“Progress means getting a grip on problems before finding solutions”

BinBin Pearce is a senior researcher and lecturer as a part of the USYS TdLab in Zürich and focuses her research on how stakeholders and experts can jointly identify, frame and act upon complex problems on diverse topics within the field of sustainable development (e.g., water use and sanitation, waste management, peace policy, etc.). Prior to her postdoctoral work within social sciences, BinBin developed expertise in environmental engineering and design thinking concepts. Today, she leads the Energy Citizens for Inclusive Decarbonization* (1) (ENCLUDE) Horizon 2020 project to help the EU fulfill its promise of a just and inclusive decarbonization pathway through sharing and co-creating new knowledge and practices.

Missions Publiques: How do you expect the ENCLUDE project will contribute to energy transition through collective action?

BinBin Pearce: The Energy Citizens for Inclusive Decarbonization (ENCLUDE) project recognizes that even with sweeping plans and concrete measures, transformation is only possible when individuals embrace the norms and goals of that transformation. Our goal here is to support the EU’s goal for fair and sustainable future through sharing and co-creating new knowledge and practices that maximize the number and diversity of citizens who are willing and able to contribute to the energy transition.

The project revolves around three main objectives. First, it aims to develop a validated typology of energy citizenship at multiple scales (local, regional, national, supranational) and within an inclusive range of cultural, social, economic, and political contexts. Then, we wish to assess the decarbonization potential of energy citizenship based on an improved understanding of energy citizenship types, an identification of clusters of citizens, and through the emergence and consolidation of factors of energy citizenship. ENCLUDE will integrate qualitative factors governing energy decision-making and practices into the design of decarbonization pathways. Finally, we want to create context-appropriate guidelines for local and regional policymakers that help to mobilize an inclusive range of stakeholders for decarbonization. 

We will capture and document citizens’ experiences and knowledge from over 50 countries in the EU in order to promote learning and improve future training materials and research questions. Citizens of the ENCLUDE school will become a network of “decarbonization ambassadors”, who will spread the knowledge of energy citizenship to seed future collective action.


MP: How does the ENCLUDE project connect to your background in collaborative decision-making?

BP: In my work at the USYS TdLab at ETH Zürich, I focus a lot on the methods and the concepts about how we might create better connections between science and society in order to more effectively confront societal challenges together. I am trained as an environmental engineer and have extended that perspective to understanding the processes of transdisciplinary problem solving. My research has focused on collaborative decision-making under uncertainty and particularly in sustainable development. For example, I look at the concept of joint problem framing, understanding processes that people go through when they change their point of view or come to an understanding of a new point of view in order to solve a problem. I have also developed an approach called integrated systems and design thinking that explores how transformation can be ushered by focusing, in parallel, the needs of individuals and groups, as well as how a system as a whole functions.

I also work a lot around the concept of insights: how and when do people change what they think? When I see my students change the way they see the world, that’s when I get an impulse to think “as a scientist and teacher what can I learn from this to actually make a change in sustainable development?”.  How can we support individuals so they have the best chance to being open to change in their minds without thinking of individuals only as rational beings who react to monetary indicators? We must be able to see people in their globality and living in a complex system. A lot of those ideas will be brought into the ENCLUDE project. For the very first time, insights about who is affected by energy citizenship and how this concept might affect decarbonization pathways will be incorporated into agent-based models and integrated assessment models.

MP: How can you make sure the change is effective on the ground?

BP: The goal of ENCLUDE is to operationalize abstract concepts like “energy citizenship” and “decarbonization pathways” so that they could help change on the ground. For example, the ENCLUDE academy, is about taking lessons from collaborative decision-making from historical episodes of collective action that have led to change, such as the civil right movement and women’s movements in the past, and then see how they may relate to energy citizenship and decarbonization actions today. How can we bring it all together into a set of online training modules that can be delivered to 50 community leaders across the EU so that we can implement what we’ve learned. With the help of NGO consortium partners who are close to the specific issues that people care about in relation to the energy transition, we want to reach a diversity of communities and people who are ready for change. We want to link them to the resources at our disposal to help create that change. At the same time, we want to assess the effectiveness of our interventions. We want to use the project as a chance to be very clear-eyed about what our intended impact is and what we were finally able to do at the end. To that end, the assessment and feedback to our training modules and approaches will accompany its implementation.


MP: What is the main challenge in consolidating energy citizenship?

BP: ENCLUDE is for the inclusive involvement of citizens with scientists, policymakers and business leaders for decarbonization throughout its entire research cycle. This integration means that an intentionally inclusive and diverse group of stakeholders are contributing to the research in all stages of our work, including the creation of new knowledge and the dissemination of outputs. This is what we define as applying transdisciplinarity, a necessary characteristic of a participatory research. Taking into account the interests and struggles of diverse citizen groups, including communities, who are not usually invited or expected to participate in these civic processes, is for sure a major challenge that we must overcome by asking ourselves what are the NGOs we must work with to reach out to people who are most motivated to change and put decarbonization on the ground and not just those who have the capacity to do so.

Then, coming up with a feasible way and accompanying people so they feel supported in this endeavor that requires a personal commitment is in itself a challenge because it requires trust by the people on the ground. Not being able, in such a short period of time, to build the very much needed trust by the people and communities on the ground is tricky. We have to rely on community groups, NGOs and partners who are locally implemented and have already developed trust by having regular access to local communities. For example, we have put together a buddy-system by pairing up individuals with specific NGOs who will support them better.

We also wish to learn about what we don’t know, because this isn’t about getting knowledge to people but about receiving knowledge and learning about the challenges people face locally. We want to learn from this experience and keep it going to make a change on the long run. I see it as a mutual learning cycle.

“We want the best creative solutions to come together from both sides by changing the way that we frame the problem.

MP: How do you think society has failed in building citizen engagement around decarbonization?

BP: My prognosis is that we’ve been too much focusing on solutions instead of looking into the problems. The common perception is that experts need to be creating these options in the first place which I find is true to some level only.

Even with the concept of a just transition, we assume that everyone in the room shares the same values and understanding and that there’s one problem which we all care about. Yet that’s not the case and we rarely take the time to talk about why we’re here and what is the problem that may not be obvious for everyone. It requires more time, attention, and moderation on processes rather than solutions but it’s difficult because people want to be talking about solutions rather than problems even though progress also means getting a grip on all the different problems in the room. I believe we tend to look for a feeling of success by finding solutions and recommendations which in the end might be counterproductive.

However, I think that the public is entitled and capable to take part in the creation of these options for sure so that we can benefit from public intelligence understanding, or from what I call “folk expertise”, which comes from peoples’ lived lives. We want the best creative solutions to come together from both sides by changing the way that we frame the problem.

(1) The ENCLUDE project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme under grant agreement No 101022791.
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