EE MUSIC Guest Blog: Face Your Elephant
Richard Fletcher is a freelance researcher and part-time lecturer at De Montfort University, Leicester. He is currently writing a short e-book “Greenfield greenwash: Music festivals and contradictions of the counter culture” - see the links at the end to download a sample. He has been working on audience engagement project Face Your Elephant for a number of years, and is part of the team at De Montfort University who have been working with Powerful Thinking and Julie's Bicycle to take forward our understanding of sustainable energy management at festivals. We asked him to share some of his experiences and thoughts on the future with us and the wider JB community.
What is Face Your Elephant?
Face Your Elephant (FYE) is a peer education and public engagement project. We tour to music festivals with a solar powered exhibit to engage the public on the science and engineering of climate change. ‘Peer education’ refers to the leading role our young volunteers take in the overall direction of the project.
The key partners are De Montfort University, the Centre for Alternative Technology, and the Woodcraft Folk. The project has been going in one form or another for 10 years since beginning at Woodcraft Folk events. At these off-grid events, young people helped build and operate small-scale renewable systems; like the solar PV and battery trailers that we still use at festivals today.
The project took the name Face Your Elephant in 2009. With support from the EPSRC we also began research into energy efficiency at festivals behind the scenes to complement the audience-facing side of the project, through which we’ve contributed to the work of Julie’s Bicycle and in particular the Powerful Thinking guide.
More recently we’ve been funded by the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Ingenious scheme, so we’ve had more engineering students involved and adapted the exhibit content. We’ve also been to other festivals but we’ve been at Latitude for the last 6 years.
Could you give us a summary of your learnings, achievements and challenges of Face Your Elephant’s audience engagement?
The project taps into the element of the unexpected that festivals generally thrive on. We take scientists and engineers out of the university to speak to a new, diverse leisure audience who, conversely, aren’t expecting to learn about these topics.
It means we have to approach our topic in a new way and the audience are in the mindset of being open to trying and learning new things. Organisers and energy suppliers also join us on this public ‘stage’ occasionally. We do free phone charging which is always a decent draw and gives a sense of solar PV power working in practice; and also through pedal-power thanks to a Pedgen unit from Firefly Clean Energy.
Importantly the makeup of the audience is predominantly under 30, with limited prior science and engineering education and quite balanced in terms of gender. We engage with an average of 1,000 people at each festival, which, compared to the amount of work you might do to bring this type of audience into a university event is pretty good. We don’t just count everyone who walks past and we do specifically track those who stay for a good long while.
Where would you like to see the behind-the-scenes conversation and action around energy provision at festivals go?
There has been some exciting new energy tech on the horizon for a while now but the deployment and management aspects on site are still causing headaches. You can only do so much to improve efficiency with limited information; specs aren’t known in enough detail or time in advance to really efficiently plan on-site energy systems. Of course there will always be unexpected changes at festivals but you shouldn’t have to start over from scratch every year in terms of knowing how much power you’re going to need when and where.
Communication remains a barrier – for example, we hear of some cases where contractors don’t know their own specs/how much power they’ll need, or will even deliberately hide things in order to try and get away with a lower connection fee.
What is your vision for a more sustainable world? What is our biggest challenge or barrier to getting there?
For festivals, I think emissions from energy will eventually go down as the generators and other infrastructure gets ‘smarter’. Smart controls, batteries and biodiesel will all be part of this puzzle. After that, audience transport will remain as the largest source of emissions, if it isn’t already. For the whole UK, emissions from leisure travel are a surprisingly large chunk of all transport emissions when you look at the figures, so it is an issue worth addressing.
What role do you feel the creative community can play in creating this future vision?
Festivals seem increasingly less afraid to advertise an educational or intellectual programme; people can always party at night, no reason you shouldn’t learn something in the day!
What inspires you to keep working at this?
We know we’re having an impact on people. Audience members, particularly young ones, saying things like: ‘This is great for my homework, can you send me that graph or document…’ Our volunteers saying: ‘I feel more optimistic about the future now, I’ve learnt so much,’ or that it’s helped them get a job. Festival organisers saying: ‘This data is so useful, thanks for keeping this issue on the agenda.’ This is just a handful of anecdotes of course, but we’ve done the evaluation to back it all up too. Data is what gives me confidence.
Watch Paul Fleming, Director of Sustainable Development, De Montfort University talking about Face Your Elephant in action
EE MUSIC is co-funded by the Intelligent Energy Europe Programme of the European Union.