Using Symbolic Modelling as a research and interview tool

A review of clean approaches as a research method
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Our aims are fourfold:

  • To collect a summary of existing research/interviewing projects that use Symbolic Modelling
  • To simulate the Minewater Project research as a context for learning
  • To self-model how facilitators use Symbolic Modelling to research/interview
  • To document the adjustment to the Clean Language protocols required for research/interviewing

We aim to learn from those who have already used Symbolic Modelling as a research and interviewing tool, and widen our appreciation of the various ways in which we can use Symbolic Modelling.

 The following notes are in five parts:

  1. Examples of Symbolic Modelling as a Research and Interviewing Tool
  2. The Role of Symbolic Modelling in the Minewater Project
  3. Learning from Developing Group Day
  4. Appendix A: Background to the Minewater Project
  5. Appendix B: Proposal – Towards a new mental model for sustainability

1. Examples of Symbolic Modelling as a Research and Interviewing Tool

Below are some of the projects where people have used Symbolic Modelling and/or Clean Language as a method for conducting research and/or interviewing.

The common threads among these projects are:

To gather information ‘cleanly’ about the subjective experience of individuals and groups.

In some cases, to pay particular attention to the metaphors and symbolic representations of those interviewed.

To use and publish the information gathered with an intention to represent ‘what is’ without an intention to change the minds of the original interviewees (of course the interviewees may be changed by the experience, but that is not the intention).

Reserach Interviewing

Kath Lowery and Nancy Doyle have identified ways to utilise a Clean Language approach within qualitative interviews.  They are also looking to progress the potential of Clean Language as a tool to unbiasedly enrich data within qualitative interviewing. Kath is currently undertaking a research project to Evaluate the Impact of Home Treatment for Older People with Mental Health ProblemsThe qualitative arm of the project is to explore the experiences of a range of people – be it health, social care and service users – as well as close carers within the home treatment team. The interviews will be analysed both for their original purpose and with a secondary outcome to assess the impact of Clean Language.

Martin Snoddon has been using Clean Language in a variety of situations through his work as the Centre Director of the Conflict Trauma Resource Centre in Belfast. Two examples of him using Clean Language as a research interview tool are:

Research into the experiences of former members of the British Army. This research included 4 workshops where on each occasion upwards of 20 participants attended.  It also included 12 individual interviews.  During both the workshops and the interviews CLQ’s (developing and moving time) were used to positive effect both acknowledging what had been said and to elicit more information.  They also proved extremely useful when identifying the desired outcomes of the group and for developing a service model. The result was published as ‘Legacy of War: Experiences of Members of the Ulster Defence Regiment” (CTRC, Nov. 2005)
Current research into the legacy of violent conflict on a small community in north Belfast.  To date there has been one workshop with a group of women, and two individual interviews with leading male community activists.  I have no doubt that CLQ’s will continue to be a part of this process as it unfolds over the coming months.

Role definition and skill analysis

James Lawley, Louise Oram and Laura Ewing conducted a study into the role of Clinical Program Directors (CPDs) in a large pharmaceutical company in 2003. Each CPD headed a multi-national project team in the development and implementation of a strategic and operational plan for clinical trials, the approvals process and the launch of a new drug. The research investigated how CPDs actually achieve their function and identified the main skill-set needed to perform the job well. The research involved using Clean Language as the primary methodology to interview 15 people in three groups: 4 Vice Presidents, 5 CPDs, and 6 others involved in clinical development in both the US and UK.

Community research

Stefan Ouboter, Phil Swallow and others conducted interviews using Symbolic Modelling to gather information for a European Union funded project in 2006. Two ex-mining communities (one in Holland and one in Scotland) were selected as pilots to examine the social and economic viability and environmental effects of extracting geothermal energy from the water in former mines such that it can be used for district heating and cooling of residential and commercial areas. The Minewater Project will enable those involved to express their subjective experience so that these expressions have a place in the communication process and implementation plan. Symbolic Modelling was used in three ways:

Through interviewing key local people and focusing on their symbols (both conceptual and physical) a mapping of symbolic landscapes of the local community can be produced. Similarly the subjective experiences of initiators and managers of the Minewater project can be identified.

By sharing the symbolic landscapes of the local community and the initiators of the project, they can recognise the harmonic elements and the tensions in the network of symbols.

By blending the symbolic landscapes and adapting them to the mutual benefit of all involved parties these can be incorporated into the communication and implementation plans.

