Equity and Emerging Tech in the Time of the Pandemic

Posted June 2, 2021

Launching a statewide stakeholder engagement effort is never a small feat, let alone in a state like Arizona where vast stretches of highways and desert landscapes create unique challenges to electric vehicle and charging infrastructure adoption. But in the year of the pandemic, geography was the least of our challenges. As COVID-19 impacted the lives of Arizonans, the state’s two largest utilities challenged our team to design a bold, transportation electrification (TE) planning process that could integrate many stakeholder voices to deliver a more equitable, clean energy future.

To go big during a global pandemic meant one thing: go virtual! As project manager for this effort, engaging stakeholders meant adopting an inclusive virtual environment that could meet people where they were. TE can provide significant energy benefits to communities by addressing air pollution, improving public transportation, and removing economic development barriers. The stakeholders we served saw TE as an urgent approach to tangibly support historically underserved communities, Native American communities, rural populations, and other at-risk groups. By recruiting representative voices, regardless of levels of expertise, this effort came to include valuable education about electric vehicle (EV) adoption and charging infrastructure deployment.

Here are some of our learnings on how to drive virtual stakeholder engagement:

Cast a Wide Net and Engender Curiosity

To ensure the benefits from EVs and electric vehicle service equipment (EVSE) adoption touched all communities, ILLUME invited diverse stakeholders across 200+ organizations including state and local government agencies, transit agencies, representatives of underserved communities, environmental organizations, EV advocates, academic institutions, automakers, and others. So how do you keep folks engaged with a group of this size?

  • Ask stakeholders to participate at their own speed. Our team supported members across five working groups (EV Infrastructure, Programs & Partnerships, Equity, Goods Movement & Transit, and Vehicle Grid Integration) and invited them to virtually engage with others by fostering a culture of transparency, curiosity, and information-seeking. Members opted-in to participate at a level that best suited them, either as active contributors or informed observers.
  • Act intentionally. Our Working Group Facilitators empowered volunteer Working Group Chairs to listen, collect inputs, elevate important findings, and when necessary, table conversations.
  • Go on a quest. TE planning during the time of COVID-19 was characterized by a feeling of ‘us against the pandemic’. All stakeholder development processes will undoubtedly have something everyone can rally around: Find it. Harness it!

Leverage Technology (and Humans, too)

The constraints of the pandemic thrust stakeholders into using collaboration tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. But not all folks had a working knowledge of these platforms. So, ILLUME doubled down and offered up our team’s expertise to ensure everyone was up to speed. Want our take on tech-support? Here are a few recommendations:

  • Stand up a platform that empowers your stakeholders. ILLUME built a customized Microsoft Teams environment that allowed stakeholders to collaborate, conduct virtual meetings, exchange documents stored securely in Microsoft SharePoint, and collaborate across working groups.
  • Provide individualized support. We embedded members of ILLUME’s Tucson team to support each working group and provided dedicated administrative support to ensure stakeholder questions were answered within 24 hours.
  • Consider your audience’s technological literacy. To meet folks where they were at, we built a series of friendly tutorials to help stakeholders navigate the ins-and-outs of Microsoft Teams and SharePoint. Time consuming? Yes. Worth the effort? Absolutely.
  • Create a one-stop-shop for information. Stakeholders have full-time jobs and lives outside of this work, which means their time to search through emails is limited. We sought the help of our business development team to build a project microsite populated with updates, videos of meetings, resources, and other documents.

Create Dedicated (and Cross-functional) Working Groups to Champion Equity

Having a dedicated working group to center the equal distribution of energy benefits is a must. While the Equity working group focused their efforts around identifying and addressing barriers to equitable TE planning, equity work is cross-cutting and other working groups like EV Infrastructure and Programs and Partnerships successfully flagged similar barriers. Here are a few pro-tips to center equity in your projects:

  • Gather a wide range of voices. Your active contributors should represent a diverse mix of folks, including the voices of those with varied levels of expertise. As the Equity working group’s report pointed out, “For many, this work [equity] is very familiar and for others it feels brand new. Our strength is in our shared commitment to advancing equity, our belief that transportation electrification has potential to enable a higher quality of life for Arizona’s communities, and the varied perspectives and expertise we bring to the table.”
  • Explore equity definitions until you find a suitable framework. For this effort, the Equity working group selected an approach from the Urban Sustainability Directors Network with many forms of equity (procedural, distributional, structural, intergenerational). This is a research task in and of itself as evidenced by work ILLUME is currently conducting in the Northeast culling through hundreds of metrics to define disadvantaged communities.
  • Be honest about the limitations of your own processes. This takes vulnerability and an honest self-assessment. The Equity working group acknowledged limitations to our process like finding volunteered time to contribute, participating in online meetings during normal business hours, and sufficient access to the internet as a barrier to participation (due to high demand as a result of COVID-19 restrictions).

Regardless of your utility or program administrator’s transportation electrification planning journey, you should choose a path forward that is designed to co-create with impacted communities to enable deeper participation. After all, our programs and offerings are only as equitable as the processes that stood them up in the first place.