Author: Nina Grassmann, Senior Social and Behavioural Scientist and Jack Snape, Head of Foresight, Government Office for Science.
The Government Office for Science’s recently published their ‘Net zero society: scenarios and pathways’ Foresight project. It aims to support the resilience of government policies by exploring how different possible societal changes will affect the path to net zero. The project is designed to enable stress-testing of policies and assumptions against plausible societal futures, and support more effective and resilient policy.
We knew that a project so heavily focused on society would only be strengthened by having a public dialogue as part of it. The dialogue gave GO-Science a more nuanced view of societal factors that may influence reaching net zero, including which aspects of future scenarios were less/more plausible and which pathways to net zero the public might find most challenging.
We engaged with the public on four scenarios of how society could look in 2050, created through an extensive engagement process using futures methodologies and expert workshops. The workshops explored themes including the built environment, travel & transport, work & industry, and food & land use.
A key reflection we have about the project was that the public were already familiar with lots of important concepts and were able to assess the implications of various technologies. For example, participants were already very aware of climate issues facing society, and the likely need for societal change to reach net zero. Crucially, they also accepted the difficult trade-offs that policymakers would need to consider.
For example, the built environment theme looked at how society lived in each scenario, such as how dispersed cities and towns were, average household size, and what digital infrastructure exists. In scenarios with high use of technologies, while participants welcomed the use of these for the reduction of emissions, there were concerns about technology being used to displace the sense of community they wanted to have. This highlighted the trade-off between what technology might be plausible in the future and what members of society would want the technology to actually enable in their lives.
The scenarios were presented in this project as a series of narratives, images, and modelling likely sectoral impacts. By combining this quantitative analysis with the qualitative engagement, we were able to create a richer, multi-dimensional picture of the scenarios and how they might be perceived. It’s been great seeing the potential impact that public dialogues can have when combined with futures methodologies, and we hope this influences groups both internal and external to government to increase their use of public engagement.
When making policies and plans about the future, we need to factor in assessment of how the public may respond and what drives their aspirations and concerns. If you are thinking of future policies – whether that be futures scenarios work, policy or research, the rich insight that comes from understanding public perspective adds depth and insight to that planning, helping to create more robust policy and research outcomes.