Doctor-patient relationship research

Wendy Sullivan has modelled clinicians with excellent doctor-patient relationships. As part of the project she interviewed each doctor and elicited a metaphor for the way they relate to their patients.  When the clinicians were brought together they were invited to share metaphors and ‘to try each other’s on for size’ and to agree on the common elements of their metaphors.  One senior consulting physician was so pleased with the aptness of the metaphor that he immediately introduced it into his training of student doctors. cleanchangecompany.com

Sally Vanson has used Clean Language in her research to discover the perceptions of managers who get promoted very quickly to senior positions. theperformancesolution.com 

Dee Berridge used Symbolic Modelling (among other modelling methodologies) to conduct interviews and construct a model of how public relation consultants gather information from the client, create solutions, and deliver solutions.

Other kinds of interviews

Clean Language has been used as a recruitment interview method to find a fit between employers and potential employees by both Louise Oram and Dan Rundle.  Louise has been involved in senior manager recruitment in the pharmaceutical industry and Dan in the social services sector.

Interviews by Health Workers
James Lawley and Penny Tompkins in 1996 taught nurses how to use Clean Language to interview Multiple Sclerosis patients so that the patients were able to describe the sometimes bizarre nature of their symptoms with metaphor. The nurses were surprised at just how relieved the patients felt when they could explain their symptoms in this way. Some patients said it was the first time they felt someone had really understood their illness.

Dr. Sheila Stacey uses patient’s metaphors to save time and build rapport. Sheila waits for a patient to use a metaphor that sums up what the problem is like for them. She then uses their  metaphor as a shorthand description in future consultations allowing her to make maximum use of the limited time available. Sheila also uses patients’ metaphors to explain the effects that treatment methods will have on their illness.

Police Interviewing
The South Yorkshire Police Constabulary established a programme for training 80 of their officers in the specialised interviewing of vulnerable witnesses. This 2002 programme included training by Caitlin Walker in how to use Clean Language as a respectful and lawful way to gather information. trainingattention.co.uk

Chuck Holbink teaches Statement Analysis to policemen in the US. He says that “during interviews interviewers must obtain the ‘pure version’. This means removing the main contaminant, which is the interviewer. In other words, you want the subject’s exact words and you don’t want your words contaminating their statement.” Part of his method is to use Clean Language questions.

Journalist Interviews
Judy Rees in England and Francis Colnot in France have made use of Clean Language during their interviews as journalists.

2. The Role of Symbolic Modelling in the Minewater Project

Adapted from reports written by Stefan Ouboter. (See Appendix A for an overview of the Minewater project)

The place of the innovative communication in the overall project

The minewater project has the ambition to deliver a working minewater heating system.

Many people are involved in this new energy transition, all having their own perceptions about energy, their own priorities and their own expectations based on their own experiences. In the Minewater project it is assumed that when the initiators of the projects know the values and symbols of the community, they can incorporate them into the implementation of the project and the project will better serve the local society.

The Minewater project is divided in work packages. Most of the work packages are of a technical nature: a technical feasibility study and the technical design of the system.  Other work packages are focussed on the environmental aspects, legislative issues, etc.  Last but not least is the design of a management system and marketing plan for the energy supply system.

The innovative approach to community communication is defined as a specific work package that has to be connected on a continuous basis to two tasks of the overall Project Management Office: the communication strategy of the project and the dissemination of results of the two pilots.  The first steps are two deliverables: the stakeholder analysis and the marketing plan.

The essence of this work package is the definition and demonstration of an innovative communication strategy based on the experiences in the pilots of the Minewater project. This communication is innovative because it takes into account the thoughts, ideas, feelings, frustrations fears and pride of the mineworkers communities, where more traditional communications strategies are based on non-personal information exchange and rational negotiations with stakeholder groups.  One of the deliverables of this work package is a booklet with the working title: ‘Past, present & future of the energy in Mining communities’.

This work, carried out within the Minewater project by Stefan Ouboter will address several methodological questions:

  1. What kind of questions do we ask the community when we want to learn about things that are important for them?
  2. We intend to use the clean language model, but how do we adapt the questions in order to use them for this purpose?
  3. Our idea is to interview people that are ‘network hubs’, expecting them to know about the perceptions of community groups, but how do we know that the perceptions of those being interviewed are representative of the community?
  4. How do we analyse the data (symbols, values, criteria, experiences, etc.) in such a way that the results can be inputted into the communication process and the design of the new energy system?
  5. How does the whole approach of assessing the subjective experiences of the community (from beginning to end) be described as a model that can be used by other minewater projects?

Communication issues in the minewater project

Many different stakeholders are involved on several levels:

The Initiators (5 Partners):

 – Local councils
– Technical experts

People from the local community:

 – Potential consumers
– Potential direct beneficiaries (operators, employees, local commerce)


 – The European Union (part sponsor)
– Private investors
– Energy supply companies
– Interested observers (other mining communities, universities, environmental agencies, etc.)

[Note from PT & JL: The environment could be considered as a stakeholder and some people allocated to be its advocate.]

