Digital Infrastructure for Community Climate Action

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

In the past two years, we have seen an unprecedented recognition of the Climate Emergency with mass climate protests, school strikes, warnings from the Bank of England and the urgency to deliver the recently announced Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution. Community-led responses can contribute significantly to these plans by reducing CO2 emissions and creating resilience towards climate change– from the smallest rural community to urban centres.

Digital, design and data-driven tools -whilst they aren’t silver bullets for solving climate change- can significantly accelerate community-led climate action by helping understand, mitigate, and adapt to climate change. Below, we identify gaps and opportunities for building shared digital infrastructure for climate action, highlight some consequences of the increased use and dependency on digital technologies and provide recommendations for funders to better support communities and catalyse systemic change.

Community-led climate action

The scale and urgency of the climate crisis mean that while major obligations in tackling climate change fall upon national governments, there is a big role for community-led local action. People power grown as community power — lifts the frame away from individual behaviours towards collective action and intentional ecosystems of change that will play a vital role in responding to the climate emergency.

Climate change mitigation measures reduce the extent of climate change by limiting greenhouse gas & CO2 emissions. These efforts can be categorised based on how communities reduce emissions into Renewable energy and energy efficiency projects such as community-owned renewable energy generators, district heating systems, and energy storage projects; localisation activities that reduce the need for goods and people to travel long distances such as local EVs and car clubs, cycling, and using local currency, food and supplier networks; nature-based solutions that combat the climate crisis by protecting habitats and expanding and/or protecting natural carbon sinks like forests; and commodity life cycle activities that promote reduced consumption, sharing, reusing and recycling of products.

So far, policymakers and communities have focused more on mitigation rather than adaptation, which reduces the physical and socioeconomic impacts of climate change. Droughts, flooding, coastal erosion, heatwaves, and increased death rates due to extreme weather events are all expected to increase due to climate change. Communities are increasingly using various approaches to reduce exposure and impact, such as developing green infrastructure, managing rainwater run-off, and co-designing disaster response systems with local authorities.

Finally, by 2050 we must not only eliminate carbon emissions but also remove ~10 gigatons of historic emissions per year. CO2 can be removed from the atmosphere in many natural and technical ways. It is critical to include the voices of communities and environmental justice organisations in the implementation of these solutions to ensure that carbon removal benefits them rather than just the companies and investors developing the solutions. Unfortunately, while there is some work in the US, there is far less community action on carbon removal in the UK.

We have created this explorable, interactive, non-exhaustive map to display the variety and breadth of civil society organisations, trusts, think tanks, charities, and community-based organisations in the UK that work on climate action. You can click on the labels or hover over the dots to read in more detail. https://public.flourish.studio/visualisation/499177

The value of community-led responses

Communities are central to any Climate Action plan and should be resourced and supported appropriately.

  • Communities can develop locally legitimate solutions and are well placed to engage the local knowledge, expertise, capital and passion of locals. In 2019, community projects prevented 65,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions, created £1.9m of savings and distributed £2m in grants and loans. As these groups work locally, these funds support residents and businesses and stimulate local economies across the country.
  • Communities create strong bonds across and within civil society. In particular, community energy organisations work with food banks, advice centres and charities to develop local support networks and help vulnerable people. Communities can deliver ~13 times the community benefit of a commercial energy installation and, importantly foster stronger relationships within neighbourhoods.
  • Community-scale carbon reduction can be an enabler of action and a way to raise public awareness of the possibility for action on sustainability more generally. Often, standalone community-led climate action projects become spaces for dialogue with different stakeholders like local government. This is crucial for linking local climate action with regional and national plans and helping communities co-create shared agendas for transitions.

Barriers to effective climate action

Communities at the forefront of the climate crisis face several challenges. While some of these concerns are shared by many community initiatives, we will highlight those related to climate action, in particular:

⦾ Lack of capacity and expertise

  • Not enough resources and skills needed to develop the organisation and set up decision-making processes.
  • Limited resources and time to innovate cumbersome and manual processes and services.
  • Ambitions to develop digital tools for climate action, but a lack of technical expertise to deliver them.

⦾ Complexity of taking action on climate change

  • Lack of adequate understanding of the systemic nature of climate change.
  • Confusing range of information and guidance on the efficacy of various actions.
  • Lack of specialist knowledge around the potential of technologies for reducing CO2 emissions.
  • Lack of understanding of the policy and regulatory landscape of decarbonisation.

⦾ Funding

  • Lack of revenue funding to support community activities
  • Unfamiliarity with commercial approaches to investment such as private/public sector loans and share offers.
  • Lack of understanding of the range of business models that can provide long term economic sustainability to projects.

