27 October 2009

Irene Cassarino: A reflection on energy efficiency and behaviour

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Energy and behaviour
Irene Cassarino, an Experientia collaborator, reports on the First European Conference on Energy Efficiency and Behaviour, which took place in Maastricht last week:

What role do objects play in our life and culture? It depends on their embedded scripts. Like actors on-stage, they tell us a story, influence our feelings, enrich our knowledge and at the end play a social and even political role in our society, somewhat like movies and plays do. They share the power to influence our behaviours with other individuals, their socio-cultural context, and routines, in a dialogical way. Too abstract?

Hal Wilhite from the University of Oslo and keynote speaker at the First European Conference on Energy Efficiency and Behaviour in Maastricht a week ago (20-22 October 2009), shared with attendees the defining story of the refrigerator in India: keeping leftover food used to be associated, in India, with stupidity. What the refrigerator as a functional object was suggesting to Indians was not enough to overwrite their routines and beliefs, so at first, they refused it. Then the refrigerator kept ‘saying’: it’s good to store raw food in a cool environment before cooking. With this new message, customs in Indian houses changed to include storing of raw food in the refrigerator, and slowly but firmly, the habits and beliefs of local people changed to eventually include storing cooked food as well. A side note – people using refrigerators also increased the country’s CO2 emission by 20%.

This story is quite simple, but it does give an idea of how complex it is to design tools, services and practices to trigger behavioural change in people’s lives. This is particularly true in respect to energy saving. Behavioural research in energy saving was born as a discipline 20 years ago in the university departments of environmental psychology, and a lot of experiences and case studies have been collected so far, but despite this, the issue is still widely debated and suffers from a lack of interdisciplinary cross-fertilisation.

Some objects, for instance, are introduced to market with an explicit script (the refrigerator to store raw food) and with potential scripts to change people’s attitudes (refrigerator to store cooked food). Scripts have to be taken into account and leveraged by designers in a positive way, but few designers have been ready to participate in the dialogue.

From supply to demand management

All speakers acknowledged that the climate change challenge is addressed so far with a strong emphasis on the supply side (as much energy as we want, but greenly produced and smartly distributed), while there is barely no systematic approach on the demand management front. A considerable amount of research has been done though by universities and research centres, especially in the household sector, while few efforts have been devoted to studying behavioural change in business organisations.

Many conceptual approaches and methodologies have been presented: this is not a signal of disciplinary confusion at all, because -– as Charles Vlek from the Groningen University pointed out — the more they are combined and tailored, in specific interventions, the more effective they become. Paul Stern from the US Research Council reworded this recommendation as the “full court press” approach. The audience waited with anticipation for his scientific estimations on opportunities for emission reduction in 5 to 10 years, but he was unfortunately unable to share much about his paper because it was under embargo from his editor.

Irmeli Mikkone from Motiva, Finland, presented the European Energy Network programme (EnR), a voluntary organisation that since 1992 has gathered 22 members from the whole of Europe, operating in 8 different working groups (from behavioural change, to labelling and eco-design, monitoring tools and common databases).

Methodological challenges

A common issue in several research papers was that results on energy use and percentages of reductions were just calculated –- that is deduced from information collected by users themselves and delivered to the researcher through questionnaires. This was criticised as a highly unreliable methodology. Although it is understandable from the point of view of budget constraints, the use of energy smart meters in research could be a valuable alternative. Similar issues refer to the fact that people often volunteered in these studies, while a professional recruitment system –- which also implies financial reward for participants –- would have led to more reliable results.

Discrepancies between attitudes and behaviours also introduce bias into research: meaning that it is not enough to ask people to what extent they support the environment and related policies. The change in their actual behaviour is the issue, and this holds true also for government and administrations. As Shane Fudge from the University of Surrey noticed, although the UK government has a strong strategy for behavioural change (the Enable, Encourage, Exemplify, Engage diamond), actual results are quite disappointing: emissions of CO2 continue to increase, as well as the rate of car use and air travels.

