Published on December 18, 2012

Visioning a low carbon future

Participation Compass

By Ingrid Prikken

Ingrid Prikken is Project Manager at Involve. Her work is focused on project design and management, facilitation and research. Her research covers embedding public engagement in government and citizen participation in challenging issues.

5528520059_ba854cd09c_qIn my previous posts I set out the context in which European cities are moving towards a low-energy future and shared some of my thoughts around citizen engagement with energy futures and climate change. In this third and final post of this series, inspired by the IMAGINE seminar, I will explore the use of visioning tools in engagement with decision-making.

During the seminar, we discussed how long-term visioning processes could help short-term decision-making. Most of the participating municipalities are using visioning in some shape or form. For example, Milton Keynes, are organising visioning events with local stakeholders, including residents, businesses and young people to help shape their 2050 vision for low energy living.

Visioning and scenario building can shed light on the long-term impacts of energy decisions. They can be especially effective in exploring ‘what if’ questions, levels of acceptance for policy alternatives and understanding the ‘trade-offs’ between different options. These future oriented exercises are a great opportunity to engage stakeholders and citizens from the start. There is real scope for them to influence the agenda.

A few key elements of visioning explained:

Integrated approach – Energy futures should be seen as an integral part of local development with an impact on health, employment, safety, competitiveness, quality of life, etc. Through modelling and visioning techniques, the complexities of these interdependencies can be dealt with, i.e. the social, economic, technological and environmental challenges of transitioning to a low carbon future.

Mix of stakeholders – Getting a variety of local stakeholders, such as energy experts, civil society, businesses and elected representatives involved in visioning exercises can bring depth to the discussion and allow for understanding on a variety of perspectives. In particular, getting civil society (and citizens) involved can shed light on the social acceptability of certain energy policy proposals and the use of new technologies.

For example, System Dynamics is an approach for studying complex systems through the use of ‘feedback loops’ and ‘stocks and flows’ – the best-known SD model is probably ‘The Limits to Growth’, written by Dennis Meadows et al on behalf of the Club of Rome in 1972. During the seminar we simulated a Group Modelling exercise, using the System Dynamics approach. Doing such an exercise with all relevant local stakeholders around the table, can be helpful in exploring options and risks. The value of these, and other visioning exercises, lies in the fact that solutions emerge from the combined expertise of the participants.

Social acceptance and feasibility – Taking into account the socio-political conditions, by not just bringing in ‘technical’ experts but also CSO representatives can be useful in distinguishing between what is technically and economically possible and what is feasible and acceptable to the various stakeholders. ENCI LowCarb is an example of a research project where low carbon scenarios were developed for Germany and France based on stakeholders’ input. The process opened up discussion between researchers, NGOs, and energy sector experts and sought to integrate stakeholder contributions into modelled energy scenarios, focussing on the ‘translation’ of qualitative stakeholder contributions into quantitative modelling.

Backcasting – the essence of visioning is well captured in an informative post about ingredients of transition. It says: ‘creating a vision of the future is all very well, but could become an enjoyable but rather abstract dreaming exercise if it is not also accompanied by a process of backcasting.’ In other words, once a vision for the desired future has been developed, the next step should be to define the actions to attain those objectives.

What will it look like in our streets? – The challenge is to bring high-level ideas to a scale that matters to people. Imagery and visuals can be powerful in doing so. An interesting example comes from Canada, where the local community, decision makers, scientists and planners participated in a local climate visioning process. The project explored new ways of making climate change impacts explicit on the local level through easily accessible visuals using 3D visualization techniques and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping. It allowed for exploring the (un) popularity of certain adaptation and mitigation strategies.

Climate change and local energy issues are complex and long-term issues that require a shared vision for the future. There are a variety of visioning tools available to engage local stakeholders in decision-making, of which I discussed a few. Have a browse on Participation Compass for more future oriented (and other) engagement methods.

I’ll leave you with this: building a shared vision including local stakeholders is important, but it takes time and can be challenging. In particular, in the political context where short-term gain is perhaps not always compatible with what’s needed for sustainability in the long run. Visioning alone is not enough: there’s a need for realistic short and middle term objectives to eventually get to the envisaged low carbon future.


Image by London Permaculture

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