⦾ Political legitimacy and lack of recognition of community contribution

  • Climate action goals exist nationally, but they are not connected to local action.
  • Lack of communication between local authorities and communities and a rapidly changing policy landscape make communities reactive rather than proactive.
  • Increased risk of trivialising local activity due to confusing connection between community action with broader policy context, legislation and government actions.

⦾ Limited efforts and data on monitoring and evaluation

  • Lack of systematic understanding and ways of measuring how community activities impact CO2 emissions.
  • The limited available data have been developed using various methodologies, making it difficult to produce a robust assessment of the impact and cost-effectiveness of community climate action.
  • Data collected usually relates to projects’ direct and immediate impacts rather than broader and longer-term benefits across participating communities.

⦾ Networks

  • Duplication of efforts due to uncoordinated or non-collaborative efforts
  • Lack of established linkages between environmental groups and other social support groups, local councils and other important local stakeholders.
  • Local climate change interest groups can appear to be quite insular and “geeky” and don’t connect well with other groups that have related social concerns, e.g. climate justice or other international allies.

Digital infrastructure for community-led climate action

Grassroots, community-based and civic groups need an efficient support system to remain adaptive in the era of long-term emergencies. Digital technologies offer new opportunities to understand, monitor, and organise processes that reduce emissions. Studies suggest that digital technology deployed in transport, manufacturing, energy and agriculture could reduce the UK and global carbon emissions by 15%. This contributes a third of the 50% reduction required by 2030 to keep a global average temperature below 2°C.

Civic technologies for climate action, in particular, can meaningfully support communities in performing some key social processes toward these goals. Inspired by the Civic Tech Field Guide inventory, we compiled a non-exhaustive list of case studies that show how civic technologies help communities: build tools and collaborate; evaluate & scrutinise their work and the work of other actors; inform using better data about the present and anticipating the future; learn and share their learnings, and convene and organise.

Deploying such solutions locally is crucial as it demonstrates the ecosystem’s vitality and allows communities to remain agile. However, we have identified a lack of coherence and long-lasting digital platforms as many of these smaller pilots are launched without talking to existing players, resulting in disconnected projects. And while many funders promote the implementation of new community technology projects, they provide little or no structure or funding during the often more demanding implementation — funding is scarce and primarily project-based with little regard for long-term sustainability. While funders have previously supported keystone infrastructure organisations, we are still far from creating a thriving ecosystem of public interest infrastructure that ensures long-term viability, interoperability, equal access, and functionality comparable to commercial products.

To bridge these gaps, we argue for developing and supporting digital infrastructure for community-led climate action. By infrastructure, we mean the critical elements of economic, social and digital change that form a support system for communities. Digital infrastructure, in particular, shapes digital environments and leverages the capacities of communities, creating a whole that exceeds the sum of its parts. We do not intend to propose a specific plan for the design of digital infrastructure for local climate action, but instead, raise the question of what we might want such infrastructure to be able to do and the values it should reflect and build on. Digital infrastructure doesn’t have to be monolithic or centralised but rather networked and distributed. It comprises multiple elements and co-dependent systems and actors that collectively deliver public benefit:

  • Data infrastructure

Data infrastructure consists of Data assets, such as datasets, identifiers, and registers; Standards used to curate and give access to data; guidance and policies that inform the use and management of data; organisations and communities involved in contributing, maintaining and governing the data infrastructure; and those who are impacted by data.

For local climate action, it is important to improve data access and integration. Several tools and interfaces help people map, analyse and integrate climate and emissions data. However, these systems are not widely used yet. More needs to be done to improve data quality, standardisation, publishing, and access and make data-driven approaches more accessible to a broader audience. With access to more dynamic and machine-readable data, we can make better decisions about how communities can reduce carbon emissions or identify the best places to set up electric vehicle projects, heat pump projects, district heating schemes etc.

More accessible environmental data from local authorities can also help communities measure their contributions to improved climate services, e.g., planting more trees. For example, Green City Watch identified 531 parks in 26 cities in Indonesia using publicly available data from OpenStreetMap and calculated the park’s infiltration capacity, green versus paved ratio, and the number of trees. This could provide a new systemic understanding of the health of these places so that we can take better care of them.

Secondly, existing datasets can be repurposed to increase the utility of the communities’ data to support learning and more effective emissions monitoring. Smart meter data, for example, could be made more accessible for the analysis of household energy consumption. Moreover, combining data from multiple sources can better inform our understanding of emissions from different sources. These applications need to be matched with questions about privacy, and our communities should be fully informed and protected.

Lastly, to achieve system-level change, there is a need for tools, systems, and protocols to enable responsible data sharing and or pooling across organisations or actors. For example, open community energy asset data can paint a fuller picture of the energy demand and subsequently inform future district heating scenarios and national capacity planning. Communities need to be better supported to participate, contribute and maintain data and have access to appropriate data sharing guidelines and ethics protocols for data management.

