From May 2022 to March 2023, Fast Familiar’s main focus was a climate action public engagement project called The Strategy Room. This blog documents our learning, in the hopes that it might be useful to other people working in climate or creative approaches to public engagement and policy development.
There will be official research outputs from the project produced by our partners Nesta: I’ll link to these once they exist. This is a totally subjective account, written by Rachel (who led on the project). FF try to share our processes, learnings and mistakes (to avoid other people needing to repeat them) and this documentation is part of that commitment.
The documentation of The Strategy Room is in three chapters:
- the process of creating a design brief - this is likely to be interesting for people who work through co-creation, people making public engagement projects and generally people working in climate engagement
- the structure of the project and its delivery - for people who make audience-centric and interactive experiences - and people working with local authorities
- the 5 things we learned - read this if you work in climate engagement - or actually any area trying to engage a broad range of people (with a complex subject)
Each of the three chapters is a standalone piece; if you’re going to read all of them, it would make most sense to read them in this order. This is Chapter 2.
The Strategy Room was commissioned by the Centre for Collective Intelligence Design (CCID) at Nesta. They published a tender which FF applied for, in collaboration with UCL’s Climate Action Unit (CAU), which is headed up by our longtime collaborator and friend Kris De Meyer. The brief was to make a participatory experience which would help local authorities understand what net zero measures could have support in their area.
You can listen to Rachel reading the full post here…
Chapter 2: delivery
During the period January to March 2023, FF ran a total of 66 sessions of The Strategy Room in 12 local authority areas across England, reaching a total of 639 participants.
To take part in The Strategy Room, a small group of up to 12 participants sit around a table. They use tablet devices to watch videos and vote on different issues; they are prompted to discuss the issues in a conversation supported by a facilitator. The experience is totally different from filling in a survey, it’s about working with a group of other people from your area to imagine its future. It is a social experience which can run in any space where people meet - for a faith group, a PTA, a sports club, a business forum; or for a group of people who don’t know each other. It is portable and repeatable.
The form of the experience also supports participants to understand the policies on a human level, and empathise with the characters who talk about them. For example, rather than rating their support of ‘electric vehicle subsidies’, they hear from a relatable character in the future who is living through a change in EV infrastructure. This isn’t just because it’s more fun and engaging than it is to hear a bunch of dry facts. It’s making use of how our brains work.
Humans may be poor at predicting how they will feel and behave in unfamiliar situations, but the brain naturally and effortlessly tries to make sense of, judges the behaviour of, and vicariously learns from other people undergoing such experiences. In psychology and neuroscience, these ‘social brain’ mechanisms have been studied over many decades in areas like social attribution studies, social learning theory, and social neuroscience. In The Strategy Room, we use these mechanisms to make policies feel real, possible, and critically, understandable on a human level - and to explore people’s feelings and likely actions with higher fidelity. Using characters isn’t just a hangover from our past as a theatre company; it means that we get better data on how our participants feel about the policies that these characters present.
The bespoke platform that runs The Strategy Room collects anonymised data on participant responses. The structure of the experience solicits a level of granularity that would be missing from most surveys. For example, by splitting off ‘would you like to live in an area with a set-up like this’ from ‘can you imagine this set-up working here?’ we’re able to see where a low rating might come from an inability to imagine the policy in action, rather than a lack of support for it.
stages of the experience
Below, we’re going to walk through the structure of a module. The experience has 3 possible modules: participants do a single module in a 75 minute session and two modules in a 120 minute session. The three modules are travel, domestic heat + energy, and food; info on the individual policies contained in each module is below.
N.B. it is a social experience, so there’s a richness that comes from conversation that won’t be conveyed by this step-by-step walk-through.
This is designed to equip participants who have never thought about the relationship between the module focus (e.g. travel) and climate change with enough background information to be able to have an opinion on what they hear. It defines key terms, reports the existing situation, and suggests some of the advantages of possible changes.