Leveraging people

“I want to change but I don’t want to be changed by others!”; the challenge is to leverage people’s intrinsic motivations, a member of the audience pointed out. How to do it? According to Gerjo Kok from the Department of Psychology and Neurosciences at Maastricht University -– in order to plan a successful intervention to foster behavioural change, the designer should concentrate on assessing needs, defining specific programme objectives (in terms, for instance, of target groups, performance objectives and desired energy saving behaviour), and choosing the right mix of methodologies, applications, development channels and continuous evaluation of programme steps.

Sible Schoone, Director of the Climate Campaign Office (Heir, Netherlands), shifted the attention to the importance of involving the consumer in climate policy: as a citizen (moral/knowledge level), as a neighbour (social level), and eventually as a customer (price/quality/easy-to-get level). Communication initiatives at citizen level involve celebrities, events and free publicity, while if you want to involve the consumer at a social level it is better to organise local events like the climate street party (competition over streets in taking energy saving measures, ending with a big party with celebrities). At customer level, it’s worth mentioning tikkie terug -– the most successful consumer campaign of the year in the Netherlands, which offered people advice and tips on energy friendly and saving behaviours via TV.

“Revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new tools, but when it adopts new behaviours”
Clay Shirky

Employing this famous quotation, Karen Ehrhardt Martinez from ACEEE –- the American Council for Energy Efficient Economy –- reminded the audience that technologies are tools. Interventions must not be biased by technologies: people are the centre. Just by adopting easy to apply energy saving behaviours and measures, she calculated that it’s possible to potentially reduce carbon emissions by 9%. For big countries like United States, it is a huge amount. In order to underline the relevance of the motivational factor with respect to the enabling technologies, she recalled the episode in a US town, where people were told that the power infrastructure was partially broken. Citizens achieved a 30% reduction in 6 weeks and after having ‘repaired’ the problem, they maintained a 10% reduction!

Addressing the gap between research and practice

C.F.J. Feenstra was representing the Changing Behaviour Programme (CBP), a demand side management programme of the EnR (see above). Such and similar programmes are led by governments, NGOs and utilities, but most of times they are not successful due to the gap between theory and practices. The aim of the CBP is to close the gap that lies between researchers and practitioners.

Is it possible, for instance, to develop a standard toolkit for similar programmes? Steps in this direction are: creation of a public database (so far there are 27 programmes), collection of case studies, close collaboration with local practitioners as cultural mediators, identification of guidelines, identification of pilot projects to implement those guidelines (6, so far). Finally, results of pilot projects will be exploited to create the toolkit.

Identified success factors, so far, are: good understanding of the context (target groups, intermediaries) and taking advantage of ongoing similar projects (to be considered as allies and not at all as competitors since they make people more open to welcome/accept/join similar initiatives).

Examples on the ground

The aim of Sustainable Everyday, a private agency from Belgium represented by Francois Jégou, is to design affordances of embedded user scripts toward 4 kind of appliances: lighting systems, heating thermostats, washing machines and PCs.

The process went through 4 entertaining steps: casting (recruitment) of a group of friendly users; happy hours (guided tours) in user’s homes, with card games; co-design sessions in homes and design studio, with maps and “play-mobiles”, and delivery and installation of new products (prototypes) in homes.

Each member of the family was involved and design guidelines emerging from the project are: (1) provide semi-manual interfaces; (2) reset default principles, e.g.: the washing machine with preset functions easily accessible at every washing cycle; (3) favour eco-conscious artefacts and energy smart meters.

In short

These are just few notes from a much richer conference programme (more detailed notes can be requested at info at experientia dot com). Next time, the organisers will maybe manage to publish abstracts and/or presentations from the many parallel sessions, if not streaming videos! Let’s see.

The First European Conference on Energy Efficiency and Behaviour has been an initial opportunity for psychologists and sociologists to step out of their disciplinary bubble and open themselves to the debate with practitioners and operators. We were there, indeed, and it was extremely useful for us.

Unfortunately operators came mostly from public agencies, consumer associations and utilities, while designers, architects and engineers were not well represented. But this was just the first time for Europe: we are sure that next time we will find more colleagues there.

Next appointment? The Behaviour, Energy and Climate Change Conference, 15-18 Nov. 2009, Washington DC — save the date! And for those not being able to attend, there is good news: most of the presentations there will be webcast live on the conference website.

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