This is the third part in a short series of month notes about our Neighbourhood Warmth project. It has also been cross-posted on the blog of our project partner, Dark Matter Labs.
A recap of what we’re working on
Home energy is a major source of carbon emissions in the UK. If we’re going to reach our Net Zero goals, our existing homes need to be more efficient in the energy they use, and need to use energy from renewable sources. This process is called ‘retrofit’.
The UK government has set a goal to become Net Zero by 2050, and many local authorities have goals that are even more ambitious. Yet most of the homes of 2050 already exist today. If we’re going to reach this Net Zero goal, the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) estimates that we need to be retrofitting two homes every minute.
In previous stages of this project we heard how the current individualised approach to retrofit isn’t working. Technical expertise, access to finance, limited supply, and trust in solutions and suppliers were all listed as barriers to the adoption of retrofit. Neighbourhood Warmth is our prototype of a digital service to overcome those barriers, through a community-led approach to domestic retrofit.
What does a community-led approach look like?
As is usually the case with early stages of a digital tool, our understanding of the core purpose of Neighbourhood Warmth (NW) has evolved with the feedback we’ve received.
Our early versions of the prototype suggested a service that supports not only the formation of neighbourhood groups around a shared retrofit challenge, but then gives some amount of advice and support for those groups as they progress through retrofit projects together.
As the process has gone on, we’ve come to understand these as two more separate phases in the overall retrofit journey.
Structuring, coordinating, and delivering community retrofit projects is an incredibly complex challenge in its own right. But when demonstrating our prototype this summer, we were encouraged to discover a few organisations already attempting this – notably Novoville’s forthcoming Shared Works platform.
It therefore became more clear that a key role Neighbourhood Warmth could play is the bit that comes before that – something that enables neighbours to kickstart action. Something that surfaces and then builds demand, and allows neighbourhood groups to connect with suitable suppliers, coordinators, or support schemes.
Co-design & feedback workshops
In the previous monthnotes we named some of the co-design workshops we were organising with various groups to gather feedback on what works and what doesn’t with the current alpha version of Neighbourhood Warmth.
We hosted several online workshops with community-based groups in Birmingham and Frome, and one with local authority retrofit specialists in UKGBC’s officer forum.
What did we learn?
1. Local Authorities see potential for how they could talk to residents and structure funding
With Net Zero targets in place, but huge gaps in funding and resources, many local authorities are struggling to engage and understand where interest in retrofitting and energy efficiency might be. Having a map of where neighbours are connecting and what they’re interested in organising around could support local authorities to play a convening role to unlock action that is greater than the sum of its parts. Combining that data with information on deprivation, population density or other relevant factors might reveal opportunities for better deploy funding to drive change.
2. We should be more explicit about the problems Neighbourhood Warmth exists to solve
In our workshops we heard that Neighbourhood Warmth was both too specific, and not specific enough. Some residents asked for a version of Neighbourhood Warmth that extended beyond just home retrofit, and into shared infrastructure like solar panels, green spaces and transport. Others felt the different types of “challenge” presented in the tool were already too confusing for most users, and that a clearer focus on one specific “ask” would be the most effective way to spur local action.
One challenge here is that people have different motivations for exploring retrofit. Our alpha acknowledged that by flashing these up on the homepage: “We’re connecting neighbours to… stay warm… save energy… save money… improve health… save the planet…” Common Cause Foundation emphasises the importance of framing in communications. Framing activates different values and impacts on people’s propensity to exercise those in future. More consistent framing could create a more coherent experience for users of a digital service like this, and overcome confusion about its purpose.
Other feedback suggested that we should consider gauging users’ interests, experience, capacity and preferences upfront to inform a more tailored welcome journey before encouraging them to connect with neighbours?
3. Giving too much advice could be risky
The one thing to remember about building science is that it’s complicated, and can go wrong quickly. If we’re enabling people to self-organise and take home energy action, then what responsibility do we have to make sure that things go well. Because retrofitting is often highly dependent on each individual home and the residents living there, professional knowledge can’t be easily codified and made digital. But grouping people into similar house types in similar locations could reduce the cost of accessing knowledge, increase the chance of people doing so and provide safety in numbers for neighbours engaging with suppliers collectively.
4. There are group projects in the UK that we can learn from
Levenshulme Area Based Retrofit by Carbon Co-op – “Homes will be offered a set package of retrofit works, similar to the other houses in the scheme, but with small adjustments to fit the home and household’s priorities. The scheme’s approach is based around learnings from Carbon Co-op’s Retrofit for All Toolkit to ensure householders are centred in the process.
POWER in Walthamstow -”a ‘show and do’ project building a solar POWER STATION across the rooftops (streets, schools, community buildings) of North East London via enacting a grassroots Green New Deal – working with art and infrastructure to tackle the interlinked climate/energy/cost of living crises.”
HUBBUB’s work -”In partnership with OVO Energy Solutions, we’ve begun a trial to explore ways that residents of a selected street in Glasgow can make collective changes to tackle increasing costs of energy to retrofit homes at the scale needed. We aim to work with approximately twenty households to make individual and collective home improvements from ‘try-it-now’ behaviour changes to insulation and renewable energy measures. The project will also test how economies of scale can cut the cost of retrofitting.”
Novoville – “Our ambition is clear: to be the countrywide platform for energy efficiency and decarbonisation of homes in Britain. Crucial to our ambition is building on our existing collaborative platform: retrofitting 26 million homes will not happen flat-by-flat, but block-by-block. Buying a heat pump will not be done home-by-home, but street-by-street.”
With this early alpha phase of work coming to a close, we’re a bit clearer on the research questions described in earlier monthnotes. But we haven’t got to the bottom of them yet. That said, there’s consensus around the idea of broadening our collaboration in order to do that.
In particular we’re keen to collaborate with an organisation that engages directly with householders to help them take home energy action. This should allow more rigorous testing of the next version of Neighbourhood Warmth, based on whether householders and other actors behave differently when a digital service exists to support their efforts.
And while we continue to grapple with the scope of the service and delve into the value it might provide to different stakeholders, some interesting avenues are emerging. Recent conversations with potential collaborators have led us to consider the potential for Neighbourhood Warmth to broaden participation in flexibility markets and heat networks. And with that, a whole new set of research questions suggest themselves. We’ll hope to share more on that in our next set of monthnotes, but we’d love to hear from you in the meantime.
Please get in touch to share thoughts or suggest a chat – especially if you provide home energy services and have thoughts on how this work could help!
Image: Elissar Haidar
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