As part of a large scale national program to transition the use of energy in the Netherlands from natural gas to electricity, the Dutch government is eager to learn from early adopters and to identify ways to better support the many people and households who are still to follow. To inform this process of learning and support the development of new policies and services, STBY was invited to conduct a design research project across the country.
Learning from early adopters
As with every large scale transition, there are people who push the boundaries by taking steps earlier than others and by pioneering how to get things done. In this case these are citizens who have already adapted their houses to be free of using natural gas. STBY embarked on an exploration to learn from these pioneers. They have often done a lot of research by themselves, hacked together bespoke solutions to suit their situation, and created workarounds for the practical problems they faced. Often these people are happy to share their experiences and knowledge for the benefit of others. This is perfect, because by 2030, according to projections from the Dutch government, 200.000 dwellings per year will have to transition to gas free households, and by 2050 the entire country will have made this transition. For most people however, living energy neutral and unreliant of natural gas, still seems a far away reality. They would benefit from easy accessible information and better support services.
Mapping the energy transition journey
To explore the experiences of residents with energy neutral housing, STBY conducted contextual in-depth interviews with residents at their homes across the country. Some are living in cities, others in more remote dwellings. Depending on who in the household was involved during the orientation and decision making process, the conversations we had were individual or joint interviews. In some cases people pooled together with neighbours to do the research and adapt their homes. During the interviews we mapped the steps in the process of transitioning to gas-free housing together with the residents, and co-created their ‘energy transition journey’. This was a useful way to dive deeper into people’s experiences, learning about their considerations, doubts, barriers and enablers in the process. We also identified the critical moments that shaped their decisions on whether or not to transition their home to gas-free.
Intertwined decision making processes
One of the main insights regarding the transition process is that it is hardly ever a linear process. From the perspective of the residents, they are in most cases gradually on their way to make their homes more sustainable, and switching from natural gas to electricity is just one step in that process. They are often also involved in isolating their houses, installing solar panels and heat pump boilers. While making their homes more energy neutral, they go back and forth through different steps of the process – from orientation to consideration to decision making to execution – and often enough discover new issues that send them back again to one of the previous steps. For most people, living free of natural gas is not a goal on its own, but a part of a larger transitioning process to living in a more sustainable home.
Timing and access to finance are key
Amongst our other findings we learned that many considerations whether or not to transition a dwelling to energy neutral are similar across all participants. The most important consideration had to do with timing: with technologies and policies changing so quickly, is this the right time to take this step? Another interesting consideration has to do with finance: do I have the financial means to pay for the investment? Depending on people’s access to financial resources, they are able to complete the process or not. Most residents did their research along the same lines, and then deliberated based on timing and access to finance whether the moment was right for them.
Partnerships enhance resident empowerment
The theme of empowerment was at the core of this research. STBY was asked to unpack what makes people feel empowered to transition their house to energy neutral. One of the conclusions which is close to our heart as social innovators is that collaborative and resilient networks increase people’s sense of empowerment. As an individual living in a housing complex there is little you can do on your own, but if the residents association takes it as a mission they can achieve a lot together. Investing in partnerships and networks can help scaling up the energy transition from a collection of scattered pioneering individuals to a collective effort across large housing complexes and neighbourhoods.