“We must debunk established myths around greener heating”

Leanne Kelly, Economist at DG Cities, explains how her approach incorporates qualitative evidence alongside quantitative analysis, as well as championing the importance of cross-collaboration in the journey towards net zero.

What is your role at DG Cities?

I’m a behavioural economist in our team and what I am really interested in is the wider context to and impacts of interventions and change, so in particular the social, economic, place-based and individual elements. I look to both the more typical economic methods and those in the behavioural science field. This can cover business cases, socio-economic impact assessments, behavioural diagnosis and behaviour change models, and the supporting quantitative and qualitative analysis. Evaluation is also a key focus of my role, and again we try to do this through multiple lens and with mixed-methods.

I sit within a small, multidisciplinary team, who have different expertise across social research like behavioural science, as well as engineering, net zero, planning and transport consultancy. We approach issues from different perspectives, which allows us to collaborate in really exciting ways. We’re also innovative in that we were set up and are owned  by the Royal Borough of Greenwich, : we deliver practical innovation projects for them and are able to feed back a lot of knowledge and experience from other projects back into Greenwich and other local councils. Our team also works regularly with academic groups, other local authorities, third sector and community groups, as well as the private sector. We’re a small team and our partnerships are really important to us.

What does an average day of work look like for you?

Since joining DG Cities, I’ve been fortunate enough to do some really fascinating research, helping government departments such as the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero to look at decarbonisation in different transport and housing contexts. This often involves doing qualitative and social research, which can involve deep-dive case studies, public attitude surveys or interviews with industry, and then synthesising and analysing the findings.

Alongside that, I split my time with working on the ground, in the planning, delivery or evaluation of projects, where we can try to utilise our research and ideas. It’s nice to actually be on the ground seeing things change, working alongside residents and partners. In terms of our areas of focus, it can be testing new technologies and how they work for local people, or designing neighbourhood-level projects to improve place and social outcomes. In general, it’s the perfect blend of research and implementation, with the former feeding directly into the project intervention work we do.

What is your department’s key objective for the next five years?

We have a really clear objective around supporting local authorities in understanding what is working for them and their communities. This could be reflecting in our research into what has worked well elsewhere, and then working with local authorities to implement tests and project evaluations to inform better service delivery and to discover the areas of innovation which best suit their own areas. Ultimately, we want to help them meet their net zero and place-based objectives.

We are a technology agnostic organisation, and we work alongside technology and innovation partners who want to test and shape their concepts. We utilise local labs for trials to see how best to refine products and what different user types need. We try to centre the ‘people side’ of innovation, considering inclusion, barriers and enablers, and potential outcomes. We are then able to highlight to local authorities more innovative approaches, which can be incredibly helpful in helping them to upgrade current services, improve effectiveness or implement new solutions.

Of course, each community is different, so we really value knowledge exchange. We like to share what we find not only with local authorities like Greenwich, but also to feedback into sector leaders and similar research projects. Our main target is to help places and authorities reach net zero and support the future proofing and success of neighbourhoods, and mutual collaboration will be key to achieving that.

Are there any recent successes or innovations DG Cities is particularly proud of?

I think it’s good to reflect on both key parts of our work: the research side and the practical delivery. Recently, we’ve been undertaking a piece of research for the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, with UCL as our partner, where we’ve been identifying hard to decarbonise homes in the UK and the retrofit solutions for them. We’ve been assessing this not only on a technical and physical basis, but also through the perspective of social, economic, and behavioural factors. We’re really proud of this project, because it’s given us the chance to speak to a lot of people within industry, those on the ground delivering directly to communities, as well as figures within policy and academia, to collate existing knowledge and experiences.

It’s been a great opportunity for us to bring together perspectives from a range of different stakeholders, and we’ve created a piece of research that the department can hopefully utilise going forward. We’re very hopeful that it will be published soon. This is also defines our approach as a team; we strive to bring out what is happening within research, policy and best practice standards and to align that with what we’re seeing practically in industry and what’s happening on the ground, so that we can introduce a holistic piece of research to support policy changes.

