation of a fair transition.
On top of this, the intergenerational and racist dimensions of climate change are of real relevance. Friends of the Earth published an emergency plan on green jobs for young people in 2021, responding to the impact of economic scarring on “Generation Covid”. The report also references work by The Resolution Foundation highlighting that structural oppressions often compound injustices: “Evidence from autumn 2020 showed that young and black, Asian and minority ethnic workers (BAME) workers were far more likely to be made unemployed after furlough ends.” These prototyping weeks offer opportunities to put mySociety’s Equity, diversity and inclusion policy into practice, in particular through a “commitment to our projects and services supporting the pursuit of equity for minoritised groups, and being accessible and inclusive – designed with, and used by, diverse communities.”
We’re trying to figure all of this out as we go and we’re lucky to have the luxury of these prototyping weeks to invite and support people from outside of mySociety to be involved. Please do express your interest if you’d like to help shape our work – we’d love to meet you!
Having launched two services – the Climate Action Plan Explorer and Council Climate Scorecards – mySociety’s Climate Programme is running a series of six rapid prototyping weeks to explore what we could do next.
The next prototyping week, during the week starting 9 May 2022, will be all about access to nature. How can we use mySociety’s expertise in data and digital tools to help accelerate initiatives that integrate nature with the urban environment, open up rural spaces to a broader demographic, or encourage better stewardship, understanding and nurturing of our flora and fauna?
If you’d like to get involved, please fill this short form to express your interest and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible. We’ll also soon be announcing the topic of prototyping week #4.
Prototyping? What’s that?
If you’re wondering what happens during a prototyping week, look no further than my colleague Zarino’s report on week #1, which focused on enabling local authority emissions reductions through procurement.
Right now we’re midway through prototyping week #2, exploring the potential to catalyse local climate action on energy through conditional commitment. As with #1, we’ve had a busy couple of days with a great bunch of people from organisations outside of mySociety contributing thoughts on problems and potential solutions in this space. Several inspiring ideas emerged and we’ve whittled it down to one solution to prototype. Now our thoughts are turning towards building and testing that prototype with a few people before the end of this week.
So it’s a real rollercoaster, trying to quickly grasp what mySociety could contribute and taking steps towards understanding if it’s useful before going any further. We hope a couple of ideas will be strong enough for us to develop further, preferably in partnership. And by working openly we hope that this series of prototyping weeks provides possibilities for people outside of mySociety to pick up and pursue ideas that we aren’t able to commit to ourselves.
All that said, using this approach in this way – designing for the needs of society in the face of an ongoing emergency – is something of an experiment. So we’re reflecting and adapting as we go. This post is part of those broader efforts to continuously improve. We hope that by working in the open we’ll enable a richer range of feedback on, and involvement in, what we’re doing.
So, please do join us if access to nature is an area in which you have expertise or strong ideas, or pass this on to anyone suitable.
In line with our equity, diversity and inclusion strategy we’d be particularly grateful if you could also share this post in places that will help us in our policy of centring minoritised groups. We’ve been particularly inspired by orgs such as Black2Nature, Black Girls Hike and Nature is a Human Right but we know there must be more out there with relevant experience and expertise on access to nature — please do help us find them.
Time flies when you’re having fun, and the past month has passed in something of a blur. Maybe part of that can be explained by my being a relatively new recruit. But it’s also been thrilling to whizz towards the COP26 climate talks on a wave of enthusiasm and excellence emanating from the inspiring crew with whom I’m now working.
We’ve done a lot this month. Running a virtual event at the COP26 Coalition’s People’s Summit for Climate Justice allowed us to understand a range of perspectives on our Climate Action Plan Explorer. We also took the opportunity to test two differing approaches to promoting our new Net Zero Local Hero landing page, which was rapidly whisked into existence by the magnificent Myf, Zarino and Howard.
Giving money to tech giants makes us increasingly uneasy, but we set up advertising on three social media platforms so that we could fully understand, in a ringfenced test, what the benefits are and how these weigh up against the negatives. At the same time, we gave Kevin at Climate Emergency UK a stack of stickers (suitably biodegradable and on sustainable paperstock) to dish out in Glasgow. When we have time to analyse the results, we’re hoping to understand which method is most effective – digital ads or traditional paper.
Although we decided not to attend COP26 in person we followed from afar, aligned with those most at risk of exclusion by signing up to the COP26 Coalition’s Visa Support Service Solidarity Hub, supporting the coalition’s communications and amplifying marginalised perspectives on Twitter.
Myf has been following Act For Climate Truth’s bulletins on climate disinformation and mySociety signed the Conscious Advertising Network’s open letter asking for climate disinformation policies on the big tech platforms to be one of the outcomes of COP26. And we joined another broad, diverse group of organisations with a shared goal to encourage the delegates of COP26 to deliver more urgent action on climate change via https://cop26.watch/.
Myf also wrote up a case study on how Friends of the Earth used our work to fuel a recent campaign action (see previous month notes) and Louise presented to Open Innovations’ #PlanetData4 event, which I joined to dip into a discussion about Doughnut Economics.
And all the while our Climate Action Plan Explorer (CAPE) has been quietly evolving. We got some great feedback – especially from local authority representatives – at our #NetZeroLocal21 conference session on 30 September. Since then we’ve added some pretty serious bells and whistles.
Chloe consolidated data from Climate Emergency UK and the National Audit Office on headline promises (a full blog post explaining more about this soon), and this data was deployed by Zarino and Struan alongside more information on climate emergencies, guidance on council powers and ways in which they could be put to use.
Zarino enriched user experience and boosted the climate information ecosystem’s health by migrating data from Climate Emergency UK’s website to CAPE. Digging deeper, Sam improved CAPE’s integration with our production deployment and management systems, fixing a few small bugs along the way that occasionally interfered with code deployment.
Our sights are now set on making the most of the heroic assessment of local authority Climate Action Plans being led by Climate Emergency UK. The right of reply period has ended and the second marking is underway. If you’d like to know more please check out this explanation of the process and get in touch with any thoughts – we’re really keen to understand how best this can be used to accelerate climate action in the wake of COP26.
Image: Ollivier Girard / CIFOR