The Big Secret About Small Things

There’s a big secret about small things and I’d like to share it. When it comes to community engagement small actions can make a really big difference, let me explain. 

Recently Built-ID has been using Give My View to understand community views on renewable energy. A full report will be published on the 9th December, but ahead of that we’ve started to share some key insights. Last week I wrote about how our research shows that the number one concern raised by those who oppose renewable energy projects was environmental. Communities often fear that large scale energy projects cause ecological damage and one of the most frequently cited examples is the effect of wind farms on local bird populations. 

Statistics vary and are frequently overstated (house cats kill about 100 times as many birds as wind farms) but spinning turbine blades are responsible for hundreds of thousands of bird deaths each year. So far, few systems have proven effective at mitigating against collisions but a simple trick is emerging which could make a huge difference. A new study has found that painting one blade of a wind turbine black can cut bird strikes by more than 70%. The contrasting paint reduces the “motion smear” effect making the blades more visible to birds and allowing them to take evasive action. The study covered a single wind farm over an 11 year period and the report acknowledges that more investigation is needed, but the initial data is very promising and painting turbines prior to construction would be a simple and cost effective step. 

We know that projects are much more likely to be approved if they have community support and we know that projects are much more likely to achieve support if they can demonstrate the steps they have taken to minimise environmental harm. When there are billions of pounds at stake, not to mention the future of the planet’s energy generation, it’s striking that such a small change may well have a significant impact. 

All of this will come as no surprise to the behavioural scientists among us and in particular Nudge theorists. For those less familiar, Nudge is a concept of behavioural science and one of its core ideas is that small things – a nudge – can have a big impact. In 2010 the Coalition government set up its own Behavioural Insights Team or “Nudge Unit” and began to test this theory. One of the best examples of its work involved the collection of tax payments. Astoundingly, the team found that the addition of just one line to a repayment letter, a simple statement to the effect, “most people pay their taxes on time, you are one of the few people in your area not to”, boosted repayment rates by almost 40%. 

This mirrors Built-ID’s own experience over the last year. When it comes to community engagement, very often small things can have a really big impact. We’re conditioned to think that changes have to be big to be meaningful, but often what communities actually care about can surprise you. What might seem inconsequential to a development team (eg. the layout of community play space or an events programme), can make a big difference to the people who use that space each day and a big difference to the likelihood of them supporting your proposals. The same is true of renewables, yes visual impact and scale matter, but our research shows that communities often care more about biodiversity planting, employment opportunities or painting a turbine black. That’s the secret about small things, often they can have a really big impact. 

We hope to share more insights like this over the coming weeks and below you can read a selection of our early data on community priorities. A full report detailing our key findings for the renewable energy sector will be published on the 9th December, get in touch ahead of that date if you would like advanced access. 

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