The minewater project encounters a number of major issues:

a. Private investors are reluctant to invest in this system because of long time scales for return on investments and the fact that this kind of energy has a limited amount of options for delivery, and thus business opportunities.

b. Some stakeholders involved in energy supply may see the project as business competition.

c. The new systems will have to reach a minimum volume to become viable. Only when whole areas  are connected can the system work. This means people in these areas cannot choose individually. New built areas are believed to be more suitable than adapting old areas.

d.  Consumers may be scared away by experiences in the 1970’s with community central heating systems.

e. Mining communities were monocultures, with the mines as a focal point in economic, social and even family life. When coal was exchanged for oil in a period of only a decade,  workers lost their jobs, families lost their income, people lost their pride and positive perspectives of their future. Now, some decades after the closure of the mines this trauma is still tangible in many mining communities.  The effects of the trauma could lead to an initial negative attitude toward the minewater heating system.

General approach towards community issues in the Minewater project

On the other hand, a successful Minewater project could help to reframe and heal the negative experiences of the past with a positive perspective of the future. To do so the project needs knowledge about the mental perceptions on a community level.

Apart from the regular communication activities needed in a large scale technical project like providing information, presentation of arguments that lead to clear decisions, and responding to the questions of the people involved, a major component of the Minewater project is that the project’s communication should incorporate the subjective experiences of the local community.

Local council representatives have made a list of subjective experiences they expect from people in their communities

  • recognition of expertise about the mines, location of shafts, quality of the water, etc.
  • recognition of the identity of the community as a former mineworkers’ community and at the same time the search for a new identity
  • acknowledgement of the pain that was caused by the closure of the mines
  • acknowledgement of the economic and social problems in the present that are still connected to the history of the mines (unemployment, physical health problems, brownfields, etc.)
  • the need for new perspectives for the future that do not deny the past and present situation.

Symbolic Modelling

The question for the minewater project is how the perceptions that take place in the minds of the local people can respectfully be taken into account in such a technical project. Symbolic Modelling was mentioned in 2003 by Stefan Ouboter as a promising approach (see Appendix B). His company NOK is one of the five project partners. His aim is to produce a model based on the experiences in the two pilots, but applicable to any other comparable situations.

Symbolic Modelling is in its essence a coaching tool, in which people are coached to model their own symbolic landscape, thus meeting their own goals.  However, Symbolic Modelling could work for an enterprise like the Minewater project because the desired outcome of the initiators of the project is to incorporate the goals, concerns and expectations of the local communities. The local communities are not against the goals of the Minewater project, but their support is conditional (e.g. ‘it should not cost more than traditional heating systems’, ‘I want control over the heating in my own house’, etc.). Other perceptions cannot be dealt with in a rational negotiation process without knowing more about the symbolic landscape that is behind certain remarks (e.g. ‘this will never work in a city like Heerlen, because nothing ever works here’ or ‘it will be the same as before, we are not important’)

Incorporating Symbolic Modelling into the Innovative Communication of the Minewater Project

It is presumed that the need for an innovative communication of the Minewater project (let people express their subjective experience and give these expressions a place in the communication process) can be blended with the methodology of Symbolic Modelling in 3 steps:

1. Step one is mapping the symbolic landscapes of the local community and the initiators of the project. Through interviews with key persons of the local communities, focusing on their symbols and asking them what they would like to have happen and proceeding according to the clean language methodology.

From preliminary interviews it is concluded that two type of answers can be expected. Some symbols are conceptual, like the ‘comradeship’ that former mineworkers in Heerlen experienced in the mines and to which many of them refer to as the ideal of how people should work together; or the ‘positive outcome of the business case’ that the people from the council of Midlothian mentioned.  Other symbols are part of the physical environment, like a monument, a former pit, or the Miners Museum.

The outcome of this step is a symbolic landscape of the local community, which includes stories, photographs, geographical maps, etc. which will be fed back to memebers of the community to gauge the degree of representativeness.

It is essential in this first step that the symbolic landscape of the initiators is also modelled in the belief that the only way to communicate the ins and outs of the project to people who are not directly involved is in a symbolic form (rather than talking the jabberwocky of their technical profession).

2. The second step is to connect the symbolic landscapes of the local community and of the initiators of the Minewater project, mostly authorities, project developers and energy supplying companies. Do they recognise the network of symbols of  the local community, the harmonic elements and the tensions in it? And can they implement the most important elements of  the symbolic landscape of the local people in their own conceptions of the project?

3. The third step is to utilise the blend(s) of symbolic landscapes, adapting it to the mutual benefits of all involved parties and to anchor it in the implementation. The most obvious aspect of the project where this blend could be explicated is the communication plan. But the implementation plan is even more important so that problems are addressed, monuments are taken care of, key persons of the local community are involved, etc.

