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2. The Role of Symbolic Modelling in the Minewater Project

Adapted from reports written by Stefan Ouboter.
See Appendix A for an overview of the Minewater project

The place of the Innovative Communication in the overall project

The minewater project has the ambition to deliver a working minewater heating system.

Many people are involved in this new energy transition, all having their own perceptions about energy, their own priorities and their own expectations based on their own experiences. In the Minewater project it is assumed that when the initiators of the projects know the values and symbols of the community, they can incorporate them into the implementation of the project and the project will better serve the local society.

The Minewater project is divided in work packages. Most of the work packages are of a technical nature: a technical feasibility study and the technical design of the system.  Other work packages are focussed on the environmental aspects, legislative issues, etc.  Last but not least is the design of a management system and marketing plan for the energy supply system.

The innovative approach to community communication is defined as a specific work package that has to be connected on a continuous basis to two tasks of the overall Project Management Office: the communication strategy of the project and the dissemination of results of the two pilots.  The first steps are two deliverables: the stakeholder analysis and the marketing plan.

The essence of this work package is the definition and demonstration of an innovative communication strategy based on the experiences in the pilots of the Minewater project. This communication is innovative because it takes into account the thoughts, ideas, feelings, frustrations fears and pride of the mineworkers communities, where more traditional communications strategies are based on non-personal information exchange and rational negotiations with stakeholder groups.  One of the deliverables of this work package is a booklet with the working title: 'Past, present & future of the energy in Mining communities'.

This work, carried out within the Minewater project by Stefan Ouboter will address several methodological questions:
  1. What kind of questions do we ask the community when we want to learn about things that are important for them?
  2. We intend to use the clean language model, but how do we adapt the questions in order to use them for this purpose?
  3. Our idea is to interview people that are ‘network hubs’, expecting them to know about the perceptions of community groups, but how do we know that the perceptions of those being interviewed are representative of the community?
  4. How do we analyse the data (symbols, values, criteria, experiences, etc.) in such a way that the results can be inputted into the communication process and the design of the new energy system?
  5. How does the whole approach of assessing the subjective experiences of the community (from beginning to end) be described as a model that can be used by other minewater projects?  

Communication issues in the minewater project

1. Many different stakeholders are involved on several levels:

The Initiators (5 Partners):
 - Local councils
 - Technical experts

People from the local community:
 - Potential consumers
 - Potential direct beneficiaries (operators, employees, local commerce)

 - The European Union (part sponsor)
 - Private investors
 - Energy supply companies
 - Interested observers (other mining communities, universities, environmental agencies, etc.)

[Note from PT & JL: The environment could be considered as a stakeholder and some people allocated to be its advocate.]

The minewater project encounters a number of major issues:

a. Private investors are reluctant to invest in this system because of long time scales for return on investments and the fact that this kind of energy has a limited amount of options for delivery, and thus business opportunities.

b. Some stakeholders involved in energy supply may see the project as business competition.

c. The new systems will have to reach a minimum volume to become viable. Only when whole areas  are connected can the system work. This means people in these areas cannot choose individually. New built areas are believed to be more suitable than adapting old areas.

d.  Consumers may be scared away by experiences in the 1970's with community central heating systems.

e. Mining communities were monocultures, with the mines as a focal point in economic, social and even family life. When coal was exchanged for oil in a period of only a decade,  workers lost their jobs, families lost their income, people lost their pride and positive perspectives of their future. Now, some decades after the closure of the mines this trauma is still tangible in many mining communities.  The effects of the trauma could lead to an initial negative attitude toward the minewater heating system.

General approach towards community issues in the Minewater project

On the other hand, a successful Minewater project could help to reframe and heal the negative experiences of the past with a positive perspective of the future. To do so the project needs knowledge about the mental perceptions on a community level. 

Apart from the regular communication activities needed in a large scale technical project like providing information, presentation of arguments that lead to clear decisions, and responding to the questions of the people involved, a major component of the Minewater project is that the project's communication should incorporate the subjective experiences of the local community.

Local council representatives have made a list of subjective experiences they expect from people in their communities
  • recognition of expertise about the mines, location of shafts, quality of the water, etc. 
  • recognition of the identity of the community as a former mineworkers' community and at the same time the search for a new identity
  • acknowledgement of the pain that was caused by the closure of the mines
  • acknowledgement of the economic and social problems in the present that are still connected to the history of the mines (unemployment, physical health problems, brownfields, etc.)
  • the need for new perspectives for the future that do not deny the past and present situation.

Symbolic Modelling
The question for the minewater project is how the perceptions that take place in the minds of the local people can respectfully be taken into account in such a technical project. Symbolic Modelling was mentioned in 2003 by Stefan Ouboter as a promising approach (see Appendix B). His company NOK is one of the five project partners. His aim is to produce a model based on the experiences in the two pilots, but applicable to any other comparable situations.

Symbolic Modelling is in its essence a coaching tool, in which people are coached to model their own symbolic landscape, thus meeting their own goals.  However, Symbolic Modelling could work for an enterprise like the Minewater project because the desired outcome of the initiators of the project is to incorporate the goals, concerns and expectations of the local communities. The local communities are not against the goals of the Minewater project, but their support is conditional (e.g. ‘it should not cost more than traditional heating systems’, ‘I want control over the heating in my own house’, etc.). Other perceptions cannot be dealt with in a rational negotiation process without knowing more about the symbolic landscape that is behind certain remarks (e.g. ‘this will never work in a city like Heerlen, because nothing ever works here’ or ‘it will be the same as before, we are not important’)

Incorporating Symbolic Modelling into the Innovative Communication of the Minewater Project

It is presumed that the need for an innovative communication of the Minewater project (let people express their subjective experience and give these expressions a place in the communication process) can be blended with the methodology of Symbolic Modelling in 3 steps:

1. Step one is mapping the symbolic landscapes of the local community and the initiators of the project. Through interviews with key persons of the local communities, focusing on their symbols and asking them what they would like to have happen and proceeding according to the clean language methodology.

From preliminary interviews it is concluded that two type of answers can be expected. Some symbols are conceptual, like the 'comradeship' that former mineworkers in Heerlen experienced in the mines and to which many of them refer to as the ideal of how people should work together; or the ‘positive outcome of the business case’ that the people from the council of Midlothian mentioned.  Other symbols are part of the physical environment, like a monument, a former pit, or the Miners Museum.

The outcome of this step is a symbolic landscape of the local community, which includes stories, photographs, geographical maps, etc. which will be fed back to memebers of the community to gauge the degree of representativeness.

It is essential in this first step that the symbolic landscape of the initiators is also modelled in the belief that the only way to communicate the ins and outs of the project to people who are not directly involved is in a symbolic form (rather than talking the jabberwocky of their technical profession).

2. The second step is to connect the symbolic landscapes of the local community and of the initiators of the Minewater project, mostly authorities, project developers and energy supplying companies. Do they recognise the network of symbols of  the local community, the harmonic elements and the tensions in it? And can they implement the most important elements of  the symbolic landscape of the local people in their own conceptions of the project?

3. The third step is to utilise the blend(s) of symbolic landscapes, adapting it to the mutual benefits of all involved parties and to anchor it in the implementation. The most obvious aspect of the project where this blend could be explicated is the communication plan. But the implementation plan is even more important so that problems are addressed, monuments are taken care of, key persons of the local community are involved, etc.
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