On the practical side, with Greenwich, we’ve been looking at some of the next generation net zero products on the market which are progressing very quickly. This includes smart energy use monitors, and damp monitors, and we’ve been testing these technologies in social housing to see how they actually operate. We’ve been investigating resident experiences with these technologies, and establishing where more support is needed, such as understanding how to make technologies more inclusive to different user needs and levels of technology confidence, as well as energy efficiency literacy.

For example, we are currently evaluating our home energy monitors programme. This involved the installation of the smart device itself, alongside a fantastic smartphone app and with an online Community Group we developed where we could share energy efficiency advice, set challenges for their app use and energy consumption, and facilitate discussion amongst participants. The evaluation uses a range of methods from the theory of change, including app use data, energy use data, live and ongoing user experience feedback and with participant surveys and interviews.

We want to understand people’s capabilities and priorities to identify where there are key challenges in green heating technologies, with barriers like fuel poverty being highly prevalent. A key to reaching net zero will be giving individuals more control and understanding of their energy usage, and for us to engage with this, we need to use not just quantitative data, but also an develop a picture of the user’s qualitative experience. We need to establish the best way to roll-out and refine products for various communities and properties, and wide testing and really understanding people’s perspectives and experiences is critical for that.

What has your anecdotal experience been on the ground, and what do you think will be the biggest challenges in retrofitting and installing new heating technologies in houses?

The key question here is about uptake. From the initial design stage, these products will need to have the user at the heart of the process. Once we have established that a heating solution is effective and viable, that’s where our team would consider not just economic matters and the value for money, but also the behavioural side.

This was relevant for the Heat Pump Ready programme and in looking at solutions for sharing solar PV energy. These have given us the chance to test people’s current attitudes, views, and interests, and allowed us to engage with individuals before they have been linked up to a solar panel or committed to a heat pump installation. We gain unique insights into how well people understand these technologies, where they get their information from, how they envisage using and benefiting from the technology in their day-to-day lives.

People have various considerations before committing to heating technologies, including environmental concerns, costs, disruption, and their own home comfort and trust in the installer and/or service provider.  Who consumers trust is important, many trust local community groups or businesses to inform them on their most suitable heating solutions, whilst some may trust their local authority. It’s critical we get the messaging right, and at times, step in to debunk established myths around greener heating. There is also an important behavioural element for organisations here too, where installers have a key role and may be ‘the face of the solution’ so how they inform, engage and work with residents matters.

It’s about assessing each individual case with nuance and enabling people to take agency in their own decisions and where they can have choices alongside, say, a heat pump installation, whilst offering them the right information in the right way. When working on Heat Pump Ready, we understood many were limited by finance or timing issues, and we also have to be conscious not to overburden individuals, especially those who may be struggling, into making specific choices for their homes or for those in social housing, receiving new solutions for their homes.

Do you believe there is enough being done to engage with residents regarding retrofitting, and what can be done to improve this dynamic?

A lot of councils have constraints on resources, and so are doing their best to look after their social housing, as well as other capital works, with effective local engagement. For example, we spoke to a range of local authorities in a study on neighbourhood-level decarbonisation for the LGA last year. Then with the private sector, community groups and third sector partners there are some really powerful examples across the UK of positive engagement and outcomes for residents through retrofit that is well communicated, effectively or even co-designed and carefully delivered.

However, a considerable share of the market is privately rented where there is slower change, and we do need to focus more on making progress there, whether that be with incentives or through other drivers of change. We have, for example, tried to reach out and find good examples to include our research, and it’s been hard to unearth and find that willingness to engage and talk through projects or challenges. We believe in the power of knowledge exchange, and that even the sharing of what hasn’t been so successful in buildings can help to encourage others to address the gaps. Where is there a lack of sharing, including why change is not happening, then we’ll struggle to move forward positively.

What do you mean when you say you bring a ‘quantitative’ focus to the team?

