The power of getting real(ist)

27 September, 2022

Michael Fell

Reading time: 6 minutes

Mike Fell explains realist approaches in energy studies, and why they have such powerful potential.

This blog is about an article by Katy Roelich, Lucie Middlemiss, and me (Mike Fell), which was recently published in Nature Energy. The article calls for wider use of “realist” approaches in energy studies because of how they can support justice, interdisciplinary working, and urgency in energy research. But what are realist approaches, and why do they have this powerful potential?

In the classic Wallace and Gromit movie The Wrong Trousers, there’s a scene where Gromit the dog is involved in a chase on top of a toy train. He gets diverted (by the penguin arch-thief Feathers McGraw) onto an unfinished section of track, heading straight towards a window. Disaster seems inevitable. At the last moment, Gromit grabs a box of spare track and starts laying it directly in front of the speeding train, building in a sharp turn to avoid the window.

I mention this because for me it sums up where we are with climate change. We’re on the train heading for the window. All we can do is lay the next piece of track and hope we do it quickly enough and with the right amount of swerve to avoid derailment and disaster.

In a similarly sharp turn in this blog, let’s take a look at realist approaches and come back to why they are relevant to Gromit’s train.

Context, mechanism, outcome

When we think about interventions to solve energy challenges and address climate change, we are naturally interested in “what works”.

Realist approaches involve looking at the world with an interest in what interventions work, but more importantly in how they work, for whom, and under what circumstances. In particular, what was it about the combination of circumstances in which an intervention was deployed, and the way the intervention worked, that resulted in the observed outcomes?

This is a bit abstract so here’s an example from previous CREDS work I conducted. I was interested in what the social impacts of peer-to-peer energy trading (where households can sell electricity directly to each other) might be. But there is little evidence on this so far, because it is very new. However, there is lots of evidence on the impact of P2P models in other sectors, particularly accommodation with services like Airbnb. What could that tell us?

One finding in the Airbnb literature is the potential for discrimination on the basis of factors like race and gender. This comes about when hosts and guests are less willing to book with, or accept booking from, people with certain observable characteristics, which in turn has an impact on prices.

In realist terms, what appears to be happening is that in societies where certain biases exist (context), the introduction of more fine-grained choice around accommodation host/guest characteristics allows those biases to be newly expressed (mechanism), resulting in the discrimination observed (outcome).

Figure: Context: Airbnb hosts hold conscious and unconscious biases with regards to race, sexuality, and gender. Mechanism: Introduction of increased personal choice allows expression of biases. Outcome: Existing discriminatory practices reproduced in new service, through acceptance of bookings, prices for listings, and revenues (consistent evidence).

This combination of context, mechanism, and outcome is plausible in the case of P2P energy too. Knowing this makes it possible to make an evidence-informed call for attention to the issue, and take anticipatory action such as on what to monitor, and scheme design.

Why we need realist approaches

In our recent paper, we argue that realist approaches – used primarily in the review of existing evidence or in evaluating interventions – are key for three main reasons. One of these is illustrated in the example above – the ability to translate evidence from one situation to another in an intentional, structured, and accessible way. This widens the body of knowledge we have to draw on in thinking about how to address energy challenges.

Realist approaches can also contribute to a net-zero transition that is more attuned and responsive to justice considerations. High energy prices mean many households are likely to be plunged into fuel poverty this and coming winters. The potential responses to this are many and varied, and beyond price capping could take in building fabric upgrades, energy saving advice, and backstop measures like warmbanks.

The way these measures are targeted and offered is likely to have a big impact on who takes them up and what the ultimate outcomes are. Being explicit on what it is about the combination of certain contextual factors and mechanisms that is expected to result in a certain outcome is helpful because it allows interventions to be better tailored. That is not to say that this kind of insight can’t be yielded by other approaches – but with realist approaches it is positioned front and centre.

We also highlight the ability of realist approaches to support interdisciplinary working. Both realist review and evaluation studies start with the development of a “programme theory”, or set of expectations about how an intervention will work to deliver outcomes. This is refined as evidence is identified. It is highly likely that different mechanisms will operate in ways that are best evidenced and understood from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. The programme theory provides a common object (similar to a Theory of Change) around which multidisciplinary colleagues can cohere.

In these ways, realist approaches can support justice, interdisciplinary working, and translation of evidence from other contexts.

Steering the runaway train

So why does all this help us when it comes to Gromit’s train and the climate emergency? It would clearly be ideal to carefully test and trial every innovation and policy intervention required to support fast and fair transition to net-zero. But the truth is, it’s too late to do anything but lay the next piece of track, monitor, and correct our route as problems are identified.

Realist approaches help us make the best use what is known from similar situations in a range of disciplines, sectors, and time periods. On this basis we can support those actions that are most likely to lead to success, while also anticipating problems and omissions to combat which appropriate alternatives, and other measures and monitoring, can be put in place.

In this way they can underpin decisive action that minimises risks of harm without throwing up unnecessary barriers to innovation.

To quickly build our railway to a fair net-zero energy system, let’s make greater use of realist approaches in energy research and policy the next piece of track we lay.

Journal article

Fell, M.J., Roelich, K. and Middlemiss, L. 2022. Realist approaches in energy research to support faster and fairer climate action. Nature Energy. doi: 10.1038/s41560-022-01093-8 or see the Free access version).

Banner photo credit: DALL·E