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Gatekeepers: Unsung Heroes Of A Smart Economy?

By: Aleksi Neuvonen & Tuuli Kaskinen

March 02, 2014

Ever had to personally refurbish a house? Ever had to think of buying windows, replacing the old roof with a new one or changing the heating system? Have you taken energy efficiency and climate emissions into consideration when making these decisions? Anyone who has gone through all this knows the right answers and solutions can be hard to come by.

Although it is well-known that the most efficient way to cut residential carbon emissions is through thoughtful building renovations, it is far from common practice. The challenge is that these potential improvements require decisions by millions of people in homes and at workplaces — people who usually don't feel themselves very competent in the area of energy efficiency. Adequate policy measures are rare: traditional public awareness campaigns are rarely nimble and voluntary participation makes their impact is slow, but introducing ambitious building performance norms for already existing building stock often faces strong opposition.

What happens right now when home owners make the decision to upgrade the energy performance of their roofs, insulation, windows or heating and cooling systems?

Lack of skill drives people to seek help from professionals: architects, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, janitors, hardware store assistants. Even now, the average family buying an old house and wishing to refurbish it is unlikely to easily find a service that can help them do the refurbishment in an energy-conscious way. Some of the professionals mentioned don't know very much about energy efficiency, others simply want to stick with one routine and, hence, suggest same solutions year after year without paying any attention to emerging technological opportunities.

What if these companies and professionals had a better understanding of the potetial for energy effiieciency to satisfy their clients and increase the size and competitiveness of their business?

What if they saw themselves as gatekeepers of energy efficiency to millions of consumers? Energy efficiency has a clear value: in the long run it creates savings for consumers. Today, this means gatekeepers have the potential to sell something that they have so far failed to properly commodify. Once they manage to do that, we the consumers will benefit from a number of new types of services that make us feel more confident and relaxed during stressful and investment intensive periods of remaking our homes. In return, these entrepreneurs, companies and professionals are likely to make better business and gain additional appreciation for their work.

Over the past five years at the Demos Helsinki think tank we've worked with over a dozen groups from different gatekeeper professions and helped them innovate their business concepts for energy efficiency.

Decision Tree of Consumption
Image: This is how you identify gatekeepers of energy relevant decisions. People make number of strategic decisions that lead to either higher or lower level of energy consumption. Gatekeepers are people who they face during their decision processes.

Out of many successful examples, the most illustrative was the process with hardware store companies. Using our workshop for concept development, retailers discovered two things about their businesses when trying to grasp this market opportunity. First, their hardware stores can access this market It's not rocket science and it would do wonders for customer retention and value. Second to take practical steps to access the energy efficiency consumer market, they need to understand customer needs much better and make the shift from selling goods off the shelf to providing solutions to customers' individual needs. As a result the biggest hardware store chain in Finland launched an energy refurbishment service and started training shop assistants as energy efficiency specialists. (For more detailed story on Demos Helsinki work with hardware stores and other gatekeepers can be found in Eric Lowitt's recent book Collaboration Economy

The idea of 'nudging' people towards clever, healthy and sustainable choices has been widely discussed since the publication of Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in 2008 and probably before, too. Nudging is about deliberately altering the choice architecture people face and consequently making them more likely to choose wisely. Identifying and activating energy gatekeeper professionals is an example of choice architecture redesign. Hardware stores and a number of different construction professionals are an essential part of the choice architecture/decision environment consumers operate in when refurbishing. If companies and their employees are capable of offering good and timely services for energy efficiency -related decisions, people are very likely to follow their suggestions.

We are confident that sooner or later stricter construction regulations and price incentives for energy will lead to radical leaps in the energy efficiency of homes and offices. But regulation and levies alone won't cause the change: they need to be complemented by business and professionals who can implement respective improvements in buildings. Good regulation will create new markets for services that provide improvements in energy efficiency, but clever companies and entrepreneurs can initiate these markets even without government decisions and regulation. What they need to do is acknowledge their role as gatekeepers who have special influence on consumers and the whole of society: they are the ones who can create new green jobs for the service sector and at the same time be part of cutting our carbon emissions.

Aleksi Neuvonen is co-founder and head of foresight of Demos Helsinki. Follow Aleksi on Twitter at @Leksis. Tuuli Kaskinen is operations director at Demos Helsinki. Follow Tuuli on Twitter at @Tuulikas. Demos Helsinki is a Nordic think thank focusing on resource smart economy and cities.

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