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SCIS Podcast Episode 3: Behaviour Change

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Monday, August 6, 2018

AC: I'm Anthony Colclough, hello and welcome to Urban Reverb from the SCIS Smart Cities Information System at

Today we're going to be unravelling a mystery - two identical houses built with the most up-to-date energy saving technology, insulation on the walls and windows, solar panels, specially angled window shades, heat exchange systems, you name it, they have it.


ELK: The purpose was to test future equipment for low energy buildings. Different kinds of heat pumps, ventilation systems, different kinds of windows, window shading, and test different kinds of inhabitant behaviour in the house.


AC: Both houses were built in Sweden in the same climate by the same company using the same designs.


ELK: We have two in Sweden; it’s exactly the same building.


AC: But while one succeeded in dramatically reducing energy use, the other saw no improvement whatsoever on the amount of energy consumed.


ELK: No, it, it was a surprisingly large difference between the two buildings. Because we know they were exactly the same insulation, build in the same way, and there was almost twice as high energy use.


AC: With all its high-tech equipment and material, with all the extra spending, this second of the identical houses saw absolutely no benefit. But why?

I was speaking to Eva-Lotta Kurkinen of the Research Institute of Sweden about the project NEED4B. These homes in Varberg and Boras were hooked up with sensors, literally everywhere.


ELK: To measure the temperature inside the house and inside the walls and inside the foundations and inside the attic and… a lot.


AC: So they figured it must be something to do with the behaviour of the people, a family of five, living in the building.


ELK: We needed to know why, what is it in the behaviour? And it turned out that there was a heating battery in the ventilation, who was on, that made the indoor temperature very hot. It should only be on when it is -20 degrees outside or even below. And the people, the family in the house didn’t know how to turn it off, so they opened the window instead.


AC: But why hadn't the engineers explained the system to this family, to avoid a small action having such a disastrous impact?


ELK: So when they moved in, they got instruction about how it works, everything in the building. But then they say, no, we are not interested in this project because we only want to have this house and we would not like to be part of the research project, so please, leave us alone as much as possible. They wasn’t interested at all, and they didn’t want to have any tips or instruction from us.


AC: So how did the team at NEED4B get energy savings back on track? I have often spoken, and I will often speak, of citizen engagement, and I sometimes get the feeling that while projects that, for legal or ownership reasons, have to convince residents to engage with the new technologies being installed often do so very well, there is a feeling where buildings are built new, or landlords are empowered to force changes on tenants, that the element of citizen engagement can end up being neglected.

Without this simple element, the most advanced technology, the largest financial investment, and the best laid plans go to waste.


SF: We talk an awful lot in Europe about energy efficiency and upgrading buildings and that sort of stuff. And I suppose a very important part that’s often ignored, and it can be ignored too often is the whole behavioural side of awareness. And there’s really no point in upgrading a building or retrofitting or carrying out works if you’re not actually going to educate people about the energy use of that building.


AC: I spoke to Suzanne Fitzpatrick who works for Codema in my hometown Dublin city's demo site of the BuildSmart project. Codema launched an awareness raising campaign in Dublin city's civic offices to change people's behaviour and reduce energy consumption.


SF: Yeah, so I suppose the whole idea behind Think Energy is that we would engage with Dublin City Council staff to make them more aware of the energy use in their building – so there’s about 1,500 people working there on an average day – and to really kind of make them think that they’re not just a number, that everybody has a part to play in terms of the energy use of the building, and that even small behavioural changes can make a huge difference in reducing the energy consumption of a building or an organisation.


AC: So how did they help the staff in the civic offices become more responsible energy users?


SF: We’re often aware that, like, when people wake up every morning, energy efficiency is not the first thing that they always think of. So to really engage with people, we try to keep the activities as interesting, as seasonal and as engaging as possible. So come October, for example, when Halloween came around, we tried to encourage people to become more energy efficient by creating movie posters that had puns on very well known horror movies.


AC: Instead of the Blaire Witch project, they had the ‘Dare Switch Project’ to encourage people to switch off lights and appliances, instead of Paranormal Activity, they had posters for ‘Power Normal Activity’. Nice.


