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Thinking about stakeholder engagement: how to make it different and how to make it work

02 April, 2019

Jacopo Torriti

Reading time: 5 minutes

Jacopo Torriti and Sue Flanders talk about why engaging with stakeholders in a meaningful way matters and why careful planning and thinking through the needs of our stakeholders was essential to the success of our event.

In February 2019 we organised an event on Flexibility. In this blog we try to describe why engaging with stakeholders in a meaningful way matters and why careful planning and thinking through the needs of our stakeholders was essential to the success of our event. We think that having ideas which are different from the mainstream and keeping the needs of the audience in mind can be a really useful way of engaging stakeholders.

Ideas: how to make it different (Jacopo)

Initially our team was unsure whether to make this a workshop mainly for academics and researchers doing work on electricity demand, flexibility, and time use data to discuss methodologies and data or to encourage a broader discussion with practitioners around flexibility more widely. Our Advisory Board (which comprises the Association for Decentralised Energy, Bloomberg New Energy Finance, E-On, KiWi Power and Ofgem) advised us to host an event which would include policy-makers, energy suppliers, Distribution System Operators, aggregators and consumer organisations. So in a sense the type of interaction with stakeholders was determined by…stakeholders!

Our impact officer at the University of Reading (Katie Cooper) helped us in the initial development stage  to think of what we would like to achieve from the workshop. It became quite clear that we wanted to offer something unique which would speak directly to our projects (REDPEAK and DEEPRED) and yet contribute to the types of conversations around flexibility which are currently taking place across different organisations in the energy sector.

In order to connect something which presents the novelty of research, but also speaks to current problems people are facing in the ‘real world’ – I hate using this expression, but it should be clear what I am referring to – one needs to:

  1. know quite well what those conversations on a hot topic are about
  2. have original ideas about how research can feed into those conversations.

I believe A) comes with a bit of experience in the sector, connections with policy-makers and industry. One does not need to be out of the office every day to hunt for meaningful conversations. One or two events per month really give you a sense of the current thinking . With regards to B), this is really what as researchers we need to be good at: having ideas, testing hypotheses, getting a sense of key highlights our data is giving us, reading work from those who work in close proximity, be open to other disciplines and interpretations, conceptualising objects which appear unmovable and finding empirical applications to theories which appear too abstract.

This initial stage was arguably the toughest and most fun to work on. After that we identified objectives for the workshop: we knew we were going to say something original, which you hardly hear ‘out there’ and this shaped our agenda, the people we wanted to invite to speak, invitees, etc.

For instance, at some point we were faced with the choice of: do we invite very senior people to speak who will attract more participants or do we want to stick with an informed (if less powerful) crowd?

We tried to be balanced on this one, but opted more for the latter. While we didn’t want the ‘big-6’ interpretation of flexibility, we found that some of that was important in order to challenge some big statements and assumptions which are currently being made about flexibility and demand.

Then comes the planning stage and this is where someone with experience working in industry and research like Sue has done, comes in really useful.

Planning: how to make it work (Sue)

Having worked out what event we were going to deliver, the next biggest challenge was identifying when we were going to deliver it, what space we needed and where we were going to have it. Several dates were selected, taking into account conflicts of other industry events speaker availability and venue location – which ideally was somewhere central and easy for our target audience to travel to. We evaluated venue and external speaker availability, overall cost and location. Central Hall Westminster was selected. It was, of course, where CREDS was launched back in September 2018 and really has the wow factor. Contracts were signed, purchase orders raised and project meetings were kicked off. We also opted for a half-day event, as we knew that our stakeholders would welcome a short, focused workshop.

Planning is the key to success when delivering an event, so a readiness plan kept the team focused with a countdown to the workshop. As the owner of the plan, it was my job to ensure progress was being made on tasks and potential issues identified and managed. A visual identity was created by our in-house design team, and was then used for our registration page, email invitations and signage. Nominations were gathered, the registration page on Eventbrite was set up, and the Event Manager at Central Hall Westminster was engaged. The Central Hall Westminster team were a joy to work with and extremely professional during the pre-event organisation right through to the execution on the day.

We had a two-wave approach for sending out invitations, which worked well, supported with regular tweets on social media to boost interest. Attendance was good, although inevitably on the day there were some last minute cancellations, thanks to the winter flu season.

If we have learnt anything from our workshop it is maybe that we had underestimated the extent of interest in our research. So our learning for next time is to have a more generous space: but it was a good problem to have! Finally, the debate, as always, is do we start later so attendees can travel off peak, and spread out the agenda over lunch into the afternoon; or do we start earlier, like we did, and just have a morning session. Overall, we had a very successful event but as the perfectionist, one always has more to perfect!