3. Learning from Developing Group Day

Dear Stefan,

We spent the whole of Saturday 5th August simulating the interview stage of the Minewater Project.

Below is a copy of the brief we gave the ‘Interviewers’ (Proposed Method for Semi-Structured Interviews using Symbolic Modelling).  The whole group had the pre-day reading which you have already seen.

In the morning seven participants took on the role of being interviewed with the assumption that the MWP was being implemented in their locality.  In the afternoon a different seven were interviewed.

The overall learning from the day is that Symbolic Modelling can be very effective in an interview setting such as that proposed by the Minewater Project.  Using Symbolic Modelling (Clean Language, metaphor and modelling) adds an extra dimension to the interview process compared to using Clean Language alone.  The benefit is the broader range of information obtained, but it comes at the price of increasing complexity and skill required by the interviewer.

Below are the key points that came out of the day.

Our very best regards to you and your family,

James and Penny
13 August 2006

Some of the learning to come out of the day:


– It is very important to set-up and the initial introductions of interviewer and interviewee.  Although the interviewees were in role play, they reported that they could not relax into answering questions until the purpose and protocols of the interview had been fully discussed, including addressing any concerns the interviewee may have.

– Many of the interviewers said they felt the need to start with very simple questions that could easily be answered, rather than dive in with ‘What would you like to have happen?’.

– Some interviewers who had a nice informal chatty start had some difficulty in moving the interview on to more specific topics.

– Some suggested that rather than you defining the starting point you could say something like “You’ve read the briefing, what stands out for you about what you’ve read?”


– The interviews lasted for an hour and many of the groups reported this was not enough time to cover such a wide range of topics, so that either the scope needs to be limited or a second interview would be required.

– We realise you may interview for up to 1.5 hours which would help.  However a few of the interviewees who were role playing older people felt that even an hour was quite a long time and that they would feel tired at the end of the interview because of the kinds of questions being asked.


– Generally the interviewers were able to gather high-quality information about the topics.  But even though they were experienced Symbolic Modellers they struggled to develop metaphors when interviewing in a conversational mode. This seemed to be about (a) the potential for breaking the rapport that had been so carefully established; (b) the resistance/reluctance the facilitator felt at changing from an ordinary conversation to something metaphorical; (c) the need to keep in mind that developing metaphors is part of the interviewer’s desired outcome.

– Where metaphors were identified, interviewers were unclear about how far to develop the metaphor.  Do you have an idea of how much of a metaphoric description you need?  (We suggested to the group that a metaphor has enough of an existence when you can refer to it throughout the interview,)

– We observed that metaphors in ordinary conversation have a very short half life.  That is, if you don’t refer to them immediately, the moment passes very quickly.  Also the interviewer has to be very attentive to his/her questions to increase the chances of getting an answer in metaphor.  If the question offers the interviewee the slightest chance of returning to the conceptual, they will, e.g.

Interviewee: “We need to build a bridge between the generations.”
Interviewer:  “What’s important about building a bridge between the generations?”
Interviewee: “Our youth are leaving the community.”

The interviewer would have had much more chance of developing the metaphor if they had asked:

“And what kind of bridge is the bridge we need to build?”

–  To encourage the interviewee to stay with a metaphor took some persistence by the interviewer and a determination to return to the metaphor even if the interviewee gave conceptual answers.  Eventually the interviewee began to ‘get it’ and answer from the metaphor.

– If an interviewee did not naturally respond to developing questions about a metaphor, then it was suggested that you make your request for a metaphor overt, explaining what a metaphor is if necessary.

–  Even though the interviewers knew that sometimes the interviewees were making up the answers, they still had a tendency to get lost in the story and had to stay alert to those metaphors which were being used unconsciously by the interviewee. They also had to keep track of whether the interviewee had answered the particular question asked, no matter how interesting the story.

– You are going to get a mixture of sensory, conceptual and symbolic information.  The interviewer needs to decide how much of each type of information they want. And it is particularly valuable when links between all three can be established. Also to remember that an example which sounds sensory and superficial can also be symbolic.


– We noted that you will need to be clear about how you are going to handle questions from the interviewee.  If they start asking you about the project, how much will you answer?  One suggestion was that you tell the interviewee you will answer their questions at the end.  (But you would need to plan time to do this.)

– Even though it was role play, several interviewees accessed quite deep emotional states and suggested you have a plan of how to handle such a situation, and potentially what to do if they need further support.

– A strong message from the groups was that you will need to prioritise the information you require so that the most important questions get asked, and if you run out of time it is the less important information that is missed.


– Some suggestions of questions you might consider:

Do you have experience of anything like this project happening before?
(As well as ‘What would you like to have happen?’ and ‘And what would you like not to happen?’
(At the beginning) What would you like this interview to be like?
(Or at the end) What was this interview like?

