2 November 2021

As COP26 progresses in Glasgow, we reflect on the work we’ve done over recent years working alongside public institutions to support their journey towards net zero. The first of this series focuses on taking the first steps and incorporating user-centred design in your net-zero strategy, policy and actions.

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The idea of doing our bit to address climate change is intimidating. Particularly for our resource-strapped public institutions, which don’t have access to the assets of government and central banks at their disposal. And more intimidating still for the average citizen. It's one of the most pressing issues facing civil society, and so, many are looking to leadership for guidance. The UK Government's new Net Zero Strategy sets out for the first time how the Government intends to halve UK emissions in a little over a decade and eliminate them by 2050.

And when it comes to implementation, we know that the local leadership from our councils is instrumental in making this radical change happen. As such, it's no surprise that more than 300 councils have declared a climate emergency, committing to get to carbon neutrality by 2030.

However, despite this commitment, we're still doing too little, too slowly. Many councils we work with have created a climate action plan but don’t quite know where to start, what to measure or how to progress as they navigate the fine line between taking action and aligning activities with existing policies. Our governing bodies are not historically designed to handle this type of challenge, facing several barriers preventing swift and coordinated action:

  • even amongst those who believe in the urgent need to act, it can feel abstract. People can struggle with how to connect the societal challenge and goals to what they can influence. This is a challenge around engagement and awareness we recognise not just in our communities but in government leaders as well.

  • local councils only directly control a small portion of emissions. A large part of reducing emissions across a place will be in articulating the role of government as they support partners, businesses and the public. Finding the right balance between enabling and encouraging is crucial to this success.

  • there's currently a gap in skills for people who can directly lead, deliver and manage climate-related work. As new sustainability units are formed, they’ll need support identifying their mission, vision and influence. Beyond that, capability needs to be extended through entire organisations to fit climate goals into broader agendas and decision making.

  • climate work is difficult because actions that need to be taken are cut across traditional lines of responsibility. To pass new investments, councils need new economic and decision-making frameworks to secure funds for climate work and to account for climate impact as a valuable return on investment. To support this, they’ll also need new ways of procurement that tie providers to climate and social results.

  • carbon emissions are a new impact metric, and that’s something we currently have no way of measuring progress on. Now that targets are set, the role of councils and national government will be to update the information to track progress over time. We don’t currently have a service or tool to do this easily and cheaply.

  • above the local level, households, councils and businesses are looking to the national government for funding and policy advice. With national targets being set and little support to deliver, there’s delays in getting guidance and funding services right.

Recognising the parallels to digital

Solutions to climate change rightfully focus on impact measurement and systems change. However, this idea coupled with the challenges above often means there’s delayed action because councils don’t have the perfect plan or the right measurements in place.

There are parallels and lessons we’ve learnt from the last decade of working on digital transformation across public sector organisations. As with climate change, the end goal with digital transformation is to completely transform systems, cultures and ways of working to achieve social impact at scale. Digital, like climate, has become embedded in every aspect of how we work and how we live. Transformation does not happen in one go, it’s the cumulative effect of hundreds of small experiments, where iteration and learning happen continuously. The most important lesson is in getting started by taking small steps that feed into broader change.

Start by starting, embracing an agile mindset

Focusing on the challenges above, we’re applying lessons from our years of working on digital transformation to help the public sector get started on climate action.

Make it real

Rather than talking about abstract climate or behavioural change, we bring it down to real services. By exploring public transport, home heating, cycling, recycling, public space and nature we can talk about how these matter to real people and real communities. Designing for both the planet and residents are central to local climate action.

Start with your riskiest assumption

While it is tempting to pursue easier targets first, initially we suggest focusing resources on areas where we can have the most impact, even if they may seem difficult. Recognising where, within our influence, we can most dramatically reduce carbon emissions. Learning fast is crucial if we want to reach Net Zero targets in time.

Track outputs before outcomes

Research and data collection is a tool that enables action, and should never be a reason to delay it. It’s crucial to identify how much research is just enough. At this moment in time, the tools to continuously measure and monitor place-based carbon emissions are not ready, meaning this process is expensive, time-consuming and inaccurate.

However, just like GDP, it is not necessary to continuously measure the outcome for any social goal at a project or council level. What’s more important is to set targets to work towards and measure short and medium-term outputs. These can focus on the reduction in-car use, increase in public transport coverage, increase in cycle lanes and a number of boilers replaced.

Learn through doing

We don’t yet have all the answers, or skills required, to transform our society and systems in a way that’s better for the planet. As we start small projects, what’s important is to operate in a transparent and reflective way to continue our education and share our learnings across councils, organisations and countries over time.

Embrace government’s role as an enabler

While change can be achieved by citizens and private businesses, government should embrace the pivotal role it can play in enabling change to happen rapidly, and at scale by:

  • unblocking structural barriers that may prevent people from taking action, such as simplifying planning to allow people to insulate homes and buildings easily

  • connecting demand and supply for new services by raising awareness of local businesses supplying renewable energy services

  • providing targeted support where the market can’t or is not ready to, such as providing green transport for those with disabilities

  • encourage the first adoption of new services and technologies to support industry developing

  • creating standards around behaviours, services and technology like EV charging to build citizen’s trust

  • setting examples and supporting the industry through procurement of its own services

  • ensuring consistency in policy by reducing and eliminating investments that produce carbon

Uniting around climate change

Acting on climate action plans will not be an easy journey. However, navigating the systemic, policy and cultural barriers is the first step in responding to the urgency of the climate crisis.

As local government begins this new challenge, engaging communities, creating momentum and designing services that directly address these barriers and create better conditions for change to happen is essential.

We're proud to continue to support our public institutions as they once again adapt and respond to one of the most important issues in a generation.

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