Case Study


What problem were they solving? 

Phasing out South Africa’s aging coal-fired power stations is expensive, risky, and a highly contested topic. Coal supplies the majority of the country’s electricity and provides jobs for more than 90,000 people. The "Just Energy Transition'' (JET) is a national program, supported by the Presidential Climate Commission (PCC) to transition the country towards sustainable, clean energy sources, while also addressing potential impact on coal-dependent communities. Although JET will be implemented nationally, there are complex tradeoffs at the sub-national level. There have been significant challenges engaging people living and working in coal-mining regions in JET, meaning that the views of coal mining communities may be missing from policy discussions. There are also very limited studies or data on how people living in coal-mining regions, particularly those directly and indirectly reliant on the coal industry for work, understand energy transitions. 

What did they do? 

The UNDP Accelerator Lab in South Africa used citizen social science and micro-surveys to understand coal mining communities’ awareness of and views on the Just Energy Transition and potential impacts of different policy options on their lives. The approach was prototyped in Zamdela, a neighborhood close to the Lethabo Power Plant and Seriti New Vaal coal mine. iSpani, a youth-founded and -led enterprise, recruited a network of local community researchers called Youth Agents. These young people collected data using a mobile micro-survey which was uploaded onto a decentralized data platform managed by iSpani. Survey respondents included mine workers and others with links to the coal value chain, as well as community members living on the fringes of the mines. The Youth Agents gathered 208 survey responses on awareness and attitudes related to the JET. In particular, they focused on gathering novel data about perceived impacts of mine closures, attitudes towards future employment and overall awareness of the Just Transition process. The Youth Agents were also involved in the interpretation of the collected data via citizen social science, drawing on their unique insight into their communities. 

UNDP South Africa plans to apply this approach in other mining communities with the aim of collecting more than 5,000 responses in two-months, reaching eleven additional communities in 2024. The final survey results will be shared with the Presidential Climate Commission and other key stakeholders to inform planning to enhance the justice of the just transition.

What was the benefit of using collective intelligence for this issue?  

Taking a collective intelligence approach helped uncover the perspectives and priorities of the communities who will be economically impacted by energy transitions. In some cases, the data are conflicting: 82% of those surveyed worry about climate change, but over 70% do not see coal as a problem for South Africa. Meanwhile, over 40% said they would stay in the area and look for another job if the coal mine closed, despite the limited livelihood alternatives in coal-mining areas.  While still a small sample, these insights – virtually absent beforehand – will help decision makers make more informed decisions, taking into account the trade-offs in terms of the potential social and economic impacts of mine closures while transitioning to new energy sources.

Working with embedded community researchers helped to reduce some of the institutional distrust that previously acted as a barrier to engaging coal miners in dialogue. Employing youth as micro-data entrepreneurs also ensured other barriers such as access and language were overcome. The citizen social science approach provided rich qualitative data alongside the quantitative survey responses. For example, the youth agents highlighted the importance of emphasizing the potential health and economic co-benefits of the transition. They reported that respondents were particularly positive about JET when talking about developing new professional skills and reducing the respiratory illnesses caused by coal mining. These are potential leverage points that could help decision makers communicate more effectively about the JET process and shape policies that directly respond to these priorities. 

What does this experience tell us about collective intelligence for climate action? 

This experience suggests that collective intelligence can allow for meaningful engagement in complex, contested and politicized topics such as energy transitions. Trusted intermediaries are key. In this case, the iSpani youth agents were able to overcome digital literacy and data access barriers – they supported members of the coal mining community who would have struggled to take part in the survey. They also managed to engage groups that are underrepresented in conversations about the mining industry by approaching respondents in informal community settings – 68% of the respondents were women and 30% were under 30 years old. Delivering the surveys in community settings like clinics, churches and schools allowed the youth agents to have wider-ranging discussions about the energy transition with survey respondents. This had the added benefit of increasing awareness and understanding about JET among coal mining communities.

Decision-Making Gap, Data Gap, Diversity Gap
IPCC CATEGORYAdaptation, Energy Systems (Resilient Power Systems, Energy Reliability) 


South Africa  
PEOPLEYoung People, Mining Communities In Zamdela, ISpani (NGO)
DATACitizen-Generated Data, Crowdsourced Opinions On JET And Its Impact On Livelihoods, Ethnographic Data
TECHNOLOGYMobile Phones, Digital Platform