–  A simple question to get sensory question information is “And can you give me an example of …”.

– The use of ‘When…’ is still important for helping to set the context for the question, even during a conversational interview.


– Unless the interviewer is aware that to a large degree the answers they are getting are a direct consequence of the questions they ask, then they may think that if they are do not get the information they require, it is the fault of the interviewee. (Rather than where and how they are directing the interviewee’s attention.)

– When an interviewee had a tendency to describe a very wide range of experiences, sometimes moving from one to another without a pause, the interviewer had to be very clear about their outcome for the interview so they could pick out  the relevant bits from all of the interviewee’s responses.

– When the interviewer asks the ‘Like what?’ question of is vital.  Generally asking ‘Like what?’ of something that exists physically gets a look of confusion.  Also asking ‘Like what?’ of a highly abstract concept does not work well either.  What did work was asking ‘Like what?’ when the interviewee couldn’t easily find an ordinary answer.

– The interviewer needs to take into account the verbosity of the interviewee.  Sometimes just repeating back a few words was enough to prompt the interviewee to launch into another monologue.  This is fine if they are giving relevant information.  But if they are not or they are repeating themselves the interviewer needs to take more charge of the interview by asking more directed questions and even respectfully interrupting.

Proposed Method for Semi-Structured Interviews using Symbolic Modelling

1. Ask a question to get the interviewee’s attention on a relevant topic  (CONTEXT).

2. Clean Language questions to develop and expand that information.

3. And to pick up on metaphors/symbols:

If a metaphor is not forthcoming, to ask for one and develop that.

4. Then, either naturally slide into another topic (on the list).

Or, direct attention to another topic when you have enough information.

5. If go outside the context, direct attention back to one of the topics.

Notes for Interviewer

Keep the interview conversational.

Whenever possible:

  • keep asking ‘And is there anything else about…’.
  • Identify what role the person is taking to answer the question, e.g. parent, potential consumer, local tradesperson, local representative,  ex-miner, etc. (PERCEIVER)
  • Elicit symbols – physical and imaginative.  (PERCEIVED)
  • Explore RELATIONSHIP between symbols of the mind and physical symbols in the locality.
  • Elicit RELATIONSHIP between the person and project implementation, aim/plan, personnel, etc.

Notes for Observer

  • Take down questions exactly.
  • Take down brief notes or just the kind of answer given.
  • Ask for a time-out if interviews goes outside the remit of the exercise.



  • Where do you live = town.
  • How long have you (your family) lived in [town]?
  • What is, or has been, your job?


  • What do you think about the physical environment of [town] as a place to live?
  • How would you sum up your local community?
  • What local building or monument most sums up your town or it’s people,
  • and why?
  • What is important to you about living in [town]?


  • Since you’ve lived in [town], what changes have you noticed?
  • How have these affected the local people?
  • What has been important to you personally about those changes?


  • What are your hopes/aspirations for your town and the people in it?
  • What would you most like to have happen locally?
  • What would need to happen for [answer to previous question]?


  • What does ‘ecological’ mean to you?
  • What is your opinion of what’s happening to the local environment?
  • Do you have any experience of community environmental projects? [eg recycling]
  • How have you been involved in these projects?
  • What do you think of them?
  • Have you done anything personally to be more environmentally friendly?


  • What do you know about the Minewater Project?
  • Is there anything else you would like to know about the Minewater Project?
  • What do you think people in this town generally think about the MWP?
  • Who do you think is organising the project?
  • What, if any, contact have you had with the project organisers?
  • What is your opinion of how the project has been organised so far?


  • Do you think it is viable for the mine water to be used as a source of energy for
  • heating and cooling the town’s houses and offices?
  • If the MWP is fully implemented, what effect will that have on the town?
  • Is there anything you would like to see happen in relation to the MWP?
  • How would you like other ex-mine working communities to view the project?
  • Are you interested in finding out about the progress of the project?
  • (If ‘yes’) How would you like the organisers to keep you informed?
  • Is there anything you’d like to ask me before we finish?

4. Appendix A: Background to the Minewater Project


Climate change
Burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) has brought prosperity and comfort to people across the globe. But today we know that burning fossil fuels releases greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The build-up of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere is changing the climate of the whole planet – with potentially devastating consequences. For example, scientists have predicted that the countries of Northern Europe are likely to face hotter summer temperatures, much stormier winters, flooding of low-lying areas, and loss of land caused by rising sea levels.

The need for innovation
Many national governments now agree that climate change is one of the most important threats facing the planet, and they are taking steps to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases. As well as encouraging people to cut down on energy usage, governments and their agents are looking for innovative and ‘green’ ways to generate the heat and power we rely on. Using mine water is one such innovation.

