If you turn learning into a game, people are more interested in the lesson. That's especially true if you turn your game into a contest with prizes that will directly and immediately benefit them.
That's what the city of Columbia, Mo. did when it introduced its Neighborhood Energy Challenge in 2013. This game set up a friendly competition between neighborhoods to see which one could reduce its energy consumption the most.
The force behind this competitive way of thinking about energy consumption is Barbara Buffaloe, the city of Columbia’s first sustainability manager. As a person interested in motivating behavior change around sustainability practices, Buffaloe says she figured that if people knew how their energy use compared to that of their neighbors, "it would be on."
The game her office developed was not like a one-and-done baseball game, however. Instead, this educational competition had high stakes impacting people's quality of life, not to mention carbon footprint. It was based on Columbia's definition of sustainability: "A community is sustainable when it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
In 2015 the city developed a strategic plan with five priorities: Economy, Social Equity, Public Safety, Infrastructure, and Operational Excellence. They decided to embed social equity into their sustainability strategy, showing the overt connection between housing conditions, energy bills and the ability of all individuals to thrive.
Columbia, in the center of Missouri, is a college town of about 115,000 with a diverse population. It owns its own electrical and water utility. It is bisected by Interstate 70, which Buffaloe says underscores the sense people there have that Columbia is really two cities, where the area south of the interstate is thriving but the northern neighborhoods tend to struggle.
"One city of the 'two cities' is made of up those who can thrive and do well and can appreciate the town we promote to the outside as a great place to move to, locate a business, retire to, and do very well. The other Columbia isn't doing as well. People are making 40 cents on the dollar compared to others in the city," Buffaloe said.
In that "other city," there was high unemployment especially in communities of color. In some neighborhood schools 75 percent of students were on the free and reduced lunch program. The economy was recovering in some places but not in every neighborhood. Buffaloe says the city realized they couldn't just keep promoting some parts of the city and ignoring underinvested neighborhood. "We had to think holistically about equity."
How would they strengthen community so all individuals could thrive? They knew they couldn't just walk into a neighborhood that showed disconnect between community needs and services and say, "We're from the government and we're here to help you," Buffaloe said. They reviewed a model used in Tucson, Ariz., that identified a 24-point stress index, based on block census groups. Typically, block census groups have a population of 600 to 3,000 people. Among the findings in Tucson were poverty, high population of elderly, overcrowding, and linguistic isolation. Buffaloe said many neighborhoods in Columbia faced these challenges.
Buffaloe said that north of the interstate, there are no medical clinics or hospitals, and only one grocery store. She wanted to understand how energy use and corresponding high utility bills factored into the quality of life in these neighborhoods. Knowing what an important role housing and utility bills play in a resident's ability to thrive, her office worked to analyze residential energy use and prioritize neighborhoods where additional outreach and investment could result in actual savings for residents.
With any game, you have a goal, and the goal of this game was energy efficiency. You also have to have rules. In this case, rules needed to be based on data points for comparison. How would they figure out which part of town was making the greatest improvements in energy efficiency and thus be declared the "winner?" Buffaloe said they considered comparing neighborhood associations, but there are 84 of these in Columbia and even then, not all neighborhoods are part of an association. Instead, they looked at elementary school boundaries. Not only do these boundaries encompass all residents, they provide an easy way to involve the children. Buffaloe has long understood that an excellent way to sustain any sort of community effort is to involve the kids at early ages and hope to develop good habits in them.
So the mapping of school district boundaries gave them a way to create "teams" in the competition. But some fine-tuning still needed to be done. Buffaloe said the municipal electric utility serves 42,000 customers, the city-county cooperative serves 11,000, and an investor-owned natural gas utility serves another 34,000 accounts. Buffaloe asked these utilities not for information on individual customer's energy use, but only for the aggregate within each school boundary, in terms of kilowatt hours over a period of time. At the time, the investor-owned natural gas utility did not have the capability to provide data at that level. But when the Office of Sustainability offered technical assistance by its own GIS staff, the investor-owned utility agreed. Now, Buffaloe says, that utility has good data going forward, so it was a win for everyone involved.
