Creating meaningful engagement with communities on climate change

Organised by the LGA in partnership with Design Council, the “Creating meaningful engagement with communities on climate change” webinar was the first in a series of four delivered as part of the Design in the Public Sector programme. The series is intended to scale design approaches across the public sector and stimulate new thinking on collective climate change matters.

This session focused on community engagement and brought together five speakers from different Local Authorities and Design Council to share their experiences and reflections on this important topic. We explored the value of design as a tool to understand the needs of individuals and build strong relationships with communities; we discussed practical tips on online engagement to better navigate the pandemic world and speakers shared case studies on existing initiatives to showcase best practice across the sector.  

This blog provides a summary of the key insights discussed by each speaker and includes links to the slides presented during the session.  

The webinar was chaired by Cllr Neil Prior, Cabinet Member for Transformation at Pembrokeshire County Council and Deputy Chair of the LGA Improvement and Innovation Board. In his opening, Neil emphasised the importance of council leadership and their role to involve communities and residents on climate issues. He also shared the LGA climate change communication resource - a collection of emerging best-practice communications from local authorities who are successfully engaging with businesses and residents.

Another useful resource on the LGA website is ‘The Behaviour change and the environment’ guide for councils on how to make green behaviour changes in the community, outlining six steps of undertaking a behavioural change project.   

Jessie Johnson, Lead Programme Manager, Design Council   

Design Council is an independent charity and the government’s advisor on design. For 78 years it has been championing the power of design in tackling complex societal challenges and improving people’s lives. Since 2015, Design Council has been partnering with the LGA to deliver Design in the Public Sector a design-led innovation programme aimed to equip councils with design skills and methods to innovatively respond to a range of different public sector priorities. This year the programme is supporting 13 local authorities to apply design approaches to their local climate challenges. 

Jessie introduced Design Council’s definition of design as a mindset and skillset. Design can serve different purposes from supporting teams with more innovative problem solving to visualising concepts and ideas in a more effective way. It is important to recognise that we all design in some capacity in our day-to-day and embracing design approaches can help to develop solutions that are centred around people’s needs. It also provides individuals with a practical toolkit to support the effective delivery of projects.

For example, Design Council’s Framework for Innovation enables organisations to embed design processes, principles and methods. At its heart, sits the Double Diamond  – a visual representation of the design and innovation process. Research and work that first led to the creation of the Double Diamond in 2003 found that the best outcomes are achieved when time is spent exploring the problem space first before developing and designing solutions to meet that problem.

If you would like to read more about Design Council’s Framework for Innovation, we suggest this article.

The framework also includes a set of guiding design principles (mindset), and it offers a methods bank (skills set) to supports teams, projects and organisations to deliver their work. 

An important point in Jessie’s presentation was about recognising the systemic nature of challenges, particularly complex societal and environmental challenges like climate change. She emphasised how no single person or organisation can solve the climate crisis rather it requires collaboration across disciplines, sectors, organisations and communities to work together towards a shared mission to achieve positive change.  

Dominique Le TouzePublic Health Specialist, Portsmouth City Council   

In 2018-19, Dominique led a team from Portsmouth City Council through the Design in the Public Sector programme. In her presentation she talked about the experience of taking a design approach to address the challenge of poor air quality in Portsmouth and shared key learnings from the team’s design journey.  

Research had shown that in Portsmouth, transport (particularly multiple short journeys) accounts for most of the nitrogen dioxide emissions. In the ‘Discovery’ phase of the programme, the team used design research methods to engage with residents about their experience of moving around in the city. They involved children and schools in a conversation about their local streets and even asked children to photograph their journey to school. A key insight emerged from their engagement with families with young children: they rushed in the mornings because children were not getting ready on time – this meant parents needed to drive children to various local schools and then onto their place of work causing multiple unnecessary car trips. This insight provided a new focus to the design team and prompted them to explore concepts such as Urban 95 (designing cities for the youngest people) as well as how they could make getting ready for school and the journey to school more fun for children. From their engagement with local schools and their planning department, the concept of “My monster morning” (a checklist to encourage children to get ready for school on time in the morning) was born, which built on the existing Pompey Monster walk to school initiative, running in the city targeting this specific behaviour.  

The learning from the programme wasn’t limited to the air pollution challenge but proved to be transferrable and very useful in coordinating the council’s response to the pandemic. When the team was tasked with setting up a community Covid testing site in two weeks they adopted design approaches to help them respond quickly. They used prototyping tools (stickers, cardboard and mobile furniture) to test the best layout for the vaccination site, ensuring that they could iterate the layout as they observed how residents engaged with the space.  

Jessie Johnson, Lead Programme Manager, Design Council   

Engagement is a core component of the design process. It is used to explore different peoples’ experiences, perceptions and behaviours to inform the development of better solutions and interventions. Designers often adopt a detective mindset: immersing themselves in the lives of others to build empathy for the individuals they are designing with. 