Regeneration of old mining communities
For centuries the people of Europe have relied on coal as a source of energy and of economic prosperity. But since the 1970s, we have all become more reliant on gas and oil for energy, and economic forces have led to wide-spread mine closures. This has badly affected the lives of people who relied on the coal-mining industry. Formerly strong mining communities have struggled to survive; and this has had an effect on other local jobs and services. In addition, local environments have suffered from neglect, resulting in pollution and safety problems.

The Minewater Project
In the towns of Heerlen (Netherlands) and Dalkeith (Scotland), mining was the largest employer and it was the main reason for the growth of both towns. Although the mines are now closed, research suggests that they can once again be the source of useful energy. The Minewater Project aims to use the water in disused mines as a source of renewable energy that will help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  The plan is to extract the warm water that is flooding the old mine workings and circulate it to homes and work-places through a district heating system.  This is done by means of a district heat network.

Mine water has already been used on a small scale for heating, but this has generally involved single buildings and a fairly small heat pump. In the proposed pilot projects the scale is larger, using a large heat pump. Instead of heating just one building, the system will supply heat for a district heating system. In this way the heat is supplied to a large number of buildings.

The Minewater Project will be a major contribution to the regeneration of the two former collieries, and the lessons learnt here will carry forward to other mining areas across Europe.  The Project began work in March 2005, and it will run until June 2008.

The benefits of using mine water

  • Buildings that use mine water energy will need much smaller amounts of fossil fuels to meet their energy needs
  • Emissions of greenhouse gases are reduced
  • It is a local source of energy, so it can be delivered to local buildings very efficiently
  • Transmission losses are reduced (i.e. most of the energy reaches the point of use)
  • Using local resources means that new jobs will be created
  • Better employment opportunities have a positive effect on people’s lives and their environment
  • Mine water is pumped, cleaned and released elsewhere
  • Risk of flooding – and the pollution that this causes when mines close – is reduced
  • Redevelopment of industrial areas as part of an overall regeneration strategy
  • Sustainable regeneration of places and communities


The Minewater Project is supported by a grant from the European Union. There are five project partners and numerous European observers who are contributing their expertise and knowledge. Most important of all, the people of the mining communities are being encouraged to be involved in the process, through local meetings, workshops, events, publications, and this website.

Primary objective
The Minewater Project, based in Heerlen (The Netherlands) and Midlothian (Scotland), aims to reduce the ecological footprint of these ex-mining communities by demonstrating that it is economically viable and environmentally sound to extract geothermal energy from the water in former and closed mines on a large scale such that it can be used for district heating and cooling of residential and commercial areas.

Secondary objectives
It also aims: 

  • To build new urban areas within old mining communities to improve spatial planning, environmental effects, and economic performance of the area.
  • For an environmental solution in place of an environmental problem
  • the dissemination of information about this new renewable energy resource for replication throughout North-Western and Eastern Europe.
TECHNICAL Geothermal energy Rocks deep below ground-level store heat, and stay at a fairly constant temperature. This heat is called ‘geothermal energy’. Water that has flooded disused mines is warmed by the heat of the rocks. The idea of using geothermal energy is not new – the Romans used hot springs for heating. Heat pumps Heat pumps are already used in many buildings around the world. Basically, the heat pump is the reverse of a domestic refrigerator. In a refrigerator heat is pumped from the inside (where the food is stored) and released at the back. In so-called ‘ground source’ heat pumps, pipes are laid in the ground below or close to a building, and are then able to collect much more heat than is contained inside a refrigerator. Enough heat can be pumped from the ground to heat the building. Heat pumps like this can also pump heat from a body of water such as a lake, a river … or a flooded mine. The mine water has the additional advantage of being warmer to start with. Heat pumps typically generate three times as much energy as you put in – using the warm minewater increases this still further.

The newness of the two proposed Minewater schemes mean that there are many technical issues that need to be addressed. There are some fascinating facts to be discovered: how much energy is there and how can it be used? How easy will it be to integrate the mine water with existing energy efficient technologies like combined heat and power (CHP) and heat pumps?  The schemes also raise some tricky questions like who owns the mine water? Who can give permission for the project to proceed? How can the threat of pollution be addressed? What environmental responsibilities may have to be taken on?


The Minewater project is focused around two former coal mines that will once again be used as a source of energy. The mines are located at Heerlen, in The Netherlands in Midlothian, Scotland.

The communities in Heerlen and Midlothian, like many mining communities, experienced severe economic and social deprivation when the mines closed. They had shared an economic dependence on the mines and a very strong associated social and cultural structure.

