Citizen engagement is at the heart of all manner of sustainability initiatives. Even efforts that appear highly technical – such as innovative ‘smart solutions’ or initiatives that rely on complex renewable energy technology – must meaningfully centre locals’ voices to be successful.
This summer, ICLEI explored this conviction at an event held by the Marketplace of the European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities (EIP-SCC), specifically led by the EIP-SCC’s “Citizen Focus” action cluster.
ICLEI’s contributions focused on citizen participation in energy transitions, sharing insights developed via the SONNET and SMARTEES projects. In particular, ICLEI explored the critical importance of the “social dimension of energy transitions”– as laid out in a new SONNET Energy Read – and overviewed the nine recommendations for supporting the energy transition published by the SMARTEES project.
The discussion centred on the importance of ensuring that new technologies are paired with changing perspectives. New technology and new behaviour ought to be considered as two sides of the same coin. Without behavioural adaptations, new technologies run the risk of not being employed as they were designed to. In the other direction, new technology can be a precondition to change behaviour.
The connection between technological and behavioural change runs deeper still. New technology inherently relates to behaviour change. For example, creators’ intentions are inscribed into designs, leading technology to nudge its users towards a certain behaviour. Furthermore, to achieve behaviour change, the lack or the disappearance of a technology may even be more meaningful than the addition of new ones.
With all these linkages considered, there was agreement that the design and use of technology needs to be embedded in society and culture; this can be done via solid citizen participation. Arnstein’s so-called ‘ladder of participation’– which examines different forms of participation, and classifies them based on how meaningfully they engage citizens – could be read in between the lines of all discussions, and was even made explicit at points. This is critical to consider when designing energy and smart city solutions, which too often call to mind technological innovation alone.
It is, therefore, no surprise that the nine recommendations for supporting the energy transition (developed by SMARTEES) refer to the need to take a participatory approach to the human-technology relationship. Recommendations therein include making sure practitioners: build on existing engagement, welcome resistance, are realistic about expectations and interests, and consider the role of the media.
 Arnstein, S. (1969.) A ladder of citizen participation. Journal of the American Planning Association, 35(4), 216–224.