Attention to the Third Success Factor is Always Necessary

community meeting or a discussion between residents and energy professionals

By Prof. dr. ir. Anke van Hal

In the energy transition, there is always attention to affordability and technology. However, attention to an important third success factor, ‘human behavior’, often remains limited. This is particularly problematic in the context of the energy transition in existing residential areas. After all, residents ‘consent is often necessary, and even if they feel a sense of urgency, that is not self-evident.

Regarding the energy transition, the sense of urgency has been increasing for some time. In the Netherlands, this led to the national ambitious goal of having the built environment be ‘natural gas-free’ by 2050. This means that a large-scale transition must take place to alternative energy sources and far-reaching energy-saving measures. To accomplish this goal, many activities were undertaken with a strong focus on two important success factors: affordability and (well-functioning) technology. A third success factor often remained underexposed. Namely ‘human behavior’, for example, because of the emotional responses of residents in reaction to actions taken by professionals. This despite various studies showing that taking this ‘third success factor’ into account is crucial for achieving the much-needed support from residents for the energy transition.

Ultimately these studies, combined with new experiences, and a lobby for more attention to the impact of human behavior gradually led to more focus on this ‘third success factor’ among governments and energy specialists in the Netherlands. However, when energy prices rose to great heights due to the outbreak of war in Ukraine, the sense of urgency among the population regarding becoming natural gas-free increased sharply and with it the demand for energy measures. Because the lobbying efforts related to the ‘third success factor’ had primarily focused on promoting support among residents, the attention paid to this factor decreased. Assuming that the residents’ sense of urgency would remain high due to concerns about high energy prices, many professionals shifted their focus back to affordability and technology.

However, this is a major miscalculation. The picture emerges that a sense of urgency alone is not sufficient to create support among residents for measures aimed at the energy transition. An explanation for this can be found in the theory underlying the ‘third success factor’. This so-called Merger of Interests Perspective was developed within the construction sector to increase support for sustainability measures. The perspective, in turn, is based on Harvard’s interest-based bargaining theories. Considering the interests in the broadest sense of all parties involved in sustainability challenges forms the basis of this perspective. And because of the latter, it is a miscalculation to expect that a sense of urgency alone is sufficient. After all, residents have more interests than just an affordable energy bill. For residents, it is crucial, for instance, to have trust in the individuals they collaborate with and to feel empowered to make decisions independently without feeling coerced into specific choices.

An example: Currently, Dutch newspapers are full of stories about much higher costs of the energy transition for residents than promised. This created distrust which gets even worse when the party trying to persuade residents to agree to energy measures is one with which residents have had bad experiences in the past, such as a municipality. The inclination to agree to a proposal from that party, no matter how important a lower energy bill may be, will then be limited. Professionals can reduce the likelihood of such a situation by asking residents about bad experiences at an early stage of their project and taking these into account when developing their plans. However, many professionals tend to only contact residents after all technical and financial aspects have been examined and a concrete plan is developed because they don’t want to approach residents ‘empty-handed’. As a result, residents get irritated because they feel left in uncertainty, often exacerbated by media indicating changes to their homes.  This irritation increases when it turns out that, when contact is finally made, the plans are already in an advanced state with hardly any room for changes based on residents’ wishes and proposals.

Attention to the ‘third success factor’ therefore always remains important. But what does this mean in concrete terms? The slogan of the ‘third success factor’, derived from the Merger of Interests perspective, provides an answer to this question.

This reads: ‘Three times together’. (1)identifying interests together, (2)bringing them together with energy ambitions in a creative way, and (3)working together in a productive way.’

The first step concerns the interest of parties involved in the energy transition in a specific neighborhood or district. So, the interests of professionals and residents. It concerns interest in the broadest sense, not only regarding energy challenges. For example, in the neighborhoods of the Dutch Sustainable Solutions for Vulnerable Neighborhoods experiment program, subjects like unemployment, health and the attractiveness of public space came into focus. Linking such tasks to the energy transition is the second step in working with ‘the third success factor’. And because these different tasks are carried out by different parties, cooperation between professionals is also an important point of intention and therefore the third step.

The experiences with the Dutch experiment program show that such cooperation is not easy. However, there are also many examples that show that much is possible if this collaboration is carefully designed. For example, in the municipality of Tilburg, professionals from the social domain and the energy transition jointly discuss with residents, so that they are not confronted with multiple discussion partners. In the municipality of Groningen, in close collaboration with many parties, including residents, a street in which a heating network needed to be installed, was redesigned based on the needs of residents.

Longing for trust, the need to make decisions independently, and to be taken seriously. These are just examples of human needs that underlie behavior, and thus the ‘third success factor’. But paying attention to the interests of residents takes time. Therefore, with the excuse ‘We are in a hurry’ this step is often skipped. With the paradoxical result that the likelihood of delay is greatly increased.

Thus: We must slow down to be able to speed up. Because if we skip the steps of involving residents, delving into their interests, and using the knowledge they have about the neighborhood and previous experiences with involved parties, then, -even in times of high urgency among residents-, the chance increases that the energy transition will be significantly delayed.

About the Author

Prof. Anke van HalProf. Anke van Hal PhD MSc is Professor of Sustainable Building at Nyenrode Business University.  She was also a Professor at the Delft University of Technology. She developed a method aimed at increasing enthusiasm for sustainability (the Merger of Interests Strategy) that also proves to be applicable in sectors other than the construction sector.

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