Designing for sustainability-focused behavioural change is a vital issue, which needs to be addressed at a multitude of levels, from a national outlook of global cooperation, to action by communities and individuals.
Despite the barriers to changing to more sustainable behaviours, there are strategies that can be implemented to promote and support change, in particular, by the construction of new social values and norms that value sustainability over a consumption-driven economy.
Experientia’s behavioural change framework has been developed over the course of our work in Helsinki’s Jätkäsaari area, as part of a team constructing a low-to-no carbon emissions building block called Low2No (www.low2no.org). Low2No is led by Experientia partner Jan-Christoph Zoels, who is responsible for the energy demand management tools (smart meters, services, urban infomatics), and oversees the behavioural change strategy for enabling sustainable lifestyles, including stakeholder engagement and participatory design processes. Experientia project manager Irene Cassarino is responsible for mixed use development.
This article was originally written for Canvas8 (www.canvas8.com) by Mark Vanderbeeken and Erin O’Loughlin, and can now be reproduced here.
Sustainable change: discovering motivations and building a community of values
Business has been told for years that the perfect product or service should fit people’s contexts, behaviours and attitudes. The designer’s own feelings about what might make a product or service attractive should always be informed by a solid understanding of the target market, and their contextual wants and needs.
Although too many businesses still aren’t catching on to this idea, current design thinking is moving people-centred design even further: the concept of design for behavioural change, particularly with regards to health and sustainability, sees the understanding of people as a first step in changing them. Can we use design to change people rather than adapt to existing desires and behaviours? Is it ethical? Is it desirable? Is it possible?
In the midst of a worsening climate crisis, design for behavioural change is a vital issue. We know that individually and collectively, we urgently need to start consuming less. In fact, we know that individual behavioural change could reduce personal carbon impact by as much as 15% by 2020 (1). Yet not only is it difficult to know which actions are the most effective, it’s also often difficult to carry them out – whether due to lack of time, lack of commitment, lack of tools, infrastructure and services, or even the feeling of being one person toiling against the mainstream, which neutralises our good behaviour. This is where design can play a huge role in helping people and communities to comply with the existing desire to be more sustainable.
Not forcing change – tapping into motivations
If changing people’s behaviour through design sounds somewhat sinister, don’t worry. We’re not talking about 1984-style attempts to make people act against their natural instinct. The aim is not to constrain people’s autonomy and freedom of choice, but rather to tap into those motivations that might make changing behaviour worth it to them as individuals. Of course, we are all motivated by different things. Just look at the 2007 study on ‘nudging’ people to change their behaviour through comparative electricity bills.
The study was carried out in 80,000 Californian households, half of which received feedback on whether they were using more or less electricity than their neighbours. The results showed that people who got the feedback cut electricity usage by a modest average of two per cent. But looking closer, the researchers found something interesting – homeowners who identified themselves as politically republican only cut usage by an average of around 0.4 per cent. Those republican households who showed no practical interest in the environment actually increased their consumption by 0.75 per cent (www.newscientist.com/article/dn18860-republicans-wont-be-nudged-into-cutting-home-energy.html).
This doesn’t mean that those people can’t be convinced to cut back on their energy use – but it won’t be comparative billing that convinces them. Feedback has to be tailored, and changing our behaviours has to bring us a result that we want – and while people may not always want to ‘be green’, non-green motivations, such as saving money, could also lead to more sustainable behaviours. It also highlights another important aspect of behavioural change: the groups and communities that we identify with can have a big impact on our likelihood of responding to certain triggers and stimulus. So, designing tools and services for behavioural change needs to start from a triple bottom line approach, which considers the environmental, economic and social dimensions of sustainable decisions.
What people really want can be complicated and is of course defined by much more than our personal values. As we will discuss, physical, cultural and social factors also come into play. Often, what we want as a long-term goal, and what we want to do right now can be in conflict. Take the desire to stay trim and fit – a longer term personal value – which wavers as we walk past our favourite restaurant; or the desire to live a more sustainable life, compared to the inconvenience of walking three blocks to recycle rubbish into the right bins. Solutions need to understand the entire context of our behaviour, use the right tools to gently remind us of the benefits whilst overcoming the barriers, and then trigger the right behaviour. An elegant example of a behavioural change solution comes from Paris, where a new fountain offers locals sparkling water on tap – after discovering that aversion to still tap water was one of the main reasons many French people were buying bottled water despite concerns about the waste (www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/sep/21/paris-park-fizzy-water-tap). A municipality in Italy is doing the same thing along its coastal walkways, in an attempt to cut down on discarded bottles (www.theage.com.au/travel/travel-news/italys-bottle-ban-to-brighten-beaches-20100922-15mxu.html). This, in turn, steps into the realm of creating products, services and public infrastructure that support sustainability – the more we build a world that supports sustainable behaviours, the easier it will be for people to change, irrespective of their values.
“I want to behave sustainably, but not right now”
Of course, offering us free, fizzy tap water might be a quick fix for plastic bottle consumption, but getting people to change their behaviours, and making that change last over time, is not always so simple – even when they know they should. First there is the issue of self-perception. Dirk Dobbs, in his article ‘The climate is changing, why aren’t we?’ (www.fastthinking.com.au/bloggers/dirk-dobbs/the-climate-is-changing,-why-aren%E2%80%99t-we.aspx) says people often overestimate their own abilities and therefore don’t think they need to change, and have a general tendency to discount the seriousness of risks, especially if they occur far in the future.