SF: So it was just to kind of, you know, draw people’s eye to the campaign and get them a bit more engaged like that. Similarly at Christmas time as well a key element is obviously involving not just the staff but the whole family, so we got the kids involved through an energy saving colouring competition where we broke it down into different age categories and the kids could colour in an energy saving template beside their own energy saving tip as well. And I suppose because the kids were involved, the parents were automatically interested.


AC: Get 'em while they're young. They also asked local experts and inspirational speakers to come and give talks during the lunch break with a free coffee as a lure.


SF: We had lunchtime talks where, you know, we organised inspirational staff members from the council and in particular we had somebody from the Dublin fire brigade who was instrumental in creating the world’s first carbon-neutral fire station out in Kilbarrack, which is one of the suburbs in Dublin. We organised a two-day energy day event. So everything from energy bikes, so the staff could jump on and they could cycle and see, depending on how fast they were cycling, how much electricity they would produce, just to create the sense of how hard it is to generate power and not to take the energy supply for granted. We got the kids involved from the creche.


AC: To get further insight into the science behind behavioural change, I spoke to Michael Bedek, who works in the project CODALoop, at the demo site in Graz, Austria, a project that is devoted to figuring out the best and most effective ways to change people's energy behaviour.


MB: The main goal of the project CODALoop in a nutshell, it’s about energy behaviour and behavioural changes, towards a more sustainable consumption behaviour. And we, as cognitive science section, we try to identify some very important factors and variables which can be influenced to some extent in order to reach this behavioural change on the side of the citizens. Because behavioural change is basically learning, right, learning about new alternatives.


AC: First I wanted to know how specific it's possible to be with these behavioural variables. How does Michael know that what he's saying is true of people everywhere, and not just in Graz?


MB: What we did was, we asked the same set of questions, basically the same set of questions, in all of the three countries in all three cities.


AC: That's Graz, Amsterdam and Istanbul.


MB: And initially it was the idea to come up with very, very precise models for different countries and for different areas. But the importance of the different variables is basically very, very similar for the different countries, so we’ve come up with only one cognitive model for energy consumption which can be applied to the different cities.


AC: So what are these central behavioural traits?


MB: Declarative knowledge about different alternatives and so on. Because if you don’t know about the alternatives, you cannot apply for this alternative behaviour. And another variable is so called perceived behavioural control, which means that you – in some cases it’s not really possible to change your behaviour, for example if you don’t have enough money or so, if you are not able to buy your electric car or whatever. This is a a sort of prerequisite for real behavioural change of course.


AC: Put simply, citizens need to be informed and empowered. What next?


MB: Self-efficacy, so it’s being confident that your behaviour does play a role, that’s self-efficacy.


AC: That reminded me of the first point Suzanne had made:


SF: To really kind of make them think that they’re not just a number, that everybody has a part to play, and that even small behavioural changes can make a huge difference.


MB: Another one is behavioural intention, which is very similar as motivation for example, because it means that you already had made some plans to change your behaviour, you intend to change your behaviour. Another one is past behaviour, yeah, there’s the saying in psychology that past behaviour is the best predicter for future behaviour; perceived behavioural control, social norms and attitudes as key predictors for behavioural intention. And behavioural intention is a key predictor for behaviour change or behaviour in general.


AC: Well, past behaviour is something that, regrettably, we can't do much to change (Sorry again, everyone). But what about changing the social norms and attitudes that can influence our intention? One technique is using 'ambassadors' who influence the norms by demonstrating the new behaviour.


SF: We recruited what we call ‘energy ambassadors’, so people who would act as energy champions within their own office. We often see that if one or two people start changing their behaviour in a typical set up then chances are other people start doing it as well. We would let the people who were really engaged lead by example and hope that it would catch on that way. How one ambassador might be acting on one office might be different to another. We got the ambassadors to kind of give us a sense of the areas that they were particularly interested in so that they could focus on that. Through the Build Smart project as well we did supply them with an energy ambassadors support manual and training manual as well, rather than them, you know, coming in and switching people’s computers off while they’re still working on them and that sort of thing – really just to have a positive influence and a positive impact around the office.


AC: Those two manuals Suzanne mentioned are available online, and I'll be putting a link to them up to them with the transcript of this episode at Part of the aim of the CODALoop project, according to Michael, is actually to create community around this idea of energy saving.


MB: Motivating people to get to know each other. Because there are people from the direct neighbourhood, some of them already knew each other, some of them are new to this community, and I think these workshops can be considered as a sort of seed. You know, you seed community building in a way, and the people get to know each other and also exchange their ideas, what they are doing in order to save energy.


