Fourth Knowledge Exchange Session: Energy Communication, Behaviour Change and Beyond
This knowledge exchange session focused on the relationship between communication and energy-related behaviour change. It discussed the advantages and limitations of projects, policies, and communicative acts driven by behaviour change insights and asked how we might extend, contextualise and apply these insights in new ways and with new technologies.
The first speaker addressing these questions was Sarah Royston from Anglia Ruskin University and the Global Sustainability Institute. Sarah’s presentation questioned established narratives about the energy impact of virtual e-help within the health sector. Large scale, system-wide introductions of e-help schemes have predominantly been portrayed by researchers and service providers as environmentally-friendly changes: less energy is used in maintaining buildings and transporting patients to and from hospitals and surgeries. Instead, behaviour change is brought about by instructing patients to access online services or engage in web-based consultations from their homes.
Sarah pointed out that this green narrative is based upon a misleading dematerialisation: although e-help requires fewer buildings and vehicles to be powered, it still necessitates mass production and use of technology as well as the construction and maintenance of large data centres. All of this produces a significant carbon footprint. However, these alarming or unexpected consequences have not been sufficiently mapped or analysed: the majority of existing studies are small-scale case studies of particular initiatives rather than holistic overviews. Sarah discussed the proposal she is working on to carry out a holistic study on case studies across the UK. In the discussion, we considered the challenges faced when designing this kind of study: for example, when comparing the environmental consequences of receiving medical advice in a hospital to receiving medical advice in the home, one would need to follow participants closely in other aspects of their lives, recording how they chose to spend time previously devoted to hospital visits. We also discussed the potential for comparative studies with other less developed countries, where e-help is not emerging as a replacement for physical infrastructure but as the first and only kind of medical provision available.
The second speaker, Andrew Schein, then gave two examples of behaviour change initiatives that had ostensibly positive environmental impacts. Andrew came from the Behavioural Insights Team, an independent consulting organisation funded by its employees, the government, and Nesta. The Team aims to use behavioural insights to design policies and products that work better for people; it then evaluates these polices and products to achieve better behaviour insights. Andrew gave two projects as examples. The first involved working with the Australian energy provider Powershop, who were running an initiative designed to reduce energy demand at peak times: this opt-in initiative, called Curb Your Power, involved sending users a text message when a peak in energy demand was anticipated, inviting them to reduce their energy use. Customers were incentivised with a $10 reduction off their next bill if they reduced their usage during the peak by a certain amount. The BI Team suggested possible changes to this already successful model, including a prize draw, a charity incentive, making customers feel part of a team, and sending a text asking for help to all Powershop customers without any opt-in process or advertising of rewards. The majority of these did not have any significant additional impact on energy use reduction. However, the final suggestion did lead to a substantial reduction by the group who had not actively opted into the scheme; in two trials, they reduced their energy consumption more than the householders who had opted into the reward scheme, but they had been using more energy in the first place. Nonetheless, the study showed the potential usefulness of built in, default options for reducing energy usage. In the discussion afterwards, it was suggested that more trials would enable the BI Team to track whether these householders eventually tired of changing their behaviour in response to the text prompt.
The second case study that Andrew discussed involved the BI Team independently evaluating the impact of Nest Learning Thermostats. The thermostats had intelligent default settings which learnt what users required, maximised efficiency and comfort, and introduced a high degree of automation into users’ relationship with their gas supply. BIT again found such defaults to be effective: 2000 households who had received Nest thermostats as part of their npower tariff used 5.8% less gas annually than 2000 households who did not have the thermostats but had previously used similar amounts of gas to the first group. In a second trial, which was designed to overcome any selection biases generated by the opt-in nature of the first group, Nest randomly allocated some households free Nests; once again, this group used 4.5–5% less gas annually than households who had previously used similar amounts of energy but did not currently own a Nest. We discussed the possible advantages of these automating technologies over ‘smart’ meters which aim to change behaviour by giving users more control over their gas supply and by improving understanding and awareness.
The next talk, by Rachel Lilley (University of Aberystwyth), shifted the emphasis from technology to community engagement, focusing on a project conducted by a Welsh social enterprise organisation affiliated to a local council. The project – originally known as Green Doctor but now given the more inviting name Keep Cosy – included an intensive, small-scale initiative focused on challenging the preconceptions of forty-five electrically heated households over a period of six months. It involved training ‘energy coaches’ to go into households and talk to energy users about how they could get more out of the technology heating their homes; it not only aimed at empowering energy users but also at encouraging them to experiment and take risks. Rachel pointed out that this is an important task in a climate where energy users are increasingly encouraged to be risk-averse.
The project had many successful outcomes: people became more experimental and drastically more efficient with their use of energy equipment, particularly storage heaters. Energy users also became more confident at discussing energy with one another and with landlords and suppliers. This created a more extensive network of knowledge circulation and a more durable set of cultural expertise, which made the apparently high costs of training an energy coach appear more cost effective in the long run. Furthermore, the findings of the project are now informing the training of the National Energy Agency. Rachel also suggested other spin-out projects, such as a project aimed at student energy use, which would intervene in the energy conversations taking place between students and their landlords. She acknowledged, though, the difficulty of scaling up this kind of intensive community project into something more holistic, particularly in a climate of reduced funding.
These initial three presentations discussed the benefits and limitations of initiatives aimed at changing user behaviour in measurable ways through direct, sharply focused interventions. The final speaker, Matt Watson (University of Sheffield), continued this discussion of limitations by shifting the emphasis more explicitly onto the ‘beyond’ part of the session title. Like Rachel and Sarah, Matt argued that we should avoid thinking about behavioural change simplistically and only as a means to societal change; instead, we should recognise that users’ actions are themselves profoundly social and are shaped by a variety of complex networks of people, technologies, systems, norms, and values. Social practice theory can help us to describe some of this complexity and Matt gave an example of a history project based at The Demand Centre which had incorporated it into its design. This project investigated how changes in energy demand and behaviour related to large-scale infrastructural changes in two towns across the twentieth century; the researchers compared evidence of infrastructural changes in local authority archives to evidence of changes in household practices from life history interviews.
Despite the effectiveness of this holistic approach, Matt acknowledged that there are challenges in making social practice theory useful and attractive to policy makers who, under pressure to make simple, targeted and implementable changes, often lack the time and budget to address the complexity of the overall picture. With funding from the Universities of Manchester and Sheffield, he has helped to develop a workshop showing policy makers how they could use that theory to think through complex policy problems (https://changepoints.net/the-change-points-toolkit/). We therefore ended the session by returning to the message underlined by Sarah’s opening talk: the importance of challenging established narratives about behaviour initiatives and behaviour change by recontextualising those actions within a fuller, more complex picture of cultural and material relationships.
Written by Hannah Bower