  • Foresight Infrastructure

Today we have tools and technologies that make us aware of the social, natural and technological systems we are part of and provide real-time feedback from communities. Digital tools, sensors and models can improve the collective sensing of climate change impacts, including -but not limited to citizen science tools, local knowledge and understanding the needs of marginalised communities such as those in rural areas and older populations.

For example, the Licci programme harnesses indigenous and local knowledge of climate change impacts on climatic, physical, biological and socio-economic systems. These early ‘signals’ are then tested on the global spatial, socioeconomic and demographic distribution of local climate change impacts. A foresight layer that brings together similar signals and insights from civil society and evidence about climate change impacts at a hyperlocal level can foster more locally embedded thinking and planning.

  • Impact & Narrative Infrastructure

Better monitoring and impact of communities is crucial not just for the funders but also for understanding the effect of their activities, telling better stories and maintaining motivation and enthusiasm among community members. This includes developing and using new tools that help community groups produce impact estimates for awareness-raising (like the Community Action Group Impact Model Framework) or funding community carbon footprinting activities such as school carbon footprints.

Mapping and crowdsourcing initiatives can provide large scale sensing and impact monitoring capabilities for communities. Participants in the citizen science project Treezila, for example, mapped 1,087,389 trees and calculated how much local air quality has improved, how much stormwater has been filtered, and how much carbon dioxide has been removed and stored. This data helps communities tell better collective stories and galvanise local action.

  • Learning infrastructure

Community climate action organisations face several entry obstacles due to information gaps and lack of access to technical resources. There is a need for a range of technological, commercial and policy support services for communities to navigate new energy markets and the policy landscape and develop fit for purpose tools and services. Digital infrastructure for community-led climate action must include the capacity to exchange learnings and knowledge horizontally and move it from local to national and from national to local. Open platforms, fora and network cooperatives can mutualise expertise and infrastructure and prevent fragmentation and redundant efforts. There is also demand for peer-to-peer networking between projects and the synthesis of this learning for non-specialist audiences.

  • Collaboration infrastructure

Finally, the more people are interested in driving local climate action, we see an increasing need for tools and processes for collective coordination and collaboration between these climate action communities. New infrastructure investments need to be explicitly designed to build synergies instead of optimising for particular projects.

Better connections must be established between people and organisations working on all aspects of climate action, from problem definition to surveying of evidence, project conception and development, data collection, analysis, dissemination, and evaluation. There has been a lot of work on decentralised organising and bossless leadership with tools and communities such as Holacracy, Enspiral & Loomio. However, these tools are yet to be fully harnessed to bring people together and keep them together in sustained and equitable ways.

Digital sustainability: Loading…

The internet is the world’s largest machine and comes with its environmental impact. Carbon emissions, extractive industries, and a general lack of accountability by infrastructure providers are examples of harm that can affect the environment and communities. Therefore, it’s a top priority to green the digital infrastructure that underpins the economy’s digitalisation.

Unfortunately, there are no standard metrics for measuring and benchmarking digital footprints across the digital infrastructure value chain or procuring ICT infrastructure with the lowest environmental e-waste or energy consumption. We’re seeing some early attempts to incorporate environmentally conscious goals and metrics into existing digital technologies. For example, Google’s maps show ‘greener’ transportation options, Amazon is highlighting climate-pledge friendly products on its platform and Microsoft’s promises that by 2030 it will be carbon-negative. But, these efforts need to be closely monitored and scrutinised.

During our interviews with various stakeholders, it became clear that community-led climate action is currently removed from the use of big datasets and complex algorithms that have recently raised concerns about increased emissions — although this needs to be further investigated. Moving forward, communities need to be better supported in the use and/or development of carbon aware infrastructure and be encouraged to put more pressure on technology providers to be more transparent in their reporting.

Recommendations for funders

It requires long-term investment cycles and commitment from funders and communities to create a future-proof civic infrastructure for the realities of climate change. In the past, we have relied upon intermediary organisations to connect the capabilities of single agents of change. Yet the nature and scale of the climate crisis require not only linked agents but groups of interconnected agents to work together. These low carbon communities need to be equipped with the necessary platforms and tools to sense the present and future, learn, grow in wisdom, and act coherently. We invite funders to:

a) Develop a systemic climate investment thesis

  • Better understand the realities and impacts of climate change. Funders have been funding environmental causes for decades, but climate change needs a more structural shift in how we work, eat, consume and move around. Funders need to refine their investment thesis on mitigation and adaptation to climate change and how it is related to the rest of their missions and investments. There is a wide range of new projects to be financed, and funders need to encourage the uptake of locally relevant initiatives with demonstrable results.

