Empowering behaviour change

Earth Arcade – using innovative public engagement to encourage positive environmental action

Dr Chris Skinner and Dr Danielle Smith from the Energy and Environment Institute (IEE) at the University of Hull describe the Earth Arcade, an innovative public engagement project.

What prompted you to do this work?

The December 2013 storm surge and consequent flooding around the Humber was our initial prompt. Despite the very real risk, public awareness and resilience is low, so we needed to develop tools that effectively engage the public and are accessible across a range of demographics of the community, so that they can be part of the solution to our global environmental crises - including climate impacts.

How does the Earth Arcade help communities deal with flooding?

Research from the Earth Arcade has shown that virtual reality (VR) is an effective tool for raising awareness of flood risk and has been published in international journals.

How does this work raise career aspirations for local young people?

We also see young people’s desire to make positive environmental changes as a route to raising aspirations. Through engaging with our crew and our activities, we aim to show that they can do this in their chosen career, whether it is a scientist, engineer, lawyer, games designer, or artist.

What is the purpose and focus of the Earth Arcade?

The Earth Arcade is finding new ways to bring our science to everyone and helping people make positive environmental changes. Our research isn’t completed when we publish it in a paper, it is completed when it is understood and used in the real world.

Its focus is to use a research-led approach to engage the public with the research of the Institute, drawing on expertise from fields including behavioural psychology and scenography. Using this we design immersive exhibits for events and festivals.

What is the aim of the Earth Arcade?

We believe that solving the environmental issues we face is the great adventure of our time and we invite people to join us on it.

Public engagement through the Earth Arcade is designed with three aims in mind.  To inform people about the issues, to empower them to take action, and to model positive environmental actions to demonstrate achievable change within a community. This approach is taken so that people do not feel alone on their climate and earth saving adventure.

What happens inside the Earth Arcade?

At the heart of an Earth Arcade exhibit are a suite of bespoke game-based activities and virtual reality (VR) demonstrations. In the Earth Arcade, you could find yourself in the middle of a flooded river, or fishing in a future ocean where you have a better chance of catching a plastic bottle than you do a fish. It is an opportunity to meet the people behind the research, as all the crew are researchers from the Energy and Environment Institute. The public can tell us directly what they think is important and what they think we should be researching.

Where can we see the Earth Arcade?

The Earth Arcade has been exhibited across the country, including at the Hulltimate challenge with the Living with Water partnership, at the Natural History Museum in London, and at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry.

The Earth Arcade has a virtual presence, including 360 VR videos on YouTube, with its main channel having over 1.5 million views.

Who has supported you with this work?

We received academic funding from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) ‘Flooding from Intense Rainfall’ programme and the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council ‘Data Assimilation for the Resilient City’ programme. We were also funded by the Environment Agency.

We have worked in partnership with many other organisations, including those whose events we have exhibited at.

What has the Earth Arcade taught you about improving public engagement on pressing issues?

One-way communication and sharing of information is not effective. Doom-laden predictions of environmental break down or flooded cities are also not effective. People want to reverse environmental damage and climate change, and they want to know that it can be done, how it can be done, and how they can play a part in it.

All public engagement needs to be designed around what has been proven to be effective at driving behaviour change. People need knowledge to build from. People need agency to empower them to make the change. People need to see others doing it too. All future Earth Arcade activities and exhibits will be designed with these three things in mind.

Do you have a tip to share?

Be innovative in your public engagement. Think about things you enjoy - others will probably enjoy them too.