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Climate Assembly was a great first step but positive experiences will drive change

By Matt Lipson, Energy Systems Catapult, Consumer Insight business lead

Today in Parliament, MPs debated a motion on the final report of Climate Assembly UK: “The path to Net Zero“.

Yet the journey to this point began back in June 2019, against a backdrop of school strikes and Extinction Rebellion protests, when the UK Government made a world-leading commitment to reach Net Zero by 2050.

But that was the easy bit. Reaching that target will require tricky trade-offs. It will also require action from citizens, ranging from accepting new heating systems to potentially changing what they eat. So how do you build the consent needed for the shifts to the economy we need to reach Net Zero?

Citizens’ juries

Citizens’ juries have emerged in recent years as a way to engage citizens with complex policy, political and ethical choices. They have a long heritage in other areas of policy (e.g. abortion in Ireland). They are a great way for bringing people to a consensus on how to tackle tricky problems that will affect everyone.

Earlier this year, several Parliamentary Select Committees commissioned a Citizens Assembly to consider how Government should meet Net Zero. I was privileged to testify on the potential for innovations, like heat-as-a-service to help us decarbonise. I learnt lots from listening to questions from people – a representative group of normal people, not energy or climate geeks – at one of the assembly’s weekends. They reminded me of the reactions of thousands of people who have taken part in many of the innovation projects I’ve lead on this topic over the years.

Today Parliament is debating the results of the report, which contains a vast amount of information on citizens’ reactions to every aspect of Net Zero. It’s well worth a read. Of course I found the section on innovation particularly interesting. 80% of assembly members agreed innovation should be part of how the UK gets to Net Zero. Hidden behind the headline, however, were a range of views.

Heat-as-a-Service

Some people liked the idea of buying their heating as a service, which opened up a path to making their own home Net Zero. They could see how competition could “drive down prices and drive up quality”. They wanted to be able to buy “tailored solutions” from non-profits and co-ops not just larger businesses.

Yet they realised “companies have resources, skills to find solutions” so they could “provide information that individuals don’t already have”. They could see how bundling up all their zero carbon needs as part of a service, might be easier understand and cheaper to deliver than having to learn how to decarbonise their home on their own. Some assembly members said it would lead to the “creation of new jobs as companies innovate in new areas” or that “there’s great potential here for a new industrial revolution”.

Consumer Protections

However, just as we’ve found in our own research, there was a lack of trust in energy companies. There were concerns companies would offer “more profitable choices instead of lower carbon choices” and that they “may not have our best interest as a priority”. Some worried companies may “cherry pick houses and areas that are more profitable” or it may be too expensive for some to afford. There was a general concern about leaving some people behind. Others worried it would be “hard to communicate different services/products” and that it “might be confusing and difficult to understand deals”. Assembly members felt there was a need for a “regulator to ensure prices and work [quality]”, ”prevent …mis-selling” and “protection for individuals less able to understand”.

Many of these concerns were familiar from our own research. Indeed we’ve used exactly this sort of feedback to define how this new business model needs to work in practice. That’s one reason why we worked with a not-for-profit business to design and deliver heat-as-a-service for the first time and are now working with others to develop new propositions. It’s also why we’ve worked with Citizens Advice to understand the risks of smart new energy products and services, as well as how to solve them.

Innovation often starts with discussions about new ways of doing something, but that’s not where it ends.

People need to experience things

The next step is to co-create solutions with people to make sure they work for them. People often need to experience something new so they can form a view on it. Most people didn’t know they needed a smart phone before then tried one. Now they can’t live without it. That’s why it’s so important to try things out in the real world. This can be hard with something like heat-as-a-service, but it’s not impossible. We’ve been applying user-centred design techniques to design high quality low carbon products and services for years. The approach we take is outlined here.

This people-centred process is new to energy, but it’s standard practice in most other sectors. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, for example, puts Amazon’s success down to customer focus: “The most important single thing is to focus obsessively on the customer. Our goal is to be earth’s most customer-centric company.” He explains how: “We innovate by starting with the customer and working backwards. That becomes the touchstone for how we invent.” You’ll hear the same thing from the CEOs of Tesla, Airbnb, Netflix and many more. We need that kind of innovation in how we heat our homes and transform them become zero carbon.

Zero carbon and desirable

We need to find the best ways we can to decarbonise if we are to build a Net Zero future people want to live in. Citizens’ juries are a great first step, but they are not the end of the story. Innovation holds huge potential, but there are also risks.

To avoid these, we need to design smarter protections in collaboration with regulators and businesses of all sizes. That’s part of the reason why at the Catapult we’ve built a Living Lab .It allows business large and small to test out their new ideas quickly and with rich consumer feedback. Crucially, it could also allow policymakers and regulators to test new market arrangements or consumer protections, to ensure that innovations benefit, not exploit, citizens on the way to Net Zero and that regulation does not act as a barrier to the innovations we need, including innovations that will improve the lives of vulnerable consumers.

If the UK’s brilliant innovators are to reap the rewards of the switch to Net Zero, we need low carbon solutions that people actually want. That means testing and learning in the real world. As the Citizens’ Assembly found out, forcing a Net Zero world on people is unlikely to be welcomed. Developing products and services that delight people, oh, and just happen to be zero carbon, is what we need to aim for.

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