The difference is that the available energy will now be used locally for the benefit of the immediate communities. So the project is a potent symbol of regeneration, using the same mines as a local solution for sustainable energy systems. Mines that once powered the industrial revolution can now be focal points for a post-industrial renewable energy-based society.

There are many mining communities across Europe that will be watching the progress of these two schemes. They too could develop similar systems.

The scheme in Heerlen will be located at two areas of redevelopment in the town at Heerlerheide Centrum and Stadpark Oranje Nassau. These sites are 3.5 km apart situated to the north of the town and in the centre of the town, respectively. The two sites will be part of one system that will be able to both heat and cool buildings! Both the sites will involve drilling into the mines because they have been filled in since mine closure – in this respect they differ from the Monktonhall mine in Midlothian, Scotland (see below).

The new developments will revitalise the areas they are in, comprising a mixture of new housing with public and commercial buildings. Those moving in will be joining a community of the future!

The first drilling at Heelerheide commenced in May 2006. Two wells are being drilled to a depth of 825 metres. Nearly a kilometre beneath the town water can be found at about 35°C, like a warm bath. This task will not be easy and is likely to require 350 hours of continuous drilling!

The scheme in Midlothian will be sited in and developed as part of a completely new community called Shawfair. The intention is that if the pilot scheme proves successful, the whole of Shawfair, comprising several thousand dwellings and many commercial and public buildings, will eventually be supplied by the new minewater heating system.

Once legal issues have been fully addressed in Midlothian, and the business case has been fully approved to proceed, the water emerging from the Monktonhall mine will be used.  This water can be used directly because the mine was never filled in. In fact water is already being pumped from the Monktonhall mine to prevent flooding and associated environmental pollution.

This water in this mine has a temperature of approximately 13°C. Of course this is not warm enough to heat the buildings directly as at Heerlen, but it is warm enough to supply the first phase of the Shawfair development. The water will supply a system designed specially for this development. If it is successful, not only can it be extended to supply other areas of Shawfair as they are built, but it could also be copied at other similar mines across Europe.

The system designed for Shawfair includes two items of energy efficient technology as well as the warm minewater: a heat pump and a combined heat and power engine.

5. Appendix B - Sustainability Proposal

Proposal by Stefan Ouboter to NICOLE in the summer of 2003
NICOLE is a leading forum on contaminated land management in Europe, promoting co-operation between industry, academia and service providers on the development and application of sustainable technologies.
Stepfan’s proposal, reproduced below, was to make the fuzzy concept of ‘sustainable land management’ more concrete using Symbolic Modelling to clarify the network of mental frames held by experienced land management practitioners and strategists.

Towards a new mental model for sustainability

From risk based land management towards sustainable land management

In the Barcelona meeting, March 2003, the NICOLE network had the aim to make a new strategy for the next years, based on the concept of ‘sustainable land management’. There was a general agreement on at least two major issues.

First, the concept of ‘risk based land management’ is too much focussed on the negative impacts of contaminated soils. Risk based land management is an adequate but not complete strategy and should be incorporated in a wider perspective that has a driving force towards a goal instead of away from a risk. ‘Sustainibility’ is an appropriate term for the ultimate goal, but has the disadvantage that it is a ‘fuzzy’ word or a ‘container expression’. During the meeting many ideas were put forward to specify the concept of sustainability in the daily practice of land management and soil quality control.

The second conclusion was that the three P’s (Planet, People, Profit) should be the basis for any definition of sustainable land management and that therefore NICOLE should widen its perspective. Many people thought that it is essential for NICOLE-members – most of them originating from a technical scientific expertise and still considering themselves as technical experts – to have comprehensive discussions with other groups such as spatial planners, financial experts and people with a social and economic scientific background.

Though the agreement on this direction of NICOLE is a great step forward, the question still is how sustainable land management can be put into practice. Or in other words, ‘how to develop sound management options which are technically and financially viable, and which take country specific conditions into account’ – as the NICOLE discussion paper on sustainable land management puts it.

How to bring the abstract concept of sustainability a step forward

Cognitive science and mental frames

Where most sciences are intended to develop our knowledge of  nature, processes or human beings, cognitive scientists study the way we know. One of the outcomes of recent research is that there is an underlying structure of our conscious thinking that makes it possible that we can think and communicate rational. This subconscious level is believed to be a network of mental frames or mental spaces that are connected through analogy. To give an example: When somebody refers to ‘buying a beer in a restaurant’ we can understand that because we connect our conceptual frames of beer, buying and restaurant and combine it with our own experience of beer, buying or restaurants. The same applies to our understanding of ‘buying’. This single word transfers in our Western world a frame with input frames like money, markets, goods, etc. At the end of the line are basic frames like ‘small/big’ ‘close/far’, etc.

