Heat Transition Vision Utrecht

The participation process for the Heat Transition Vision Utrecht project includes several measures to involve different groups of stakeholders. One of the measures is a Participatory Value Evaluation (PVE), carried out by researchers at the TU Delft and the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. PVE is a new method to facilitate the participation of large groups of citizens. The essence of a PVE is that citizens are able to give advice about a (strategic) government choice in an easy-to-access way. Residents are put in the seat of the governmenttypo3/, so to speak. In an online environment they get to see which choice the government has to make, they get an overview of the specific advantages and disadvantages of the options which the government can choose from, and any restrictions that exist (e.g. a restricted budget or meeting an objective). Thereafter, they are asked what they would advise the government to do. Lastly, the citizens explain their choices, which gives a clear picture of their preferences and what they considered. Further information about this method can be found via: www.tudelft.nl/pwe

PVE for the Heat Transition Vision Utrecht project

In the case of the Heat Transition Vision Utrecht project, local residents were asked to use an online platform to give advice about meeting the objective of making 22,000 homes gas-free before 2030. The residents could allocate 100 points to four different approaches on how to achieve this goal. In the first approach, the financial aid provided by the government is high enough to ensure that the residents’ living costs will not increase. The other three approaches are more expensive. Residents receive financial aid from the government, but they have to pay a part of the costs themselves. The second approach gives residents the most scope to decide for themselves how they want to move away from using natural gas. The third approach scores best when it comes to reducing CO₂ emissions. The fourth approach starts in the neighbourhoods where the residents have the highest financial capacity. After the residents had allocated their points, they were asked to write an explanation of their choices. If they wanted to, the residents could suggest an approach of their own.

Relatively large number of young participants

In the end, 617 participants fully completed the PVE. It is striking that the age of the participants is relatively low, certainly when compared to the age of participants of regular forms of participation (over-representation of 65+ group). The participants are relatively highly educated. People living in all neighbourhoods of Utrecht took part.

Preferences vary a lot

Participants allocated the most points (on average 35) to the ‘no increase in living costs’ approach. The Utrecht residents allocated approximately 20 points to the other three approaches (in which they themselves would have to invest). The residents’ preferences vary a lot. Some residents have a strong preference for one certain approach, while other residents have a clear preference for another approach. Few residents allocated all 100 points to one single approach. They think that there are good elements in several of the approaches.

The most-mentioned arguments

We asked participants to explain the allocation of their points. The arguments that residents mention can be used to better understand why residents prefer a certain approach. The substantiation of the points awarded also provides insight into the arguments that residents who (do not) agree with the ultimate choices of the municipality will put forward.

Emergent uncertainties in the community

The results of this research show that several different perspectives exist within the community about the approach to the heat transition. From the allocation of points, it appears that there are few participants who feel that just one of the approaches should be used. Most of the participants opt for a combination of the approaches because they feel that there are good elements in more than one of the approaches. Moreover, the results of this research show that there are three themes that are a cause of concern for the people in the community. Firstly, there is uncertainty about just how efficient the approaches are. Some residents have high expectations about the efficiency of a communal approach by the municipality under ‘no increase in living costs’, while other residents allocate points to the ‘residents choose’ approach or the ‘start in the neighbourhoods with financial capacity’ approach, because they think that this will be the most efficient approach. Secondly, we see that there is uncertainty about which of these three approaches can count on the most support. A third uncertainty is about fairness/justice. The research shows that people from Utrecht have very differing perceptions about the extent to which the benefits of the heat transition weigh up against the burdens. Some residents see the project of converting the homes to gas-free as an exercise that will create a lot of stress and inconvenience, needing a lot of time invested in it, and it may even involve financial setbacks. These residents think that the burdens of the heat transition will be greater than the benefits and think that it would be fairer if the residents in the more prosperous neighbourhoods were the ones saddled with the teething problems. Other residents see the heat transition as a gift. According to them, the benefits are higher than the burdens. These residents feel that it would be more justifiable if the less well-to-do residents can benefit from it first, and they propose that the heat transition should start in the less well-to-do neighbourhoods.

The three uncertainties mentioned above are examples of the so-called ‘emergent uncertainties. Emergent uncertainties do not necessarily exist at the level of the individual residents (residents can be convinced about the accuracy of their own perspective), but the uncertainties exist when we look for a solution that is the best one for everyone across the community. When choosing a specific approach, emerging uncertainties can lead to miscommunication (residents/policy makers use the same words and arguments but don’t understand each other’s conclusions). These kinds of uncertainties can also lead to controversy. For example, we often see that when there is a conflict in the public domain, the perspective of ‘the other party’ is seen as emotional or irrational, while, really, it is the result of a misunderstanding of what has been said, due to the emergent uncertainties. Identifying these emergent uncertainties can help to avoid any unnecessary controversy. These emergent uncertainties demand an adaptive approach to the heat transition project, by splitting the decision making into two or more phases, for example. In the first phase, different approaches can be tried out and the emergent uncertainties can be exposed (which approach is the most efficient and which approach has the most support?), after which these experiences can then be used when making decisions in the second phase. A further advantage of trying out the various approaches is that this is more in line with the preferences indicated by the participants in this PVE, rather than just diving straight in, using one single approach. For example, it would be interesting to find out if people from Utrecht found it more acceptable to start the heat transition in a prosperous neighbourhood as well as in a less well-to-do neighbourhood (a mix of the two approaches), rather than to specifically start in the less well-to-do neighbourhoods or even the more prosperous neighbourhoods.

The majority think PVE is a good method

Participants think it is good that the municipality involves them when making a choice between different approaches to making their homes gas-free. The majority of the participants think that PVE is a good method for getting them involved. The lower-educated population of Utrecht are more positive about the method that the higher-educated population. Participants like the fact that, using the PVE, they can give their opinion in an easy-to-access yet nuanced way, and they value the fact that, by taking part in the PVE, they are included in the dilemmas that the municipality has to face. A large group of the participants had a problem with the fact that it is assumed in the PVE that the heat transition will take place by making the neighbourhood gas-free, and they weren’t able to indicate that, actually, they think that making neighbourhoods gas-free is a bad idea.

The minority think that resident advice is more important than expert advice

A minority of the participants (20%) think that the advice given by local residents in the PVE should have a heavier weighting in the municipality’s decision-making than the advice given by experts. Contrarily, 35% of the participants think that the expert advice should weigh heavier, and 45% of the participants feel that the municipality should give an equal weighting to the advice given by the residents and the experts. The participants who suggest that experts should have a more important say in the decision than the residents think that it is good to attach great importance to expert knowledge because they, themselves, (or other residents who have participated) have insufficient knowledge to be able to give a well-informed opinion. A great deal of the residents think that it is important to be involved in the municipality’s decision-making process, but at the same time they think that their opinion should only have a modest role in the final decision. People from Utrecht with a lower education think that there should be a relatively bigger value attached to the advice of the residents than the higher educated residents do.  

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