Engaging local residents in conversations about pathways to net zero

Introduction

Local government policies and partnerships can play a critical role in reducing carbon emissions to help the UK meet climate targets, but it can be difficult for councils to take bold action out of fear of public backlash. In January 2023, we launched The Strategy Room, an immersive experience that uses digital tools to help local authorities understand how local residents feel about net-zero policies in their area. Over three months almost 640 people from 12 different areas took part, working in small groups to debate policy options related to food, home heating and transport. 

Our early findings showed high levels of support for six out of eight policies that have the potential to significantly reduce carbon emissions. The people who took part also told us the experience helped them understand the issues and the available policy options better. As the UK Government shifts its ambitions with respect to climate change targets, it’s more important than ever to understand the gap between political decision making and public perspectives on policy. 

Why did we do this?

We followed up with the people who took part in The Strategy Room to understand if they still felt the positive benefits of taking part in the experience three months down the line. We also explored whether participants’ values had an impact on the policies they recommended for their area.

What did we do?

When designing The Strategy Room, we were inspired by research that suggests when people feel more able to impact climate change or feel more connected to others in their local area they are more likely to change their behaviour. This includes a whole range of actions from eating less meat to discussing climate issues with family and friends or lobbying politicians to make policy commitments. We asked people: 

  1. if they felt they had the power to impact climate change
  2. how connected they felt to their local community, and
  3. how often they did things like talking to their friends and family about climate change (known as pro-environmental actions).

What did we learn?

Three months down the line, participants still reported high levels of efficacy and connection to their local area.

Across the board The Strategy Room participants scored these statements significantly higher than respondents in a comparative YouGov poll (which asked participants to rate the same policies), suggesting these benefits could be unique to the experience.  

Most public engagement activities don’t follow-up with participants to understand if there is a lasting effect on attitudes and behaviour. With this in mind, three months after completing The Strategy Room pilot we reached out to the people who took part to understand if the effects we observed were long-lasting. 135 people responded, equivalent to ~20% of our pilot cohort. We reached out to 466 people from the pilot with the follow-up survey. These individuals had indicated their interest in being contacted for future research. 

The results showed a small drop across all three measures (ability to influence climate change, connection to local area and pro-environmental actions) but they were still significantly higher than the online sample who responded to the YouGov survey.

Creative public engagement on climate change has broad appeal and may help to build acceptance of policies among people with different values. 

Research into public attitudes on net zero points to the importance of values as drivers of preferences for policies. We reviewed our results to check for differences in policy preferences among people with different values. We used the framework developed by Cultural Dynamics to assign the people who took part into one of three core value groups: pioneers, prospectors and settlers.

The three core value groups explained

Pioneers are motivated by self-realisation. Their views are governed by values of collectivism and fairness. In their personal lives they are ambitious but seek internal fulfilment rather than the esteem of others.

Prospectors are driven by the esteem of others. They are motivated by success, status and recognition. They are usually younger and more optimistic. They are often conscious of fashion or image and tend to be swing voters.

Settlers are motivated by resources and by fear of perceived threats. They tend to be older, socially conservative and security conscious. They are often pessimistic about the future, and are driven by immediate, local issues affecting them and their family.

Of the people who took part, 58% were pioneers, 36% were prospectors, and 6% were settlers (full details on demographics can be found in The Strategy Room report). Comparing the results across these three groups, we didn’t see significant differences in how satisfied they were with the policies recommended by their group or how much they enjoyed the experience. On average, participants rated these as 7 out of 10 and 9 out of 10 respectively. 

People with different values mostly align on policies for reducing emissions and the importance of co-benefits. 

We found that irrespective of their values, local residents were mostly aligned on the strategies they preferred for their area. We asked participants to discuss and make recommendations about a range of net-zero policies. For each one, they assigned ratings on a scale of 0-10 in response to “Which strategies would you recommend for this area?”. 

There were only two statistically significant differences, both of them between the pioneer and prospector groups. On average, pioneers rated the local and sustainably-sourced food in public services policy more highly than prospectors (9.2 out of 10 vs 8.8 out of 10). They also rated all travel policies more highly than prospectors (7.1 out of 10 vs 6.2 out of 10). 

We also asked how important the different co-benefits of net-zero policies were to all participants. Co-benefits are the positive effects that a measure aimed at achieving climate change targets might have on other public policy objectives. For example, reducing air pollution caused by emissions from cars also has public health benefits. We asked people about co-benefits that had positive impacts on health, community cohesion, jobs and poverty. These four co-benefits were rated highly by all three values groups, demonstrating that they had broad appeal. 

Conclusion

Six months after completing The Strategy Room pilot, our ongoing analyses have shown:

  • Creative public engagement tools like The Strategy Room might actively promote lasting behaviour change and community cohesion. Current public engagement efforts are largely information-based and don’t go far enough towards this goal, but approaches like The Strategy Room show how injecting creativity and deliberation into the process may have lasting benefits.   
  • This approach can be designed to have broad appeal, so that people with very different values and priorities enjoy contributing to decision making about complex policy issues and are satisfied with the outcomes. 
  • It is possible to describe net-zero policies in a way that appeals to different value groups. We prioritised this during the development process, as we tested the narratives used in The Strategy Room to make sure they had a broad appeal. In particular, emphasising the positive impact of net-zero policies on health, community and the economy could help decision makers build widespread support. Overall, these results provide evidence that it’s possible to discuss climate policies in a way that builds cohesion, rather than polarises people.

Next steps

Nesta’s Centre for Collective Intelligence Design has long advocated for more creative methods to involve people in decision making and to help them think about the future. The Strategy Room is our flagship tool to get communities across the UK involved in deciding the best path to net zero for their local area. 

Over the next year, we’re aiming to roll-out The Strategy Room to more locations. For too long councils have had their hands tied but research shows the UK public expects local government to play a significant role in climate policy

We’d love to work with as many councils as possible, so if you are interested in taking part please get in touch at [email protected] (Subject: The Strategy Room rollout).

Author

Aleks Berditchevskaia

Aleks Berditchevskaia

Aleks Berditchevskaia

Principal Researcher, Centre for Collective Intelligence Design

Aleks Berditchevskaia is the Principal Researcher at Nesta’s Centre for Collective Intelligence Design.

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Christopher Edgar

Christopher Edgar

Christopher Edgar

Senior Researcher, Centre for Collective Intelligence Design

He/Him

Chris works as a senior researcher, helping to deliver Nesta's mission by supporting work in democratic innovation, climate-sustainable policy and artificial intelligence for good.

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