Renewable energy potential for the Māori community
This research project was carried out during a research study course at the Politecnico di Milano. It focuses on finding new ways to bring alternative energy sources to the Māori communities living in rural areas of New Zealand.
A tale of energy poverty
In 2023, with the rise of energy prices, clear societal divides are being reinforced. It is not surprising to state that there is an indirect relationship between centralization and energy poverty.
The most affected areas are usually rural or peripheral zones because:
centralized systems cannot always guarantee fair pricing, extensive infrastructure, and continuous service there
in addition to a territorial disconnection, these zones are faced with a cultural disconnection.
Ethnic groups represented as minorities tend to suffer the most from the effects of energy poverty because they live in areas disconnected from large cities. In light of this, we decided to focus on one of the most disconnected communities in New Zealand: the Māori.
To find solutions to this brief, we identified six main questions to better direct us during the primary and secondary research phases.
These questions were of course supplemented by more precise sub-questions aimed at understanding the Māori community's history, culture, and values.
Beyond the secondary research
Over the past five years, several research papers have been done on the Māori population, many of those available online.
This was a great opportunity for us to learn some more about these indigenous populations we knew very little about. However, passed a certain point it was obvious that we were going to need primary sources to supplement the knowledge we were getting through the secondary ones. We therefore set off to find potential interviewees who could help us to know more about Māori people's relationship to energy.
Difficulties faced when dealing with sensitive topics
My team and I reached out to a considerable number of people in the hope of interviewing Māori people directly impacted by energy hardship.
We decided to:
send over one hundred emails to Māori shelters
contact various experts through Linkedin
activate as many of our weak links as possible.
However, after successfully discussing this topic with a few people external to the Māori world, we quickly understood that not only would it be hard to speak to Māori people living in energy hardship, but it could also be unethical. The Māori, as we came to learn, have been subject to invasive studies, the result of which has often come back to them in a negative way.
In light of this, we decided to only interview professionals who either worked with Māori or had insights into the topic of energy hardship within the Māori community.
To avoid overexposing the people who were kind enough to give us an interview on this sensitive topic,
all three interviewees have been anonymized and given another name
Our first interviewee was Louise Paulin, a traveling artist and creative director based in Nelson, New Zealand.
She is the creator of a multi-media exhibition that tells the story of Māori women. Through this initiative, Paulin has worked closely with Māori women for the last four years.
This interview aimed to better understand:
Māori culture as a whole
their household dynamics
Our second interviewee was Oliver Williams, of Māori descent and founder of a company specialized in bringing science into communities using traditional Māori knowledge mixed with western systems.
This interview aimed to:
get more insights into Māori culture
understand the relationship Māori people have with energy
know Williams' take on renewable energy sources in the country
know Māori people's perception of it.
Our third interviewee is Niko Wilson, himself a Māori, and the co-founder of a power company aimed at bringing support to struggling Māori whānau. It does so by allowing its customers to donate a portion of their power bill to support a project of their choice.
This interview aimed to better understand:
the energy situation in New Zealand from the perspective of a Māori energy retail company
the community's relationship with energy
the efforts being made in the sector to support them.
Our three interviews carried out in teams of two, respectivily (from left to right) at 1am CET, 4am CET and 9pm CET
Key learnings as a researcher
This nearly three-month-long research project was an extremely enriching and humbling experience throughout which I learned that:
Carrying out research on indigenous populations in a context of poverty can be very sensitive
It is essential to be very thorough and rigorous when making conclusions about these populations
Interviews are a vital step in any research journey before being able to assume anything about indigenous communities.
Today, it is no longer a question of designing for indigenous people, but of co-designing with them and giving them an active voice.
Key insights as a designer
Throughout our ethnographic research and interviews, we have identified the two following leads as primordial to tackle to improve the issue of energy hardship within the Māori communities:
Furthering the progress being made to improve Māori people’s access to energy-related education, and education in general
Giving more opportunities to empower Māori people in the decision-making processes around the topic of energy
These future leads are, of course, non-restrictive and non-exhaustive but aim to give a clear direction into what needs to be done to tackle energy hardship within the Māori world (see the report for the full explanation of how we arrived at these conclusions).