Although my background would typically lead me to hone in on the ‘numbers’ behind projects, the monetisation of benefits and value for money, since joining DG Cities, I’ve been exposed to so much more of the qualitative side of research, and really appreciate its importance. Being able to blend both approaches is what, I believe, makes our team so unique. Whenever we’re doing a trial of a new technology in a local area, we don’t want to be simply gathering objective data; we want to be involving resident opinions, experiences and of their moments of change as well. There are a range of ways we can achieve this, from deliberative workshops, focus groups, household diaries, surveys and interviews to support thematic and deductive analyses to really be able to extract out experience. As part of this we want to understand and explore, for example, people’s wellbeing, their awareness, sense of capability and motivations.

Quantitative data is also critical in answering questions such as what the income challenges are, what deprivation looks like in a particular community, and how businesses are operating. Using both publicly available data, as well as the data we collect on the ground, allows us to set baselines while designing our projects, to form suitable comparison groups and estimates or targets. Having a consistent set of measures is really vital in understanding if objectives have been met as part of an evaluation. However, we always want to complement this with the qualitative side. You may have the data for poverty by postcode, however, speaking to households and understanding what their priorities are in practice and how this interacts with their daily life, will be equally important to us in shaping our interventions and solutions.

What trends or issues affecting the wider energy sector do you feel will be most important moving forward?

I think we’ll have to see a reconsideration of how electricity prices and bills are determined for consumers, and more awareness about this relationship to gas prices, to help encourage the transition to electric heating. Moreover, we’ll need a clearer communication of support and potentially subsidisation to aid people in their transition. Solutions also need to be well adapted to different property types (e.g. spatial limitations, density, height, multi-occupancy, mixed tenure) and there are some gaps here that are encouragingly being explored.

Attitudes and willingness towards net zero need to be understood and reflected in the solutions. The challenge for consumers is making the relevant options and behaviours affordable, attractive and easier. But it is not just individuals, the approaches and willingness of the businesses and organisations in our communities is really important – they have a key role in facilitating and enabling change.

I also believe we’ll see more discussion and development around micro-generation energy projects, and community attitudes towards them. The projections for Electric Vehicle (EV) charge point uptake, and the prospective connection to the grid, are fascinating, and contains a real behavioural angle to it. We will need to ensure we integrate resident understanding, and the benefits of EVs for residents and workplaces, into any infrastructure which we develop.

In general, at DG Cities, we love learning from other partners, whether through research or on the ground. Our partners range from community groups, academics, to tech collaborators, and it’s really important to reflect that there are so many people doing incredible work in engaging residents in retrofitting and community energy initiatives. Hopefully, this theme of collaboration will continue to be a trend as we move towards 2050.

What do you believe will be the key to helping the UK reach net zero by 2050?

Whether we have been speaking to individual households, or people within industry like technology developers or installers, we have noticed a shared uncertainty around policy changes. We’ve heard repeatedly from people that they don’t know whether heat pumps will be supported into the future, for example. There definitely needs to be a confident, long-term strategy which gives clear signals to the market. This will then need collaboration and support to impact outwards to those working in relevant trades and for young people to be more assured in choosing to learn green skills, and for people to consider re-skilling and career shifts.
There currently aren’t enough skilled individuals to fulfil demand within green skill areas, and I think clearer backing from central government and local authorities will be needed to really convince a higher stream of people to pursue this line of work. We need to establish that these jobs will not only support a healthier future but be financially appealing.

We are also seeing how important project coordination is, for example with councils trying to embed decarbonisation into their usual capital works programmes for cost efficiencies and minimising resident disruption in achieving home safety, comfort and carbon outcomes. There can also be opportunities for more integrated place, environmental and health interventions at the neighbourhood level, to coordinate for more efficient and consistent engagement, co-design and delivery to improve project financials and benefit realisation. This is something we are currently working on with local pilots exploring routes to more resilient and vibrant places.

As a team, we try to stay optimistic about the current national targets, and we always aim to identify and help test and shape solutions, whether it be on a local level, or on a much larger stage. While we recognise the scale of the challenges ahead, the work we continuously see on the ground gives us a lot to feel hopeful about.

DG Cities is an innovation agency based in London, working to harness the potential of advances in tech to improve people’s lives: dgcities.com