‘Energetic Lifestyles’: Engaging young people in the development and implementation of carbon reduction initiatives

The Energetic Lifestyles project explored young people’s perspectives, in establishing an improved understanding of the perceptions and barriers to energy efficient behaviours among young people and ethnically diverse communities.


The Energetic Lifestyles project explored young people’s perspectives, in establishing an improved understanding of the perceptions and barriers to energy efficient behaviours among young people and ethnically diverse communities. By doing so, the project has identified ways to enhance engagement of young people in particular in discussing, understanding and disseminating critical approaches to the development and adoption of (new) energy efficient initiatives. 

Challenge and solution

The key challenge to address as part of this project was in actively engaging young people in discussions around energy use and efficiency. In light of ongoing Luton Borough Council (LBC) initiatives around energy consumption, building stock efficiency, Fuel Poverty, and Net Zero 2040 targets, an improved understanding of ‘end-user’/homeowner behaviours and perceptions around energy, of which young people form an important element, is a critical factor. 

Historically, LBC has experienced difficulties in engaging young people from local communities in various council initiatives. 

The proposed solution was in the adoption of an innovative research/engagement approach for this project known as the World Café approach. To implement this, the project team utilised existing connections and networks to approach and engage groups of young people (typically in an age range of 16-25), with organisations including Luton Sixth Form College, Barnfield College, the Luton Youth Network, and undergraduate degree students from a range of courses at the University of Bedfordshire. 

In total, five world café events were held/facilitated by the project team, involving 97 participants. 

The World Café Approach/Methodology

The idea of the World Café is based upon an egalitarian approach, and has been very successful in community action projects as well as academic research that aim to bring collectives of people together to generate wisdom when they discuss matters that are meaningful to them. This is undertaken through a series of questions led by a ‘table facilitator’ whose main role is to encourage discussion, and ensure that all participants have a chance to contribute to the conversation if they so wish.  

In the World Café, participants are seated in small groups at a number of tables, and a relaxed, informal atmosphere is created similar to a café, with tablecloths and refreshments. Additionally, coloured pens and paper are also available to encourage participants to write or draw their ideas. This also provides an effective approach for the engagement of larger groups of participants (of ten or more). 

This informal environment helps to break down the kind of barriers that can sometimes prevent important conversations, such as discomfort and concerns with hierarchy. As stated, everyone is considered to be equal. For this reason, as well as perceived flexibility, adaptability and informality this approach has proved to be effective in generating rich discussions amongst young people. 

Although the Cafés were in this instance focused on energy use in the home, the approach is not bound to particular topics, and would lend itself to engaging with groups of participants in discussing and exploring any number of research/discussion themes. 

The project team also took an approach to train/mentor young people as World Café facilitators themselves. This is also something that would lend itself to future community engagement initiatives in providing a ‘legacy’ for the approach to continue to generate discussions around stimulating subjects, externally to council-driven initiatives. However, a key learning from the project was in the importance of specific and focused training/mentoring on the facilitation of this approach, in ensuring the ethos of the World Café approach is passed-on effectively.

Top three lessons learned

  1. Utilising existing networks for community engagement and integrating research project activity made a significant difference in engaging (in this case) young people already involved in those networks. 
  2. The (research) approach taken in engaging young people, and subsequent data collection, needs to be highly flexible and adaptable. It is important to generate questions for discussion that matter and can be related to by the participants and their own lived realities. Facilitators need to be critical, and acknowledge that the questions that they might think are important to the participants, might not be. 
  3. The “World Café” approach has proved to be effective in engaging young people in providing an informal environment for sharing of ideas around energy. However, a critical element in the effectiveness of the approach is the ‘non-directive’ role of the facilitator(s), and the importance of facilitator training in resisting some habits, which may come from experience of delivering other taught or workshop-type sessions previously. The facilitators need to be able to encourage ‘energised’ discussions around issues that the participants really want to talk about, rather than discussions focused on topics that the facilitators perceive to be important in a more general sense. 

Project impact

1.a Project outcomes to-date 

The project has validated the World Café approach as an effective methodology for engaging young people in discussions around energy and the net zero agenda.  

The World Café approach and subsequent findings have also developed an improved understanding within the project team of the perceptions and behaviours of young people around energy efficiency in the home, which has in turn influenced LBC strategy on appropriate communications for young people around energy and carbon emissions. 

In particular, consideration of appropriate communication approaches concern several key areas highlighted by the study, including the following: 

  • Despite a comprehensive understanding of climate change, critical global environmental issues, and the subsequent need to reduce carbon emissions, this was typically not a significant enough driver to influence behaviour change around energy use in the home for young people. Discussions were largely around what the participants thought they ‘ought’ to be doing, rather than what they did in practice. 

  • The main driver for behaviour change was cost reduction. As a result, only those participants that were homeowners or private renters demonstrated significant behaviour change to reduce energy consumption. “Saving the planet” was seen as an additional but consequential benefit. 