b) Support the development of digital infrastructure for climate action

  • Foster and support a thriving digital infrastructure for climate action. Funders should work with communities at the frontline of climate action to understand their digital infrastructure needs that support their missions. Infrastructure projects have requirements that differentiate them from other products or projects in the application layer, e.g. resilience, interoperability and longevity — their ability to function well with other system parts. This could be counter-intuitive to funders who are not used to the problems, demands and social values that underpin digital infrastructure projects. Communities need to be better funded to build and scale up/out their infrastructure programmes or partner with “backbone organisations” to develop support systems for them and the whole ecosystem.
  • Be mindful of a potential digital divide. Digital technology will play a critical role in communities’ ability to retain, reduce or transfer climate risk and address climate change impacts. However, vulnerable communities do not fully benefit from existing digital technology, while they are disproportionately impacted by climate change. Funders need to carefully consider how vulnerable groups might be affected by the roll-out of digital technologies for net-zero.
  • Better understand the relationship of the open movement to the climate crisis. While the climate movement is evolving to reflect the diversity of our global community, the open-source software movement has struggled to do something similar. All open climate-related digital infrastructure must be relevant and accessible to the “smallest possible policymaker” and participant. We thus see the need for a new agenda, infrastructure and philanthropic funds that connect digital rights and climate justice and create new mandates for openness, similar to those that have underpinned open science and open data in the past.

c) Build capacity in low carbon communities and provide more targeted support

  • Provide better digital, design and data support. Many community groups have ideas and visions for developing digital tools to improve their services. However, there is a gap between where they want to be and their technical expertise — implementation has lagged behind innovation. This results in digital technologies that are bespoke or not interoperable. Funders need to provide strategic resources to develop digital infrastructure and data knowledge pools and networks.
  • Support digital stewards and maintainers. Funders should consider providing sustained investment to Digital Stewards. These stewards will explain technology to their communities and promote the responsible integration of digital tools into daily life. Moreover, maintaining digital infrastructure is crucial but can be perceived as neither particularly innovative nor very visible — attributes that are of great concern to public donors. Funders should explicitly support those who maintain key analytical platforms, APIs, tools and datasets for the community.
  • Provide support for monitoring and evaluation. Funders need to undertake or encourage in-depth studies of the process and impacts of low carbon communities at the project level and different development stages. Developing or helping communities develop a consistent methodology for evaluating projects would create a more robust evidence base and could spur collaborations with other community-led providers such as energy or transportation companies.

d) Align funding streams to match community needs and ambitions

  • Improve reporting practices. Communities have to use very different systems and metrics for reporting to their funders, which takes up valuable time. Funders should aim to standardise their reporting regarding climate change impacts and their relation to other social agendas such as climate justice, poverty, equity, digital sustainability and gender. If reports are kept to the same standards among funders, they can also help communities measure their impact.
  • Create longer-term delivery funds. New digital initiatives are already quick to launch but slow to scale up and move to the next stage regarding ambition and viability. Currently, many digital tools frequently offset volunteer time which is challenging for the financial sustainability of infrastructure projects as communities may still choose to donate their time and skills instead of using new digital tools. More delivery funding would benefit communities that have tested small innovations. Funders should also consider pooling their funding offers to turn the overwhelming number of small grants into more significant funding opportunities for infrastructure organisations.

Multiple converging crises in 2020 and now in the midst of 2021 have ushered a new era of increasing, concurrent and long crises. If we do not move decisively now, the socio-economic disruption incurred by climate change over the next two decades is expected to be as bad as a COVID-sized pandemic every ten years.

Communities are at the forefront of the climate transition. But they have particularly suffered from the removal of key community climate action funding mechanisms such as the Feed-in Tariff and the Social Investment Tax Relief. On top of that, the pandemic has exacerbated these challenges, as community organisations have struggled to continue delivering climate-related projects due to a lack of resources and other support mechanisms.

But opportunity lies in this convergence: connecting our collective response to climate change with the responsible use of digital technology. Some digital infrastructure is built but is underutilised or unscalable; other parts require improvement and support by a coalition or network of infrastructure organisations whose services benefit communities. In the runup to COP26, funders need to consider how these digital tools can be made more accessible, sustainable and interoperable and, most importantly, match the ambition of communities at the frontline of the net-zero transformation.

We will be discussing this paper and its recommendations in an online event in September. If you’d like to join, please register your interest by emailing cassie.robinson@tnlcommunityfund.org.uk

Author: Eirini Malliaraki

Acknowledgements: Thanks to all the valuable insights we have heard so far, from a number of people, including Nick Perks, Nick Gardner (TNLCF Climate Action Fund), Mark Cridge (mySociety), Afsheen Kabir Rashid, Dave Fuller and Andre Pinho (Repowering London), Rose Longhurst (Open Society Foundations), Jake Hayman (Ten Years’ Time), Sarah Holliday (NESTA Challenges).

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Insights and learning from our civil society work.

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Eirini Malliaraki

Eirini Malliaraki

http://emalliaraki.com/

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