‘Postcard from the future’
This is a character testimony from a future where a certain Net Zero policy has been implemented. There are 3 characters, all of whom live in different contexts and have different priorities and concerns. They aren’t whole-heartedly in support of what they talk about - often they voice concerns that we heard while researching the piece: the testimonies anticipate worries that participants may have, which validates those concerns and allows us to explore and address them, rather than allowing people to dismiss a policy outright. The characters talk about the policies’ impact on themselves, their friends, their families, thereby presenting the human dimension.
Having heard about a policy from a character, participants are asked to register an opinion individually before the discussion takes place. All voting is anonymous.
The system presents back the anonymous results from the poll participants have done - this is the starting point for a discussion, mediated by the facilitator. Participants share knowledge and opinions.
Postcard + Poll + Discussion repeats
Each of the three modules have 2-3 policies. Each policy is introduced by a character, is subject to individual voting, and then a discussion. There are some differences in the structure of the modules but this principle of introducing information, getting an immediate reaction, and then opening up to discussion is common to the whole experience. It enables us to take the temperature before groupthink kicks in, and to measure the difference that a conversation might make to someone’s views.
Exploring perceptions of co-benefits/ fairness
Having introduced the policies, we dig into how people perceive co-benefits or the concerns they have about fairness. These sections differ according to the module, and were honed during the extensive testing that we did. By inviting participants to reflect on these issues, the experience goes beyond finding out about basic appetite for an idea - it gathers information about how different net zero policies can be framed to get support from different people, or what concerns people would need reassurance about before giving a policy their support.
Rating of support for each policy
Finally, in each module, we have a ‘taking the temperature’ recommendation vote for each policy. The results are presented to the group and they discuss, and then there is a final vote. As well as overall support for a policy, the system is able to track a single participant’s voting record over the experience.
Contextual demographic, behavioural and values information
All data is anonymised, and the system also gathers demographic information (age, ethnicity, gender, first half of postcode) and information on circumstances likely to affect answers given (for example, housing status or current travel behaviours.) Finally participants complete a survey which allows them to be placed within a values segmentation model (by the organisation Cultural Dynamics). Analysis of response data from within the experience combined with answers to this survey will produce valuable insights into how to talk about Net Zero measures to different demographics.
some more delivery context
The plan at time of commissioning had been that we would work with 2-3 local authorities, each of whom would supply 2-300 participants. Our co-creation local authorities told us that generating this level of engagement was just not feasible, so we recruited a further nine ‘delivery partner’ local authorities. Here, we worked with local authorities who wanted to work with us. The majority of these had previously worked with the Climate Action Unit (CAU) and Kris on another local authority Net Zero project, or with FF on previous arts projects. There were a couple of local authorities who had worked with other departments at Nesta. We ran sessions in the Midlands, North, and rural South-West of England, but did end up with an over-representation of local authorities from London and the South-East.
Local authorities were in charge of the recruitment strategy for their sessions. They could choose a number of sessions (between 3 and 9), and had a goal of ten participants per session. They could choose to schedule the sessions at times they thought would be convenient for residents, and to target any groups of residents they were particularly keen to hear from. We delivered sessions with start times from at 9am to 7.30pm, and in libraries, community centres, food banks, theatres, cinemas, council offices, faith spaces (Christian and Muslim), universities, and town halls.
Each local authority took a different approach to recruitment. In areas where local authorities set up an Eventbrite and publicised the link for open sign-ups, we tended to get participants who were already active in climate change. Local authorities who targeted existing groups, often in collaboration with their Voluntary Organisations department, tended to reach a greater diversity of participants, including those who hadn’t spent much time thinking about climate change before. Sessions scheduled in the daytime tended to have an overrepresentation of retired people and others who didn’t have nine-til-five jobs, as you’d expect.
It’s important to note here how up against it many councils are. They’ve suffered reductions in their budgets over the past 12 years, with more cuts likely - and all this at a time when the cost of living crisis means that their residents need them more and in new and different ways. Against this backdrop, action on climate change isn’t always a priority - in two of the local authorities involved in delivery, my contact left and no one was recruited to fill their post. Council officers are being asked to take on additional duties, often well outside their comfort zone. Our overall impression was of council officers trying their best to make change happen, often with little recognition and few resources. These challenges should not be underestimated.