  • The main driver for behaviour change amongst those young people living at home was the influence of parents/families, who were themselves focused on cost reduction. Participants indicated that discussions around energy use in the home between parents and younger people (and the link to global environmental issues) was very limited. 

  • Access to renewable energy was cited by participants as being limited, with the production of renewable energy itself sometimes linked to a perception of negative environmental impacts. Access to renewable energy was not necessarily seen as a driver for behaviour change, but related to energy consumption being seen as more ethically acceptable.  In other words, technology to sustain present lifestyles was often preferred over behaviour change. 

  • In general, participants demonstrated an excellent level of understanding of climate change and carbon emission causes and issues, but many indicated that they were not aware of actions that they could take to reduce energy consumption, and the specific actions that would have the most significant impact (on cost reduction). Some participants indicated the need to be able to better visualise how to save money (and energy). For example, being able to better understand the data presented by smart meters. 

1.b. Sustaining project outcomes 

The final stage of the project is to disseminate the insights gained through the study to key local authority and community stakeholders.  

The project has influenced and ‘up-skilled’ local authority project stakeholders in methods by which the council will engage and communicate with young people. It has also enhanced the level of understanding around the roles that young people play, particularly within families, around energy efficiency behaviours. The findings will link into and inform ongoing LBC initiatives, including the “School Champions” campaign. 

2. Anticipated longer-term impact on progress towards net zero  

Longer-term action from LBC will be focused around several key areas including: 

  • Improved targeted communication to/with young people, and a focus on helping parents/guardians to involve children/young people in discussions around energy and bills. 

  • Improved messaging around climate change and energy to different groups within the community 

  • Reduced energy consumption in the residential sector in Luton through an improved understanding of approaches to energy efficiency in the home 

  • Disseminating project findings to influence approaches within other local authorities 

3. Evolving the approach to net zero  

The project findings have largely dispelled a long-held myth (within local authorities) around the perceptions of young people’s priorities around energy and climate change, and the influence that they have on parental/family understanding and subsequent behaviours within the household. 

The messaging (from the local authority) around energy use within the community, therefore needs to vary across different groups/age ranges of young people to reflect different drivers. 

The study also highlights the importance for consideration of the link between motivations for switching to more energy efficient behaviours, and periods of time when energy costs are particularly high. The key consideration for the council is in approaches to normalising this behavior and sustaining it when energy prices come down. This could include encouraging participants to identify benefits of behavioural changes – for example, walking to work may enable avoidance of traffic congestion, spending more time in outside physical activity may improve health. 

4. Beneficiaries of the project 

The World Café approach will benefit other local authorities looking to engage young people in council initiatives (not just limited to those focused on net zero as a theme), and the project team are preparing a ‘how to’ guide around utilising the technique for this purpose. The academics within project team are available to assist other local authorities in running/facilitating this type of event. 

The findings will also help local authority departments focusing on community engagement, and in particular young people, on initiatives around net zero and climate change and on the way in which this is communicated to different community groups. 

The level of engagement, particularly during the World Café events has demonstrated the potential for improved communication with local communities around energy, but in particular with a focus on opportunities for saving energy costs. The research has highlighted the importance of facilitating discussions around energy and associated costs/bills within households (and families). 

Partnership development

Development of the project partnership  

The partnership within the project team has developed from the outset through a shared enthusiasm and commitment to develop the project idea and make a difference within the local community. To achieve this shared focus, the team invested a significant amount of time in building the relationship (between academic and local authority stakeholders), including regular weekly or bi-weekly meetings with the core project team members. This helped to sustain momentum on the initiative, ensure clarity around common and individual project goals, and also to address issues early on as they arose. Senior-level buy-in was particularly important. 

Sustaining the partnership in the medium and longer term 

The overall project process and workshops with the UCL team were particularly helpful in framing the scope of the project and the key research questions, but also in grounding it against behavioral psychology theory. The project team are looking to develop practical guidance documents for LBC and other local authorities, together with the production of academic research publications, based on the findings and World Café methodology. 

Academic and local authority members of the team have already been jointly involved in the preparation and submission of two European research proposals. The team will look to keep each other informed of this type of opportunity, and are happy to call on the different areas of professional expertise to assist in maximising the potential of these. 

The project benefitted from a multi-disciplinary team, including academics from construction, psychology and healthcare, together with council officers specialising in community development and environmental engineering. This has also generated opportunities to tap into and collaborate with different professional networks, which will continue beyond the completion of the project. 

The main challenge was in engaging young people and encouraging them to commit additional time to the project outside of their normal day-to-day lives. In particular those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds remained the most difficult to engage with, and their involvement was less than the team had hoped for within the project timescale. This will be a focus moving forward, particularly in light of issues around fuel poverty, and access to energy for the most disadvantaged members of the community. 

The team will also look to make more of social media and digital dissemination opportunities, to keep other stakeholders updated on key progress areas and outcomes. 

Further information

Email contacts from both partner organisations: 

Katarzyna Wysocka ([email protected]

James Bishop ([email protected]