On 24 March, part of ATELIER’s De Waag and Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (AUAS) group attended an international meeting on citizen engagement in energy transition projects organized online due to the current Covid-19 crisis. The meeting was insightful and helped to inspire our preliminary design and planning for ATELIER WP7 – citizen and stakeholder engagement. Some key lessons were 1) that previously successful projects made use of interesting mixes of both digital and physical communication to capture a sense of community and participation on behalf of the involved citizens. 2) That participation is not always enough; previous experiences in other projects emphasize the importance of co-creation to empower citizens and further democratize energy provisioning. 3) Individual and collective experiences on behalf of involved citizens could differ greatly from policy intent. A tentative and iterative approach to community building is thus paramount to successful citizen engagement. 4) Especially the latter point  is important for measuring and evaluating the success of our approach, for we should be aware of the “soft” aspects of citizen’s experiences.  


Meeting in “Helsinki” (but online)

Although the meeting was originally to be held in the city of Helsinki, the current corona situation forced us to meet online. Although it was a shame to miss out on the normally interesting and inspiring informal talks with colleagues and experts from all over Europe, it was nonetheless an inspiring event. There were several speakers present, ranging from government representatives from the EU, the central Finnish government and local governments elsewhere in Europe, to scientists.


The EU Commission has created a Mission Board that is working on a ‘Mission’ to support 100 cities to become ‘greener’ and ‘smarter’. Both terms more or less equate the implementation of innovative strategies to decarbonize cities. In her talk, a representative of the EU mission board put strong emphasis on citizen engagement on the road to climate neutrality. The mission board emphasized that engagement of civil society is foundational to any successful uptake of energy innovation. As such, the mission board sees urban climate action not only as a necessary step to increase the resilience of our cities from a technological perspective, but also as an opportunity to further democratize and localize urban energy provisional systems to combat energy poverty and overall urban inequality. To do so, the EU mission board wants to steer away from R&I programs, but towards dense stakeholder networks facilitated by local governments that should include both citizens and non-governmental parties to explore pathways to more sustainable cities.


Success-stories and best practices for citizen engagement

First, the SPARCS (https://www.sparcs.info) project organized in Espoo and Leipzig plus fellow cities. It stood out that citizen engagement in city planning processes is mandatory by law in Finland. They thus have a rich history and experience with involving citizens in energy projects. In the SPARCS projects they are engaging citizens in relation to themes certain, divided in energy, mobility and sustainable lifestyles.

Second, the SMARTER TOGETHER (https://www.smarter-together.eu) project, organized in Munich, Vienna and Lyon plus follower cities. The main goal of the project is to improve quality of life in deprived neighborhoods through introduction of technology. Some strategies to involve citizens in Vienna are the use of a moving caravan as an information point; working together with schools to promote sustainability and technologies; and multiple competitions and activities to motivate children and parents using technology.

In Lyon: LILA4GREEN is a climate change mitigation initiative that creates ‘Green Urban Oasis’ took over the space of a parking place was organized and for the ‘Dance in the City Neighborhood’ project an app was developed to show citizens how their street will look like if changes were made, trees were planted, for example).

Third, the STARDUST project (https://stardustproject.eu/cities/tampere/) in Tampere, Pamplona and Trento plus follower cities focussed on digital participation. An app has been developed to gather data from citizens, for example to accommodate street lighting to human presence. In exchange, this app offers citizens information about events in the city, the Tampere Pass (to get local discounts), a navigation tool similar to google maps, a CO2 calculator for mobility (how much CO2 do you spend if you go by bike or on foot instead of by car?), etc. Through this app the City can send messages in times of a crisis and other events.

Fourth, MATCHUP (https://www.matchup-project.eu) organized in Valencia, Dresden and Antalya plus follower cities. In Valencia the project uses existing channels and infrastructures for participation, while drawing on previous experiences in other projects. They use different levels of participation for different actions, for instance on the city level, project level, etc.. They highlighted the importance of ensuring continuity and transparency in providing information to citizens and warned to for overburdening and frustrating citizens. Citizen engagement thus builts from a good combination of participating and consulting, where building trust is key.

Fifth, MY SMART LIFE (https://www.mysmartlife.eu) organized in Nantes, Hamburg and Helsinki plus follower cities. For this project, the main goal was to facilitate energy retrofits in private homes. Key lesson here is to adjust the adopted measures to involve citizens between owners and renters.

Finally, the University Centre for Energy Efficient Buildings CTU in Prague shared some valuable insights on citizen participation. They emphasized the importance to capture the ‘soft aspects’ of innovation and stated that the main impact of innovation is usually not in the deliverables. Moreover, quantitative monitor and evaluation tools do not cover human experiences. They thus advice to document the process of citizen engagement in individual stories, drivers, barriers, ‘fuck-ups’, useful tips etc.


Lessons for ATELIER

We discern some valuable lessons for ATELIER WP7-Citizen and stakeholder engagement that will inform our preliminary design of WP7.

It is possible that citizen engagement needs to happen online due to the current circumstances regarding the Covid-19. We recognize this as a challenge but also an opportunity to experiment engaging citizens using technology, which was successfully done elsewhere. We will thus explore existing digital tools (apps, platforms) to start the dialogue with the citizens but should not forget the importance of face2face meetings to build up trust.

Citizens need to be involved from the beginning. It’s not enough to get their ‘ok’. They need to own the initiatives/actions/interventions. It should be a win-win situation for them and for us. First step is to get to know them and what are their interests are.

We should consider different levels of participation for different actions. We could discern multiple geographical scales, for instance and think in terms of interventions at the scale of the block (Republica/ Poppies) and the district (Buiksloterham) or maybe the city level.

It is important to not forget about the ‘soft aspects’  in the monitor and evaluation of the process of citizen engagement and behavioral change: individual stories, drivers, barriers, ‘fuck-ups’, useful tips, when did a change in attitude happen.

Finally, we need to collaborate with ‘local facilitators’ to ensure a successful citizen engagement process. These can be neighbors, local entrepreneurs, local NGOs, etc.).


By Darren Sierhuis and Beatriz Pineda Revilla