The Socio-Technical Context of Building Energy Research

On 3rd February 2021, doctoral researchers from the Centre for Marine and Renewable Energy (MaREI), University College London (UCL) and Loughborough University (LU) on the Centre for Doctoral Training in Energy Resilience and the Built Environment (ERBE CDT) course came together for ERBE’s second annual mini conference online organised by UCLLU and MaREI.  The theme of the conference was the socio-technical context of building energy research – the interaction between people, buildings, and the transitioning energy systems.

Gerard Mullally, lecturer and Deputy Head in the Department of Sociology and Criminology in the School of Society, Politics and Ethics, University College Cork, started off the day with a very interesting talk on “Engagement and Participation in Energy Policies: What does it mean for you?”.  It highlighted the need for public engagement and public acceptance for a successful transition to a fossil free future as the social and technical aspects of energy transition are inextricably intertwined.  National citizen engagement processes for energy policy, like the Climate Assembly UK, at regional and national level can ensure that the national dialogue on climate change, involving all the stakeholders in the transition like national and local governments, international organisations, communities, civic society, private and corporate sectors, and academic and professional associations, is translated to climate action on the ground.  Transdisciplinary consortiums, like Imagining2050, (Figure 1) where a wide range of professionals from different backgrounds and local communities engage, envision, and co-produce low carbon, climate resilient pathways to 2050 are essential.

Figure 1: Imagining2050 Source: From the presentation by G. Mullally, 2021

At the round table discussion which followed, the doctoral researchers present discussed the socio-technical impact the research they would be/were doing would have. There was consensus on the need to engage the publics directly affected by climate change issues.  Working and communicating with them to understand the underlying issues and their causes will give our research the social motivation and problem solving focus needed to have real world impact.

Alexandra Revez is a Senior Post Doctoral Researcher with Imagining2050 (2018-2020).  Her talk on “Deliberative Tools for Transformation: An Overview of the Imagining 2050 Toolkit” introduced us to new methods of engaging the publics, who are growing more disengaged and suspicious of traditional decision making processes and technologies, in real world policy forums.  The toolkit consisting of nine future-oriented and deliberative tools (Figure 2) could be adapted for use by local community organisations, environmental activists, social enterprise partnerships, local decision makers and researchers for creative communication and engagement.

Figure 2: Future-oriented & Deliberative Tools Source: From the presentation by A. Revez, 2021

Online tools like Mentimeter and Slido allow some of these tools to be adapted for online use quite effectively to suit today’s pandemic affected predominantly online work environment.  The importance of netiquette, rules of engagement, quality, hands on/off moderation, conflict resolution and technical support to make online environments safe, inclusive, and suitable for all was discussed at length.

Fionn Rogan, a Research Fellow at University College Cork, in his talk on “Interactive Audience polls – Buildings and Mobility” used the audience polls tool which is question based with live feedback and reflections.  We, the participants, used the Slido online tool on our smart phones to respond to Fionn’s questions on the energy efficiency of our homes and our modes of transport.  One question which was much discussed here was what the energy efficiency rating of our home would be in 10 years’ time (Figure 3).

Figure 3 Audience poll using Slido Source: From the presentation by F. Rogan, 2021

“How can anyone know for sure what will happen in 10 years’ time?”  was one very valid argument.  Yet here we are trying to make decisions on what our energy systems will be like in 2050.  Another question asking what determines our choice of travel mode now and in 10 years’ time led to discussions on how the COVID pandemic has impacted, for better and for worse, our mobility patterns.

The last item of the day was a workshop on using a modified version of the empathy mapping tool, the persona empathy mapping tool.  It is a human centred tool to help us understand what a person in a particular situation might feel, think, and do.  A hypothetical scenario was provided.  Each of the three groups created were assigned a persona each and asked to create a character based on specified criteria.  Each group then reported back on what they thought the character might feel, think, and do in that scenario.  The tool helped us see issues from other people’s perspectives.

The event was a huge success and was thoroughly enjoyed by all present.  We thank Gerard, Alexandra, Fionn and Dr Lai Fong for the lively discussions and for making the event interactive and interesting.  I am sure the tools will come in very handy as we strive to engage the public in our endeavour to make a real difference in our society with our research.

Shanti Srinivas

Doctoral Researcher

Loughborough University