Essential feedback from citizens in smart grids value case

Co-creation with citizens is often still perceived as a complicated process with minor financial benefits. But is it really? The city of Amersfoort (NL) has a long track record of citizens’ involvement in sustainable projects. This has resulted in valuable business cases, including one for the project Smart Grid: value for all. Commitment and feedback from citizens resulted in more detailed information than smart meters could provide.

“Successful involvement of our citizens has become a unique selling point in sustainable projects”, says Jacky van Nieuwstraten, advisor to the municipality of Amersfoort. “Many challenges can be overcome in the context of community empowerment. To us, the key in co-creation is mobilising people around something they are passionate about.” Citizens’ willingness to fight for the good cause creates the value case. This value could be either their actions in realising energy savings and behaviour adaptation, or sharing detailed information among neighbours and with other neighbourhoods. In some cases, it could even be investing their own money.

Better design and a steeper learning curve
The city of Amersfoort is one of the key partners in the Dutch innovation consortium project Smart Grid: value for all aimed at identifying business cases for smart grids and decentralized energy production. One of the priorities is gaining insights in end-users’ behaviour in 100 households with solar PV in the neighbourhood Nieuwland. Thanks to a straight forward co-creation process with commercial partners and the neighbourhood, the citizens provided honest and in-depth information on their energy use, for example on stand-by power. Their learnings and suggestions supported adjustments to the grid, as developed by the city and energy providers. Jacky: “In the end, citizens’ involvement improves the levels of knowledge, because you have more and better data for analysis. This results in better design and a steeper learning curve.”

“The citizens provided honest and in-depth information on their energy use, for example on stand-by power”


Neighbours’ support
Another example of effective co-creation in Nieuwland, was the connection of plugs to the grid in each household. This was a complicated technical task. Not all citizens were able to do this themselves. However, the neighbours helped one another, motivated by the benefits for the community. Without this social support, some households would quite likely have lost their interest in the project. Jacky: “These might seem minor steps, but they are essential in fulfilling project objectives.”

A key differentiator in successful citizens’ initiatives is ownership. They must be able to be in the driving seat, developing something new and relevant with pride. As such, a citizens’ platform needs guidance, not management, from an independent intermediate who connects neighbourhood needs and project objectives.

Ton Jansen from the company ICASUS is the man on the floor in the Nieuwland project. “Co-creation with citizens only succeeds when the true benefits are theirs”, he says.  He also thinks it is a misunderstanding that technically complicated issues need more management. “All you need is one or two specialists in a team. With the plugs in Amersfoort we have seen how people can solve technical issues together. Never underestimate this form of empowerment. Talking business models we usually think in expensive solutions. Why not invest in turning citizens into prosumers, able to manage the systems themselves?”

Step by step
In brief, the following steps are the basis for a successful citizens’ platform, called the ICA methodology:

1) Inter-connecting people around a theme that’s relevant for them.
2) Commitment by finding organisations who benefit from the collective actions. What is their commitment in return, rewarding citizens’ actions?
3) Activation of the action plan owned by the community.
4) Communities stay together as long as the relevant goal is there. One should ensure to ignite the passion from one neighbourhood to another, before an issue has been solved.

“Enjoy learning together”
Will this approach work in any neighbourhood? Yes, say both interviewees. As long as step number 1 has been addressed, this method is replicable to other neighbourhoods, cities and countries. The specific needs, however, will differ in each situation.

Jacky’s advice to municipalities is to accept that you are on a learning curve together with partners and citizens. “Enjoy the process of gaining new insights, enjoy this sparkle. Take the time to follow up on lessons learned. Sometimes they seem to be in the way of quick wins. But in the long-run they will help you to develop what is needed.”