Once the data was gathered, the next question was how to figure out a calculation so that the comparison was not apples to oranges, but rather a measure of energy usage compared accurately regardless of energy source. To help them figure it out, they enlisted the aid of the county assessor's office. In this way, they knew how many square feet were in each property. Their calculation was based on kBtus per square foot, Buffaloe said.
They'd achieved the first goal, getting accurate data. Then, they needed to develop a map that communicated quickly. Como Energy Challenge shows maps with school districts clearly marked, overlaid by energy consumption, by quarter, since 2013. These maps show a graduated color scale from green to red how each neighborhood is performing in terms of energy efficiency. That led naturally to the third goal, which was to move people from looking at the red areas of the maps to thinking, "That's where I live, I want to do better," Buffaloe said.
Buffaloe said the Office of Sustainability didn't then just sit back and wait for behavior change to occur. They realized they would need to develop strategic planning efforts and contact people through an effective outreach plan. They selected two of the "reddest" school districts on the map for direct outreach. These were neighborhoods that were also identified as being part of programs the city has in place to address neglected homes or multiple requests for assistance on utility bills.
The Office of Sustainability held neighborhood events in the school concurrent with parent-teacher conferences, scheduled for a convenient time and day of the week. Everyone in the neighborhood was welcome to attend even if they did not have children in the school. Buffaloe said that while parents were meeting with teachers, the kids were together watching movies, and the neighborhood residents browsed the "energEE" fairs. Other community programs were represented at the fair, as well. Participants could go home with free energy-related items such as outlet timers and smart strips, as well as information about home energy assessment contractors and energy audits. Other takeaways included a checklist of easy fixes they could make to save energy as well as resources on who to contact for help on more complicated fixes. In addition, there was an energy saving promotion that encouraged people to share photos and stories on social media about how they were saving energy.
Similar to the Tucson model, Columbia conducted its own stress index and learned that energy efficiency in its rental housing stock was a particular need. "This started a conversation on how everyone in Columbia can thrive if they are renting." Perhaps not surprisingly, the neighborhoods with the worst energy efficiency were to a high degree the older housing stock in town, much of it rental property. Buffaloe noted that older housing stock tends to be poorly insulated. Often renters cannot take steps to improve efficiency, such as insulation, unless they pay for it themselves on top of rent. When moving into a new residence, a tenant's first concern is usually coming up with the first month's rent and security deposit. "Most people don't worry about energy bills until month two," Buffaloe said.
Because of the Office of Sustainability's efforts, now people can search online for each rental address to see past monthly energy use.
A current promotion taking place city wide is called Rule your Attic. Columbia's code calls for R49 insulation, so the Office of Sustainability is giving out yardsticks to encourage landlords and others to measure the depth of their existing insulation. The city and area Community Foundation are providing up to $500 to insulate attics to the recommended depth.
Since they started, Buffaloe said, there has been more than a 20 percent decline in energy consumption. Comparing the first maps with those from 2016, the color change is apparent. One sure sign of a good game is when others want to play. In Columbia, Buffaloe says other energy-minded groups, such as the local Sierra Club, are helping spread the word. She says her office welcomes the support of these groups and encourages others working in city government to be open to this sort of collaboration. "Don't worry that they will get the message 'wrong.' It can actually work well," she said.
As a city, Columbia is one of 50 communities competing for the Georgetown University Energy Prize competition. Any U.S. municipality with a population between 5,000 and 250,000 is eligible to apply. This means that 8,892 communities, accounting for 65 percent of the U.S. population, can participate. According to their website, "This multi -year, $5 million prize was born of a mission to tap the imagination, creativity, and spirit of competition between communities across the country to develop sustainable energy-saving innovations. Through this competition, communities will be challenged to work together with their local governments and utilities in order to develop and begin implementing plans for innovative, replicable, scalable and continual reductions in the per capita energy consumed from local natural gas and electric utilities."
Even though the neighborhoods within Columbia's "contest" do not win prizes, they come out ahead by saving on their energy bills. But if Columbia wins the $5 million Georgetown University Energy Prize, all neighborhoods could benefit. "We're already asking the community how it should be spent, if we win."
Julianne Couch is the author of Traveling the Power Line: From the Mojave Desert to the Bay of Fundy.