When she applied for Pioneers into Practice 2012, Beck Collins was in the middle of a PhD on community-led sustainable energy projects, and saw the programme as an excellent opportunity to gain broader experience in the field.
The first of Beck’s placements was with Birmingham City Council, who put her to work on a procurement exercise for their Birmingham Energy Savers programme. As part of her contribution, she organised a ‘meet the bidder’ event, whereby supply chain companies, training organisations and community groups could meet each of the four bidding consortia to begin the process of being included in their bids. Over 200 people attended over the course of the day, and the exercise enabled each of the four consortia to develop their bids by including local businesses in their proposed supply chain, as well as to get a clearer sense of their community engagement strategies.
Her international placement was with the Energy Centre at TU Darmstadt, and she assumed that this would be the most challenging part of the programme. Based in Birmingham with a history in the low carbon sector, Beck had some prior knowledge of Birmingham City Council’s sustainability work – but would have relatively little time to understand and apply herself to the university’s BECA project, which looked at the role of ICT in helping social housing tenants to use less energy and water in seven case study areas across east and west Europe.
“The challenges were of a different nature in the end!” she notes. “At the point I joined the project, TU Darmstadt and its partners were having trouble in recruiting social housing tenants to the project. It transpired that many of those tenants were not indigenous Germans, and yet much of the promotional material that was being used assumed that they were”. She explains that her experience of working in a diverse, multicultural city meant that she had some insight into how that is reflected in public messaging and information campaigns, and was able to make recommendations to help overcome this.
Since her placement, Beck has completed her PhD, and now works in sustainability-related roles for Birmingham City University and Birmingham City Council, as well as volunteering as a Director for Community Energy Birmingham. While it noteworthy that Birmingham City Council took her on following her excellent work on placement with them, she is particularly proud of her work with the latter – a volunteer-founded and run community renewables co-operative. “It’s easy to complain about the world and say ‘something ought to be done!’ But giving up your time unpaid to try and make a small difference is a different matter altogether,” she explains. She also championed Pioneers into Practice at Community Energy Birmingham, leading them to become a host organisation for the 2013 domestic cohort.
Beck’s placements in Birmingham City Council and TU Darmstadt gave her two very different experiences of working on projects which seek to address environmental and social concerns. Both placements played to her existing knowledge, experience and strengths – but in different ways, with different institutional challenges. She suggests that this has changed her perspective on how a low carbon career can look and work. “Pioneers into Practice has helped me to see the more strategic role in the low carbon agenda that I can play, as I find synergies between multiple roles – in Higher Education, the public sector and in social enterprise – to build something which is more than the sum of its parts”.