'A lot of it is trying to spot unintended consequences': Meet DESNZ's award-winning net-zero systems team

A tech team supporting the cross-government push to make the UK a net-zero carbon economy by 2050 has won a prestigious award for its work
Photo: Ambrosiniv/Alamy Stock Photo

By Tevye Markson

08 Apr 2024

Achieving net zero will require a huge, collaborative effort across government. In 2021, a newly formed net-zero systems team at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy was tasked with aiding the challenge by creating a tool to help officials think more widely beyond their immediate policy area.

Two years later, the Operational Research Society awarded the team its coveted President’s Medal award for the project’s “innovative spirit” and “potential to drive positive change”.

Adam Mackenzie-Jones leads the net-zero systems team, which now sits in the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero following February 2023’s machinery of government changes that split BEIS up.

He says the team was set up partly in response to a recommendation from the Council for Science and Technology that the UK would require a “whole systems approach” strategy for reaching net zero. Then-prime minister Boris Johnson backed its call in 2020, a year after the UK became the first G7 country to legislate for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The CST said its proposed approach would “reveal the effects that policy decisions in all areas of government will have on delivery of net zero, enabling decision-makers to understand how different policies interact and influence the transition of the whole economy towards net zero”.

Jonathan Hoare, a deputy director in the net zero strategy directorate at DESNZ, says the whole-systems approach wasn’t new in itself, but notes that the CST’s letter triggered a “turbocharge” of what government was already doing.

After winning funding from the Treasury’s Shared Outcomes Fund in early 2021, the team started work on the interactive visualisation which would become an award-winning tool. Recognising the need to create something bespoke, they began by building systems maps – which was a lengthy process because of the complexity and wide-ranging nature of net zero and the need to get lots of feedback from inside and outside of government.

“There’s no real way of deciding that a map is correct; it’s a representation of a system,” Mackenzie-Jones says. “So the best you can do is to iteratively test the map with as many people from as many different perspectives as you can to make sure that you don’t have any clangers in there and that there is a confidence you’re representing the system fairly and adequately.”

There’s no real way of deciding that a map is correct; it’s a representation of a system. So the best you can do is to test it as many people from as many different perspectives as you can"

A key challenge was making the tool accessible, at a level where training isn’t needed, but where it is also not overly simple. “Systems thinking could risk being seen as a technical thing and we wanted to take it off that potential pedestal and make it accessible to a wide range of officials,” Mackenzie-Jones says.

With the Treasury’s Shared Outcomes funding in hand, the team had time to develop a tool that could be subjected to proper user-testing to ensure people could use and interact with it, he adds.

The team got some inspiration for the design from a systems-thinking website. “It inspired the concept of being able to interact with a systems map where you can press play and say, what happens if I make a decision like this? That helped us with the concept of ‘flowing through’. You take any variable in net zero policy and ask: What happens if this increases? You click on it and then it flows through the system,” Mackenzie-Jones says.

ORS judges were full of praise for the team’s process, lauding its “excellence”. Mackenzie-Jones says the key elements of process were the collaborative setup, the “analytical backbone” underpinning the tool and the project’s “fail fast” mentality.

The analytical backbone came from the early decision to make the tool qualitative rather than quantitative, which avoided creating a tool that gives falsely precise information, Mackenzie-Jones says.

“It’s supposed to highlight a potential risk that you might want to look at, not to say ‘that decision will mean that you would definitely have a specific, quantative impact on your carbon budgets’,” he explains.

The process of creating the tool went far beyond one department, with input from officials in the Department for Transport; Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities; and the Cabinet Office. BEIS set up a cross-government systems team that brought officials across government together.

There are also three individual teams in DESNZ, the DfT and Defra focused on embedding the tool in their departmental portfolios.

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A “dynamic plate of spaghetti” and a “crime investigation evidence board” are not things you would usually associate with net zero. But these are the images Mackenzie-Jones and Hoare reach for when CSW asks why ORS President’s Medal judges praised the tool for capturing “the innovative spirit of operational research”.

The innovative part of the tool is its dynamism, Mackenzie-Jones says: “What people have struggled with in the past has been really taking systems thinking from that static map into something that’s interactive.”

Systems maps, which articulate how everything in a policy area is connected, have “lots of circles and lines all interconnected with each other”, creating “a bit of a spaghetti”, he says. The net-zero systems tool makes these circles and lines “interrogable and explorable”, allowing users to cut the data in different ways and isolate the parts of the map that are of most interest.

Hoare says a different way to visualise the tool is like a crime-investigation evidence board with pictures of suspects linked by red string. “It will highlight the connections between those people, and the things that are influencing those two parts of the system,” he says. “What you want is for policy professionals to be thinking about the system as broadly as they can, as much as they can. This tool is about trying to make that easier in this domain.”

Hoare adds: “A lot of it is about trying to spot where there might be unintended consequences of an action and to have that visualised for people, and particularly for people who are quite deep in a particular area. This lets them see across the system. It’s something people strive for within the policy profession.”

"A lot of it is about trying to spot where there might be unintended consequences of an action and to have that visualised for people, and particularly for people who are quite deep in a particular area"

Along with the plaudits from the ORS, the team had the tool reviewed by external systems-thinking experts who “identified it as a sector leading product”, Mackenzie-Jones says. Perhaps most importantly, the tool has been embraced by civil servants.  

It is available to officials in Defra, DLUHC, DESNZ and DfT, and had around 400-500 users in its first month. Many users report the tool has helped them identify areas where further research and analysis is needed, Mackenzie-Jones says. Officials also told the team they use it as a “sense check”.

The code for the tool could soon be used for other policy areas, Mackenzie-Jones believes, adding that officials across government are “pretty much banging down the door” to use it.

“We’ve developed a capability that really can be applied to any policy area,” he says.

The team has Treasury funding to keep working on the tool until the end of 2024-25, which will involve adapting it in response to feedback from users, updating the map content and embedding it more deeply into government.

This begs the question of what happens after 2025.

“My answer would be that we’ll get to net zero by 2050 and then Adam can have a conversation with me about what he does next,” Hoare quips.

“I would love that if we’re still doing this,” Mackenzie-Jones responds. “I’m happy to do it.” 

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