AC: Digital tools can also leverage people's competitive side to encourage positive energy behaviour.


MB: One very famous approach or method, and successful method, is of course gamification principles. So if you have a platform and you are able to compare yourself with others, but not only with other but also with your previous self, and you see that you are getting better and better in some way and that you collect some points, I think that’s very, very effective. We are developing a platform where people can interact with each other, but not only with each other, but also with, ideally, policy makers, and people from the city district. So our idea was to provide at least the opportunity to get engaged with different feedback loops; feedback form individual to individual, but also from the community, to the neighbourhood to the individual, and from the policy, from the city district level to the individual resident.


AC: So where do awareness raising campaigns fit in?


MB: Awareness raising is basically the very, very basic pre-requisite for everything else, right? I mean you have to be aware about something, then you can adapt your behaviour accordingly, in some cases, but it’s the very, very basic and fundamental pre-requisite for all the other things.


AC: Michael also had some groovy ideas about his own set of awareness raising activities.


MB: One of our colleagues had a thermal camera, and so we asked people to gather in groups of two or three and to make pictures with this thermal camera outside and to compare different buildings in this area. Because one of the buildings is very new, and in this area, in the direct neighbourhood, there were also buildings from the 60’s and the 70’s, so it was interesting from them to see where are the areas where a lot of loss of heat takes place.


AC: Michael stressed that it is never about forcing people to change, or even to participate, that it is important to go softly and let people make up their own minds. Otherwise you could run up against what scientists call the 'backfire effect'.


MB: Yeah, that’s a very good point. I think it’s very important to avoid any moral judgement. It’s very important to provide only alternatives, to put them on the table, and to let the people choose by themselves. Because, in particular in this context of behavioural change with regards to energy consumption, there is something called, like, in cognitive psychology, there’s something called, like ‘backfire effect’. So if you come up with some solutions and you come from an university and you’re telling people how to behave correctly, it could be the case that some sort of backfire effect occurs, that they’re not willing at all to change anything, because they know best.


AC: This was among the reasons that Suzanne stressed the importance of careful preparation.


SF: I suppose the first think I would say to people who are thinking about implementing a behavioural change campaign in their organisation is to do research, research, research, and even if you think you’re spending too long doing your research, you’re not. Because it’s, really without that research you can’t really implement a properly targeted campaign. We spent a good three months researching and doing proper research into the building.

So everything from the number of lights in the building, do they have sensors, the amount of people working in the building; we made a point of getting all the different departments involved, such as corporate services, communications – communications was key as well because of staff newsletters, notices up on the internet – it’s very important to work with those departments to make sure your campaign goes through the right channels and really just the right people. Sometimes when you start off with a plan – as I said, we tried to do, you know, activities every month, so for example we might have something themed around being ‘green’ around St. Patricks day, an you would plan things every month, and sometimes they didn’t always go according to plan, or you had to push things out.

And what I would say there is never finalise your plan, don’t just come up during your research phase and say that’s it, my plan is done – your plan should always be live. So never be afraid to change your plan, you know, and don’t just stick to something because it’s down on paper.

We did conduct a survey before we started to campaign, just to gauge people’s reactions and just to see how they felt about energy efficiency.


AC: It was through this survey that they got their energy ambassadors.


SF: And by and large, the huge majority of the staff did say that they felt that energy efficiency was very important to them.


AC: So what about the burning question: Did this campaign have any real effect on

energy use?


SF: The original target was to save about 5% of the overall energy use of the building through this behavioural change. Now in fact, year on year, the energy use of that building actually went down by 13%.


AC: 13%, impressive.


SF: But there was ongoing works carried out in the same building over the same period. So you can’t necessarily say that whole 13% was as a result of behavioural change only. Because of that we did develop other indicators to measure the success of the campaign. Stuff like how many ambassadors we recruited, how many people were attending our events, like our energy days, our lunch-time talks, how many people were filling in our surveys, how many hits we were getting online. It’s not just about kilowatts, it’s about who is actually engaging with you.


AC: And what did those metrics look like?


SF: We got great responses to all the activities that we carried out, you know. Like, particularly I mention the colouring competiton at Christmas time. We had hundreds of entries in for that, it really seems to be one that got people’s attention. We were very pleased with the level of uptake from the staff involved in the campaign.