The same structure of subconscious networks of frames can be found in expert language. The concept of ‘human risks of contaminated soils’ is built on input frames of toxicity, chemical substances, exposure routes and effects. For soil experts this concept is so evident that they are not aware anymore that only 20 years ago many conferences were needed to reach this level of general understanding.

This proposal wants to make the fuzzy concept of sustainable land management more concrete, using relative new methods of the cognitive sciences to clarify the network of mental frames that gives meaning to abstract concepts. The concept of sustainable land management does not have such a general accepted network of frames yet, as is e.g. the  case with the concept of risk based land management. Many people still have no clear (mental) picture of sustainability but refer to it as a vague expression. However, if some people say that they are putting sustainable land management into practice, they must have  a mental map of the fuzzy concept of sustainability. The idea of this proposal is to elicit those mental maps from people that work in soil management in different countries, using the new methodology of the cognitive scientists.

This proposal is an alternative for the methods we are more familiar with: through debates, discussions and negotiations trying to make a definition that is acceptable for the majority in the NICOLE network. Where this traditional discussion methodology very much depends on the use of a shared language, the alternative methodology to focus on a network of associated frames focuses on mental images evolved from people with experiences in soil and land management. We presuppose that the mental images can be more effective to reach a general understanding than the definition in a  language that is not the mother tongue of most people.

The proposal

The core of the proposal

A multidisciplinary team of cognitive scientists and communication experts interview 12 soil experts in 4 countries (UK, Netherlands, Belgium & France) that are known to have practical experiences in soil management in a way that could be described as ‘towards sustainable land management’. The outcome of the interviews is a mapping of their mental frames in sketches, schemes or description of the mental pictures they use in solving day to day problems of soil management. This material will be documented and further developed in a workshop with sponsoring NICOLE members.

Both the basic material (the mental pictures connected to the real world problems) and the outcome of the developing workshop will be reported in a booklet of visual mindmaps. It is the aim to present the booklet on the NICOLE workshop in Lille, November 2003.

The team

The Developing Company from London developed a methodology (Symbolic Modelling) by observing the work a psychotherapist from New Zealand, David Grove. He used a specific way of questioning to invite people to become aware of subconscious mental frames. Traumatized people (e.g. Vietnam veterans) often had no direct access to their traumatic experiences, but were able to describe their experiences in symbols and metaphors. Clients that were able to change their mental frames often also could solve their troubles connected to their traumatic experiences. The means of David Grove were modelled by Penny Tomkins and James Lawley into a methodology called symbolic modelling. Nowadays it is still used as a psychotherapeutic methodology, but parts of the methodology also proved to be valuable for a variety of other processes where subconscious patterns play a role. Examples vary from developing business strategies, complex communication processes to education strategies. Courses in symbolic modelling are given in the UK, US, Italy, France and the Netherlands.

In the Netherlands, Stefan Ouboter is working in the Wageningen University on the potentials to adept the method in participatory processes in the environmental field. There it could fill the gap between the rational action planning on which most participatory processes are based and the subjective and emotional perception of people.

This proposal needs three kind of skills. The first skill is the ability to model the subconscious mental maps that people use to put abstract concepts into action plans. The methodology that will be used is Symbolic Modelling and Clean Language. We call the people that have this first skill the modellers. The second skill is the ability to put sustainable land management into practice in a real world environment. We call the people that have that skill the practitioners. The third skill is the ability to understand and develop the mental maps from individuals into a scheme that can be used to further develop the concept of sustainable land management. We call the people that have this third skill the strategists.

With this proposal we want to form the following team of people:

  Modellers Practitioners Strategists
Number3 to 4 from 3 countries12 from 4 countries4 – 6 from NICOLE
InterviewersInterviewed on a specific situationDeveloping
BackgroundCapable of the Clean Language interview technique and interested in environmentExperienced in land management and aiming for sustainabilityMember of NICOLE Industrial group or Service providers Group
2 days per interview + workshop day = 5–7 days per interviewer 1 or 2 sessions of 2 hours 1 workshop +  feed back on outcome papers
Stefan Ouboter (NL) James Lawley (UK) Penny Tompkins (UK) ano (Fr)  Representatives from: Shell, ICI, Tauw France, TNO …

The secretary of the industrial group and Stefan Ouboter will perform the project management tasks and the reporting. A professional quick drawer will be part of the team to visualize the mental maps, schemes, etc. Interviews will be recorded on tape and/or video.  Interviewed people should realize that the interview technique differs from a traditional conversational interview. Preparation is not needed, but it is important that a focus on subconscious mental processes asks for a tranquil environment, an open mind and a good concentration.

Planning of the project

The project is scheduled to be very compact. It could give the Lille workshop some extra input when the developing workshop is planned just before in October 2003. The interviews could be organised in August and September.

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