A great example of successful engagement through design research comes from Hull City Council, also supported by the Design in the Public Sector programme. They started the design process with a mission to improve the outcomes for children and young people with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND).​ At the time, they were designing a new children’s centre and most of their work had focused on the physical design of the space. However, through their engagement with children living with SEND, they realised how many touchpoints there were in a typical day for a child​. Children cared less about the space they were in and more about the people and support around them. This key insight shifted the team’s focus to creating an inviting experience and looking at the wrap around support of the new children’s centre than just the building itself.   

Jessie concluded the section sharing how Design Council has been adapting their engagement during the pandemic outlining the benefits and challenges of operating remotely and offering practical advice to achieve successful online engagement. Please refer to the slides for more details.  

Duncan Bell, Climate Change Manager, Leicester City Council and Adam Scammell, Walking and Cycling Team, Leicester City Council   

Since declaring a climate emergency in 2019, Leicester City Council have been working to build a vision and a strategy to address the emergency and establish how to best engage with communities to achieve their goals.  

Duncan talked about Leicester’s Climate Emergency Conversations, in which they gave people and organisations in the city the space to feedback on the council’s ideas to tackle the climate emergency, and to suggest ideas of their own. Attention was given to create a consultation process with opportunities for all which meant having informed conversations with communities by giving people the right information; and understanding views of a cross-section of representatives with a strong involvement from young people. Building trust was also a key point: creating an open and transparent process where people’s views could feed into the council’s final vision. 

The programme they designed provided residents with the opportunity to be part of a journey to learn about an issue and have informed conversations about it. The conversations were structured around reference points (home, travel, consumer choice) breaking the problem down to make it more accessible to people. The programme included different activities: two climate assemblies for city residents and young people, a conversation pack for local groups and organisations, and an online discussion forum.  

The council decided to develop a ‘People’s Assembly’ to engage with a group of residents that was representative of the city as a whole. This was an attempt to condense the Citizens’ Assembly approach while keeping the costs affordable and reducing the long lead-in time needed to plan a full Citizens’ Assembly. In their recruitment of participants, the council made sure that they accessed different sections of the very diverse local population working with housing colleagues and the Voluntary and Community Sector to access faith groups and ethnic minority communities, making the most of existing channels and partners to reach out as widely as possible. The council also worked with the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), a charitable organisation who are experts in similar ‘deliberative democracy’ approaches, and facilitators from TalkShop to assist with the design and delivery of the Peoples’ Assembly.   

In total, 53 people were involved in the Peoples’ Assembly and 104 students involved in the Young Peoples’ Assembly. Some key findings from the process showed residents’ acceptance that an emergency demands strong action, the desire of people to see the council setting an example and concerns about how people will be able to make the changes needed.  

Duncan was very positive about how this process has demonstrated that it is possible to condense the citizens’ assembly model. Other key learnings included the importance of carefully planning the design of the end-to-end programme and integrating mixed methods from more traditional to innovative ones. Capitalising on existing links, particularly for recruitment purposes, proved very effective.  

Adam introduced “Widen my path” – an online interactive map that residents can access to highlight infrastructure they would like to change in the area. The website came about in response to COVID-19 and was part of the Leicester COVID-19 Transport Recovery Plan. The tool proved very effective, providing an opportunity for residents to have their say by marking the map and writing suggestions. The team at the council also worked with developers to add icons specific to Leicester to make it more relatable to residents. From July last year they received 1,400 suggestions across Leicester and registered 12,000 interactions. The consultation tool will be used going forward. LCC are also taking an active response approach in the form of on-street design changes. Options for changes are currently being reviewed following the suggestions listed by the public to see where improvements can be made. 

Siobhan Mellon, Development Officer, Climate & Environment, South Cambridgeshire District Council.  

Siobhan provided an overview of South Cambridgeshire District Council’s Zero Carbon Communities. The programme, set-up in 2019, provides support and guidance to community groups and parish councils to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and promote behaviour change to help achieve the zero-carbon target.   

South Cambridgeshire is a growing but predominantly rural area. Being green has been core to the council for many years and the Zero-Carbon Strategy outlines the transition to zero-carbon and how to best engage with residents and the resources available in the area.  

The council took an asset-based approach looking at organisations and individuals who were already making sustainable changes to strengthen their efforts and build momentum.

The Zero Carbon Communities programme provides funding and support to communities that want to move faster towards this goal. This includes workshops, project resources and technical help. The grant scheme is open to voluntary sector organisations and parish councils, offering the opportunity to bid for a share of £100,000. The 19-20 call received 40 applications and reached 45 submissions in 20-21. Half of the projects have been funded through the grant scheme and included initiatives around lighting and heating systems, community engagement, cycling and three planting projects which are very popular.  

The success of this scheme lies in how it leverages existing strengths and motivations in areas and how it encourages conversations that wouldn’t have happened if the grant wasn’t there. Over the past year, Covid slowed down the pace, workshop activities had to migrate online but the motivation and commitment is still live.  

The various initiatives and approaches presented demonstrates the importance of engaging with residents, communities, organisations and wider stakeholders to build momentum and raise awareness of collective efforts. They also show the strength of collaboration across partners to achieve a shared mission. Design plays a key role in facilitating these connections, building relationships, and bringing together diverse perspectives around complex challenges. The transferrable nature of design approaches makes them powerful tools that councils can apply to their most diverse challenges.