AC: Suzanne also told me that you can create a big effect without a big budget:


SF: Yeah, well, I mean, in terms of resources if budgets are tight, I mean the good thing about campaigns these days is that you can run an awful lot of it online with very little resources needed, you know. So, whether that’s through social media, whether it’s your intranet, whether it’s through your website, you know, there’s an awful lot of activities that you can actually run through online channels that you don’t physically need an awful lot of resources for. Similarly we found that we got a very good reaction to some of the events that we ran. So for example, our lunchtime talks on energy efficiency, when you break it down, I mean you need one or two speakers who know what they’re talking about in terms of energy efficiency, and you might need to put on a few teas and coffees and sandwiches and things like that, but really to get people engaged, and you’re providing an awful lot of information, to put something like that together, you can actually, surprisingly, do that with very little resources needed and not an awful lot of budget needed. So you don’t necessarily have to be going all out, you can kind of look at the ways you can cut your costs but still deliver a very, very interesting, a very engaging activity.


AC: Michael told me that to motivate people it was important to put something on offer, but that doesn't have to be an electric car - it can just be the feeling of community, or having a good time.


MB: I think it’s always important that you offer something to the people. It’s not only about a certain prize, or that you can win something, but it’s, I think, also this coming together with different people seems to be interesting for some people in this neighbourhood. The people who live there are a little bit different with regards to socio-economical variables. This is also some sort of incentive. I mean, if you open a space where they can meet together, it’s also some sort of incentive for some people.


AC: Something that scientists don't yet have an answer for is how long the effects of interventions like this carry on. There is consensus that some kind of longer-term follow-up is really important.


SF: Yeah, and that’s one of the biggest challenges, I think, with a behavioural campaign. It’s that you plan it for 12 months, and then you kind of think to yourself, well where do I go from here and does it just remain static? And there’s always a danger that it can just slide off. So we were able to extend it. The following year we carried out a renewable energy fair in the civic offices, we were able to develop a range of promotional material which we distributed to the staff, so everything from mouse-mats, temperature cards, things like that, just to keep them engaged in the campaign.


AC: Codema also trialled an idea during the campaign that has taken a permanent hold not only within the civic offices, but spread throughout Dublin and then the rest of Ireland.


SF: One of the biggest things that resulted from Think Energy was that we actually developed what’s called these ‘Home Energy Savings Kits’. And we were able to work with Dublin City Council through their libraries, and pilot these kits into their libraries. So these kits basically have six different tools in them. You can now go into your local library and you can borrow these kits in the same way that you’d borrow a book or a CD from your library. And you can bring it home and you use these six tools inside the kit to get a sense of how much energy you’re using every day. And it will give you a good understanding of areas that you might need to improve in your home: Insulation, draft-proofing, electricity, maybe there’s appliances in your home that are driving up your energy bills, that sort of thing. And there was huge uptake in that, huge interest and demand from the public, so we actually extended it into all of Dublin city council’s libraries. And since then it’s gone from strength to strength. It’s been expanded not only further out into Dublin, but also into other counties within Ireland, so it’s going nationwide at the moment.


AC: In the end, big change comes from small actions.


SF: We think of energy efficiency and energy awareness as something that’s very complicated, and actually it’s not. It just goes back to basic things, like switching off lights, closing doors, making sure your appliances are switched off. And it might sound very obvious, but if you’re doing all of these things in one go, it actually can have a significant impact in the home or within your organisation.


AC: And so how did it all end up back in Sweden, with the two identical houses, and the family who scuppered the scientists' energy saving ambitions?


ELK: But after the first year they saw - they should have around half of the energy use as the neighbours – but they saw they have the same level of energy use and the neighbours had, and then they started to become a little more interested. They become more friendly and wanted to have more help. So the last year, or the last half-year, the energy use went down.


AC: I had one last question for Michael: Should people be worried about behavioural projects? Should they worry that millions of euro is being spent to pay teams of cognitive scientists to research psychological techniques to control the intentions and behaviour of European citizens?


MB: Your question is if they should be worrying about us? No.


AC: Good. You can find the transcript of this episode, more information and more episodes

at or email me at That’s Until next time, behave yourself!


Link to Buildsmart energy ambassadors manual:




Need4b project:


CODALoop project: