Powering up! How’s it going so far ...

20 November 2018

In Powering Up! we're working in three low-income communities – in Newport, Swindon and Bridgwater – to ‘build capacity for energy resilience’. In this article – the first in a series – Harriet Samson reflects on what we've learned from the community engagement stage of the project. 

Powering Up!'s stated aim is to (deep breath) ‘explore approaches to stimulating sustained grassroots action on energy which is genuinely empowering, improves household and community-scale energy resilience, and builds agency within these local communities and their institutions’. So, how have the first eight months gone?

Well, it’s fair to say that engaging residents in a community where you’re not known and not locally based is a big ask! It certainly takes time. We’ve also been reminded that, while energy affects everyone on a daily basis, it’s not at the top of most people's list of priorities or interests.

We started the project with the desire to ensure that residents would be ‘active designers’ of the project activities, rather than passive recipients of a predefined project – we took inspiration from community development theory and practice. So we started our engagement with a blank slate – we did lots of engagement activities, at school fetes and church open days, and when people asked us what the project was, we responded: ‘well, what would you like it to be?’

We soon realised that this openness wasn’t going to work for a number of reasons. In neighbourhoods where ‘community energy’ isn’t an understood concept, expecting residents to know what they'd like to do was naïve. It was also clear that, while many communities are used to projects being delivered in their neighbourhoods (so much so that ‘intervention fatigue’ is now a thing), most of these are predefined and 100% agency-delivered with not a great deal in the way of resident involvement. Finally, in an era of austerity, many people have enough going on in their lives already, and little left-over capacity to engage.

As a consequence, we’re shifting our approach to delivering activities which we hope will lead us to groups of residents who might be interested in co-designing further activities. This varies in each of the three communities as we respond to the local context and use the assets available to us. It can feel like a rather winding journey at times, but we are slowly making progress.

In one of our communities we’re starting a monthly energy advice stall in a newly-opened community hub. Having a community space that we can use to deliver activities (especially one which isn’t targeted at a particular demographic) is really useful. Energy advice is always needed, and we’re hoping that by having a regular local presence, we can steadily engage a few residents and support them to do something themselves. We’re doing a slow-cooker demonstration workshop, too; we know these are popular, and that engaging people on wider household economy issues, such as feeding families for less and eating healthily, can prove effective.

In another, where resident engagement has been particularly slow, we’re organising some household thermal-imaging surveys (like these in Bristol). The results are very visual, and it’s been demonstrated that households who receive internal thermal images of their homes are far more likely to install energy efficiency measures. We’re hoping to present the findings to the wider community, and follow up with a draught proofing workshop. We’ll keep you posted on this.

In our third community we’ve been working with a local primary school. The staff are very receptive to the project and we've been having fun delivering school assemblies and showing the children how to make solar powered boats. Our next challenge is how to move this work into the broader community. More on this, and other school work we’re doing in our next blog!

Harriet Samson is a project manager at CSE and oversees Powering Up! If you’re interested in what we learnt from our preperatory work in each community last year, have a look at our blog on the website of the project’s principal funder, Friends Provident Foundation.

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