Case Studies
August 16, 2021

Case #


Living together on our social issues

A complex problem requires collaborative and iterative design. It is with this conviction that, since 2018, we have been conducting an experiment in Roubaix with a variety of actors, including residents in situations of fuel poverty. Far from institutional and technocratic mechanisms, we move forward on the premise that the first experts in these situations are those who experience them on a daily basis. After two years of workshops and various initiatives, the principles of empowerment and self-organization that we have collectively shown have germinated and raised new questions.

This case study was initially published in French. Click here to access the original link.

Insights into fuel poverty

What are we exactly referring to when we talk about fuel poverty? The usual measure of fuel poverty is that a person spends more than 10% of their income on energy bills. When we started to work on this question over two years ago with Roubaix, many testimonies invited us to re-examine this simplistic measure. In effect, we learned that some inhabitants do not heat their homes for fear of not being able to pay their energy bills. Obviously, in these cases, the bill they pay is less than 10% of their income. We also met people meeting the 10% criterion who, stigmatized by the system and / or already absorbed by their daily preoccupations, did not apply for the aid to which they were entitled.

Hence, what we understood was that fuel poverty has different facets and is often experienced as a compilation of intertwined problems: living in a poor condition and/or poorly renovated (leaking roof, non-insulating window etc.) difficulties in paying energy bills, health problems of the occupant and/or his/her family, difficulties in finding work, absence or weakness of the social solidarity net. It quickly became clear to us that the sensitive expertise of energy poverty is first of all the inhabitants who experience it who possess it.

Since the start of our work, we have identified multiple actors intervening on one, the other of more of these difficulties. Between public institutions, associations, foundations, and enterprises, the financial and administrative resources are numerous. But these actors operate in silos, almost independently of each other, and despite all the services and support they offer, they cannot address the interlocking problems that lie behind a person's "fuel poverty" situation.

Reducing the problem to a limited number of measurable parameters or checkboxes is comfortable and reassuring, as it gives the impression of control over a subject. But reality spills over from our categories and disciplines. What we are exploring in this experiment is the exit from this reductionist approach inherited from the Enlightenment, where “knowledge” predominates over understanding the context. The aim of this exercise was therefore to inhabit the issue of fuel poverty, that is, to take the time and attention necessary to understand it in its complexity.

Stimulate the ability to self-organize

To carry out this experiment, we drew inspiration from design methods, and in particular platform design (1), and our knowledge of communities. We proposed spaces for joint slowing down that would avoid solutionist approaches. We have endeavoured to recognize the uniqueness of each person, each situation and each journey, in order to find solutions with, by and for them.

Finally, what we have drawn is a community of links: a space that allows meetings and connections between singular people and problems on one hand and adapted solutions on the other hand. Our approach was built through iterative cycles of observation, synthesis and design, underpinned in particular by three principles: ensuring the availability, supporting the journey and facilitating self-organisation.

Ensuring the availability: there are many services and financial resources available to tackle fuel poverty, but it is often the accessibility that is of a shortage. Whether these resources are 'hidden' behind cumbersome bureaucratic procedures or the beneficiary's trust in the system is eroded, it is ultimately the human and relational resources that are lacking to ensure that people actually access the support to which they are entitled. What matters is not so much to produce new services, but to enable people to have access to them.

Supporting the journey: the accessibility of resources is not enough by itself: it is necessary to give the person confidence and therefore ready to act. This capacity to act, that is to say the power to make use of the resources available, can be stimulated when the person's opinion, their testimonies, their experience, their questions and their contributions, are recognized. This depends on the tone and the modes of facilitation, but also through the values chosen by the collective of inhabitants and actors of the territory. In Roubaix, the collective's first value is “all knowing, all learning”. Each one is in the position of contributor, in their own way, before being a beneficiary. This contribution logic avoids locking people into a helping / assisted relationship where people are assisted and their resources are ignored.   

Facilitate self-organisation: the capacity to adapt to different situations, without systematically needing a person or an organization that controls or centralizes decision-making, is essential to respond to the different facets of energy poverty.

The establishment of a friendly context, as informal as possible, where the intention is to build together, contributes to the emergence of constructive exchanges. Facilitation techniques are always aimed at encouraging the crossing of points of view and ensuring that each person's voice is heard.


Continuous and collective learning

Faced with the complexity of individual situations and the interweaving of difficulties, the idea was therefore to create a capacity for self-organization among the inhabitants and organizations of Roubaix. Our work has borne fruit: when containment was put in place, the members of the collective organized themselves, without the help of central governance, to maintain ties and ensure that no member felt isolated.

The other strength of our work has been to offer a community-based alternative to institutional and bureaucratic systems. By coming together around common values, good will, simple principles of collaboration, the collective of inhabitants and in the area have been welded together around chains of human relationships rather than accounting or purely functional chains.

Today, the collective celebrates two years and we can state that it will continue to grow. In effect, in order to benefit from network effects, the collective must add more people and organisations. However, this growth raises many questions: how to preserve trust between the members of the collective if the latter keeps welcoming new ones?

How do we be open to and cooperate with similar initiatives outside the Roubaix territory? What good is the speed of development to leave no one behind?

From the general observation of the members of the collective, and despite the adjustments are still necessary this experiment draws a positive result. We have been successful due to various elements:

Conceiving solutions together that would not generate the problems of tomorrow

The members of the collective, first and foremost the inhabitants currently or previously in a situation of fuel poverty, have strength, resilience and invaluable expertise on this subject.

The gravity of our current collective problems, from fuel poverty to other issues such as the climate crisis, is the result of past choices, past 'solutions'. It is therefore urgent to inhabit these questions, that is to say to understand their complexity and the different facets. This requires special organisation: to be part of the long term, to slow down, to be attentive and listen, receptive to what emerges. The capacity to design, this ability to imagine and design solutions - must be distributed, so that we no longer design for people but with them.

(1) We were particularly inspired by the Platform Design Toolkit

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