Meet the academic building public trust around new energy infrastructure

Patrick Devine-Wright provided valuable insights to Connected Places Catapult and 3Ci – the Cities Commission for Climate Investment – on a guide for local authorities about adopting effective community engagement approaches to de-risk investment in place-based net zero projects.

“My personal views are not relevant; I’m more interested in other people’s arguments,” explains environmental psychologist and geographer Patrick Devine-Wright, who is determined to better understand how the ambitions of corporations align with the needs of communities around infrastructure development. 

In particular, he is keen to capture people’s thoughts and facilitate fair discussion associated with proposals to develop renewable energy projects, such as onshore wind farms and biomass power stations. 

“I want to hear what local residents say, where companies are coming from and what councils think – and to connect it all up,” he explains. “Communications around new projects tend to be poor; communities have little trust in companies, and companies don’t engage enough with communities. There is much more we can all do to create a better way for infrastructure planning.” 

Patrick is the newly appointed director of social science network ‘ACCESS’ which is looking to work with Connected Places Catapult and 3Ci to boost the skills of social scientists, to give them more of a primary role in environmental research projects. The ACCESS network – which stands for Advancing Capacity for Climate and Environment Social Science has created a leadership college to support a cohort of 20 promising early career social scientists making a difference to tackle environmental problems. 

Together, Connected Places Catapult and 3Ci are hosting community engagement workshops, with Patrick reflecting on his experiences and exploring how places can be changed for the better if local people remain fully involved. Outputs will also be fed into a forthcoming 3Ci community engagement guide.

“It can be a huge challenge to reach certain parts of the community, so we are trying to find new ways of engaging with people. The roundtables hosted by the Catapult and 3Ci have been really informative and have helped us to hear about the common challenges we all face.” 

An emerging science 

But what exactly is environmental psychology? “It’s the application of psychological theories and methods to understand environmental problems,” Patrick explains. “When I began studying environmental psychology, the focus was on architecture and the built environment, but now it is more about issues such as ecology and energy consumption.” 

Patrick Devine-Wright grew up on the shores of Dublin Bay in the village of Dalkey “which has an identifiable character and retains a village feel, even though it is near to Dublin”.

After completing a psychology degree at Trinity College, he worked as a teacher for an international school in Abu Dhabi before starting his Masters in Environmental Psychology at the University of Surrey. His thesis and first journal paper published in 1997 was about the ways in which different historical places convey national identity. 

He graduated in 1994 and began Post-Doctorate studies in social psychology at Surrey, focusing on political conflict in Northern Ireland and how different groups of people can view the history of places in different ways. “It was no accident that when I got to environmental issues I continued to look at communities and conflict, as well as the concept of NIMBY-ism.” (‘Not In My Back Yard’)

Understanding different viewpoints 

Patrick later worked as a social scientist at De Montfort University’s Institute of Energy and Sustainable Development. “This was my first deep dive into energy issues and technology. I was surrounded by building engineers and learnt the importance of understanding different people’s views.” 

For the last two decades, Patrick has been focused on energy infrastructure: “big facilities that make society work, but which also bring a lot of conflict in terms of where they should be sited, how they should look, how much noise they emit and how much they change the landscape,” he explains. 

“Some people are really open to the idea that infrastructure like overhead power lines and onshore wind farms have to be taken forward by collaborating with communities, but I still see mistakes being made. There is a serious problem if you just take a ‘technology first’ approach and underestimate the social dimension. 

“But I am not a peacemaker!” he insists. “My role is to conduct rigorous research in order to understand the dynamics of a problem and to share that widely.”

He says the work of social scientists is having a positive impact, but acknowledges that progress with getting through to people can be slow. “Some private sector companies regard social science academic researchers as a risk. They think it is better not to go looking for things or ask awkward questions about how people feel about technological change or infrastructure, as they don’t know what it may lead to. 

“I fundamentally think that is a misguided approach. Early community engagement comes back again and again as a recommended course of action. But if it is left too late, you increase a sense of mistrust – people are already quite sceptical of companies behind huge energy infrastructures.” 

Patrick says he wants to improve the process of engagement and help to distinguish between the places where a wind farm could work, for instance, and the places where they would not; something that has not been very well appreciated in the past.

The concept of ‘place is generally underappreciated by policy and industry stakeholders who tend to see locations as ‘sites’ stripped of meaning, identity, feeling and humanity. I want to find out if the character of a place will be irrevocably changed by new infrastructure, or how it could be built in a way that is consistent with a local character.”

Attachment to place 

Patrick explains that many people have a strong attachment to a place, and that their connections to an environment can be very subtle and grow over time. If there is a major change to that place, there can be a sense of grief or anger, he says. “We need to understand place attachment a bit better so energy infrastructure can recognise these emotional ties.” 

Researching NIMBYism can be tricky, he adds. In the past he has seen letters published in local newspapers warning readers not to speak to him and his academic research colleagues as they ‘are in the pocket of the big energy companies’.

“It is important that I communicate my independent position, particularly around the funding of my research, but sometimes you do accidentally get drawn into the conflictual dynamics between two sides,” he reflects. “I have to tell people I don’t have a particular interest in the outcome, but I am interested in finding out what is going on and speaking to whoever is impacted by potential change and can take part in research.” 

Helping the transition to net zero 

Patrick now works as a professor in Human Geography at the University of Exeter, and chairs the Devon Net Zero Taskforce. Five years ago, he was invited to join the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as a UK academic to work alongside 15 social scientists in a chapter writing team drawn from all over the world. “That was an amazing experience. The IPCC is a trusted arbiter of what we can say on these topics, and gave me a global perspective that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.” 

Moving forwards, Patrick is keen to help with the transition to ‘net zero’, even if – as he says – exactly what net zero means is not always clear. “It is such an important issue; countries will stand or fall depending on whether we reduce our emissions fast enough. My concern is we view net zero far too much as a challenge with a technological fix, but viewing technology as separate from society is myopic. It’s a hopeless way forward. 

“I do think an important skill for academics is to be able to speak to anyone about their work; we can’t just be people who speak to colleagues in jargon,” he adds. “The ability to put people at ease and speak in terminology the public understands is absolutely crucial.” 

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