Tomorrow’s World: A sustainable future for the next generation?

Rachel Taylor, Common Vision

What do customers and citizens need and want from future energy and water systems, and what changes are required for their expectations to be met? This was the topic of an event hosted by Sustainability first and the National Infrastructure Commission in July 2017, for which Common Vision convened a “millennial working group” to participate.

To ensure that we are able to continue using energy and water which meets our evolving needs and requires minimal lifestyle changes by 2030, we must begin enacting change now. These sustainable alternatives must take into account the challenges posed population growth, an aging population and climate change – to name a few examples.

Our energy and water systems provide us with the essentials we use and need in our everyday lives, from powering our mobile phones and heating to our showers, baths and drinking water. The provision of energy and water affects all groups in society regardless of background, income or age bracket yet, different groups do have different needs; all of which must be addressed when designing our plan for the future.

For low-income groups, the so-called ‘poverty premium’ is a major concern whereby the poorest in our society often end up paying more than higher-income households for essential goods and services. It is not surprising then that the primary needs for low-income groups were affordability and tariff consistency. Organisations such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have been active in this area, calling on the government to do more to help identify and tackle poverty premiums where they arise, especially in light of forecasted inflation. The elderly, as well as those living in rural areas across the UK, have in some cases also fallen victim to the poverty premium if, for example, they are not online and lack the means to acquire the information which would help them explore cheaper or greener options. This clearly demonstrated the need for better information provision, both online and offline, for these affected groups.

As well as this, the increasing life expectancy of the elderly population in the UK is indeed a cause for celebration but it also brings challenges which require us to ensure our future world is adaptable to the physical and mental ailments of this group. We must also not forget that those living in the countryside are the ones often subjected to the impact of new infrastructure developments which need its extra space. It is therefore important to listen to the insights and needs of this group in designing non-intrusive alternatives for the future.

Amongst these different views and voices, what perspectives do millennials bring to the table? Millennials are not only the leaders of tomorrow, but are increasingly, the leaders of today which leaves them with a critical role in shaping the future of energy and water. Not only will they be consumers but will also be leading energy and water companies and systems going forwards. The priorities of our millennial group for in designing these future systems were centred around sustainability, affordability and capacity.

Firstly, millennials are seen as being more environmentally conscious and driven by their personal values when it comes to making choices about utility providers, purchasing certain brands and choosing an employer. This is where in catering to the needs of millennials, energy and water companies can make gains in terms of business benefits.

Secondly, affordability is an issue for many young millennials who are still finding and settling into their careers or living in expensive cities with high rents. Exacerbating this, research suggests that millennials are earning less than the previous generation, an unprecedented trend. Considering these factors, it is important that we ensure there is not a trade-off between sustainability and affordability in choosing a utility provider especially where the common goal is to work towards a more sustainable world.

Thirdly, a common theme which emerged throughout our discussions was the capacity for millennials to act upon their environmentally-friendly values. The high instances of renting among this cohort was cited as the biggest barrier. In a society with increasing costs of living, inflated house prices and lagging wages and job opportunities, getting a foot on the housing ladder has become an impossibility for some. At least, it is not as easy a task as it was for their parents’ generation. This has led to the creation of ‘Generation Rent’ and the number of people under the age of 40 living in rented accommodation is only expected to continue increasing between now and 2025. Those living in rented accommodation have a lot less freedom and incentive to invest in energy and water saving measures such as installing smart meters, insulation, solar panels or low-flow water fixtures. In addition, and is especially the case for many student properties, in flats or houses where bills are included in the price of rent, it is likely the tenants will not even be aware of their provider much less have the motivation to investigate the sustainability policies of these providers. It is unlikely that ‘Generation Rent’ will transform into ‘Generation Buy’ any time soon, therefore, a possible solution to this could be to create incentives for landlords to ensure their rented properties meet certain standards. Undoubtedly, implementation of this would require the attention of policy-makers and the introduction of new government legislation and regulations.

Aside from this, for millennials, choice and trust were also important. This requires better information provision from both suppliers and government as well as being reliable and actively responding to the needs and values of the consumer.

In addressing the needs of all groups, there appeared to be space for collaboration between sectors in ensuring consumers have access to affordable, sustainable and user-friendly services. Meanwhile, technology has also begun to play a role in innovating the way we use and consume energy and water from smart meters to local level initiatives. However, there is still a long way to go in ensuring that the provision and levels of consumption of energy and water are future-proofed and respond to the needs and expectations of our diverse society. To ensure this journey continues, we must engage and respond to the needs of all sections of society from poorest to the richest, urban inhabitants to rural inhabitants, the old and the young.

Sustainability First has produced a consumer focused check-list for change for use by energy and water companies, regulators and Government when engaging with stakeholders and planning future services.  The check-list,  ‘Tomorrow’s World for Energy and Water: What will consumers and citizens want in 2030?’  is now available on the Sustainability First website.  Two Common Vision videos from the Tomorrow’s World Workshop can also be viewed from the website: ‘Energy and water in 2030: Different groups and different needs’; and ‘Building citizens awareness of energy and water: A view from millennials’.

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