At Experientia we’ve encountered both mentalities as barriers to more sustainable behaviour in different research projects. In one, we asked people to comment on their energy consumption use. The majority of our participants stated that they believed they used less energy than average. Obviously, statistically speaking, this can’t be true. In another project, we identified a kind of ‘on hold’ mentality, in which people are aware of the issues, want to change, and even know some basic information on what actions they could take – but put off making the changes to a “more convenient time”, perhaps waiting until they own a house to install new insulation, or get married to buy more sustainable appliances, or a new job to think about alternative ways to travel to work.
There is a whole world beyond the personal
As mentioned above, however, individual motivations don’t spring from nothing – they are formed by our physical environment, our culture, our social groups, our political leanings, our government’s stance and policies, and the practical tools we have at our disposal, among other things. Any attempt at behavioural change has to take action across these different areas. In Experientia’s work in Helsinki’s Jätkäsaari area, as part of a team constructing a low-to-no carbon emissions building block called Low2No (www.low2no.org), we have been working on a behavioural change framework that identifies the interplay of forces that impact our likelihood of complying with behavioural change efforts.
A framework for bottom-up change
Of course, the government has a major role to play in creating the conditions for these frameworks to thrive. Legislation will need to play a strong role in behavioural change towards sustainability. We have already seen the limits of self-governing regulatory bodies and voluntary standards in the past – Norwegian businesses only started allowing women into their boardrooms once this became mandatory, despite ten years of promises from the companies involved.
Governments will mandate change because they need to meet targets set by various international bodies and agreements. However, for change to be sustained in the long-term, it also needs to be bottom-up, and not just top-down, rising from a grassroots commitment to change, which in turn brings pressure to bear on political bodies to change at national level.
Design can support and nurture the development of this grassroots movement, through concepts that work in the four contexts described above. Our Low2No framework also defines four different kinds of actions that need to take place: Engagement and Awareness, Community Actions, Self Assessment and Leading by Example.
Engagement and Awareness. As people’s awareness of climate issues are raised, they need meaningful and contextual information to help them respond. What is the difference in real terms between an A and an A++ appliance? How could this information be presented to people so that the benefits are clear? This also involves providing people with tools for evaluation, so that they are empowered to make better choices. Engagement with a new behaviour is more likely to be sustained long-term if it is easier and more convenient than previous patterns – for example, making it easier to recycle technological waste products or systems that automatically reuse grey water in gardens without any extra effort.
Community Actions. We are social animals and our neighbours’ or peers’ behaviour will impact us strongly. We are already starting to see social reputation being used to enforce or “proof” behaviour. Comparative billing is just one example of this. How else might people’s behaviours start to change if they knew exactly what keeping up with the Joneses meant in terms of consumption?
However, we need to go beyond the passive concept of social proofing, to help communities to build a sense of shared values, of people who have the same goals and work together. One person working alone may find it hard to sustain their commitment to a new activity – but once it becomes a social activity, family, neighbours and peers become a force of encouragement and support, with common interests. This means creating a pool of shared knowledge, accessible to all members of the community, and putting support mechanisms and networks in place to encourage compliance. This opportunity to focus sustainability efforts through the lens of community involvement also has lifestyle implications – it reframes the paradigm of urban living from one in which we live in our own households and don’t know the neighbours, to a social network in which we know exactly what our joint energy consumption is, and metaphorically (or even actually) stop on the stairs to exchange tips.
Self Assessment. In order to translate understanding into action, people need to be able to see the real impact of their individual or group actions. Targets can help make information measurable and actionable, and simulating the impact of different alternatives can help people decide on the best course to take. Monitoring and immediate feedback can help people to see patterns in their own behaviour, showing when they are more or less compliant with their goals, and perhaps helping them to identify why. Success should be tied to rewards, from emotional satisfaction, such as having achieved the goal of using less than the average, to more tangible benefits such as financial savings or a bonus. At a community level, the ability to evaluate joint consumption and carbon emissions is an important tool for highlighting the need for further action, and the opportunity to reward sustained change.
Leading by Example. Encouraging individuals to change is vital, but the impact has to occur at community, regional and national level. Governments and local authorities need to show their commitment to sustainable causes by facilitating open dialogue between public and private sectors, and offering public incentives to sustain change, for individuals, communities and small and big businesses alike. Positive feedback loops are needed to constantly refine processes and policies. More importantly, governments need to model the behaviours they are hoping to encourage in their populations. Change at this level can only occur once governments start to feel the pressure from their voters, and to believe that sustainability is a challenge we can no longer afford to procrastinate around.
A virtuous circle
The ultimate aim of behavioural change for sustainability has to be to make our lives better. If designers and policy makers can find a way to link more sustainable behaviours with a higher quality of life, then we have the problem cracked. If we can provide a context in which we can link personal satisfaction and self-actualisation with a lower rate of consumption, and a more sustainable lifestyle, then we can create a society in which wealth means not having more, but living better. To do this, people must be offered the right tools and information to effect change, as well as the conditions to create new tools and new values, and to communicate these to others. In the end, change becomes a self-reinforcing loop, in which design influences people to behave more sustainably, and people’s desire to act ‘green’ drives design and public policy.
For more information on the Low2No project or related services, please contact Jan-Christoph Zoels at info at experientia dot com.