Creating Change in the Energy System

February 6, 2012

By Matt Palmer

The Art of System Thinking in Driving Sustainable Transformation” is a great article from The Guardian about how systems thinking can help in the design of sustainable systems. Change of the scale we need in how we harness, deliver, and access energy involves multiple stakeholders being at the table, all having a voice. Here is a quote from the article:

The idea is catching on fast that no single company, NGO or government can bring about the scale of environmental, social and economic change that is essential if we are to deal with the many challenges the world is facing.

More than that, there is an increasing recognition that the inter-dependency of our globalised society means that there needs to be co-ordination across all parts of the system we are trying to change.

The lessons in this article can apply not only to energy systems but other systems, or organizations, particularly ones that may suffer from dysfunctional long-standing attitudes about how to get things done, or what messages to deliver to effect a change. Often the great challenge is the letting go of egos, that there is one right way, or that the group that holds power actually understands that their message, attitudes, and institutional processes need radical revamping. Another quote from The Guardian:

Another important ingredient to generating meaningful change is moving away from a position of what “should” be done and what everyone may feel guilty about not doing, to developing a vision of a positive future.

That is a key psychological learning because it immediately moves people beyond short-term thinking inside the box and encourages a reframing of the issues.

Delivering compelling thematic narratives about the power of collective force, are more effective in impacting policy change, than episodic stories. We need stories that highlight systems rather than trying to create sympathy. These ideas are all based on some of my research into reframing narratives. One interesting revelation my research revealed, at least for me, is that human reasoning is frame based, not fact based. We respond to narratives that speak to our common values.

We can see an example of how a frame based narrative works by looking at the debate around the Northern Gateway Pipeline. From the side of the energy industry and government they use compelling economic arguments as to the value Northern Gateway for Canada. Access to markets, getting world price for our bitumen. The environmental groups and First Nations  successfully combat this economic argument by invoking Mother Nature. The risks to the environment out weigh any benefits, is the crux of their rebuttal, and in their narrative they have effectively used the beauty of the natural spaces of BC through which the pipeline would travel to gather support against the development. I would argue, as humans we have an innate programming attaching us emotionally to the natural environment. When we are in nature, we are at peace. This is a challenging frame to combat for the energy industry.


As we move forward, perhaps we can find common ground by exploring some value questions, as the answers we discover may provide an interesting base from which to build a strategy that the majority can understand and accept.


About Unintended Consequences Documentary Project

I'm Producing and directing a multi-platform documentary project on global energy called "Unintended Consequences".
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2 Responses to Creating Change in the Energy System

  1. I disagree, critical thinking and scientific methodology is needed when making decisions about our energy systems because this is a science based issue. Appealing to peoples core values can often ignore the facts and in the end the actions we need to take. I am tired of the dogma related to AGW and the push towards renewable energy as the ultimate answer to this issue. The real world empirical data just does not add up and what we are left with is people taking very definite positions based on a how something feels (i.e. addresses their core values) rather than the hard core facts.

    • System thinking is very much about a scientific process, and methodologies, and critical thinking. As we have seen though with the GW debate science is not settled.. Yet we still have issues with energy consumption, access to energy, and environmental issues related to harnessing all forms of energy. Reframing the narrative can help to get more people on the same page and start to reduce the increasing polarization. We need to start talking about bigger value questions that will then give us some insight into why we use energy, what value it adds to our lives, where do we want to go? Obviously not everyone is going to agree on value issues, but we may be surprised at how much commonality there is between opposing groups. We all want to live fulfilling lives, secure dependable access to energy, a comfortable standard of living, interdependence, opportunity for all, responsible stewardship, community stability and prosperity, prevention of harm, ingenuity and the common good. Once this level of narrative has been introduced, science and critical thinking play an important role, but the other key is that this is all done within the framework of system thinking. But, all of this has to be open to discussion, and hopefully lead by leaders who have the skills to discern, disseminate, and decide.

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