Reducing Energy Demand Through Behaviour Change

The Domestic Buildings Technical Innovation Needs Assessment estimated the potential economic savings of improved building operation could be worth £8.8bn to the UK economy. Building operation savings can be achieved through improvements in control and changing behaviour. While my research focussed on heating controls there is huge opportunity to influence people’s behaviour at the same time.

Early studies which aimed to reduce energy consumption through behaviour change were primarily motivated by insecurity of supply and potential resource shortages due to oil crises in the 1970’s caused by political instability. More recently  the motivation behind such studies is the mitigation of man-made climate change. While the motivation differed the aim was the same and the scale of savings achieved were in a similar region.

Changing people’s behaviour is a difficult thing to achieve, especially in the long term. It was therefore concerning to hear behaviour change referred to as “low-hanging fruit” in a presentation at the end of 2012. It is rumoured that David Cameron made the shadow cabinet read the popular book Nudge by Thaler & Sunstein, 2009. This led to the creation of the Behaviour Insight Team within Whitehall which is often referred to as the Nudge Unit. This team, based on the book, aims to encourage people to make better choices by framing decisions in a particular fashion. Clearly there is a design opportunity here to influence such choices to have a desired impact.

Conversely Rowson (2011) is critical of the Nudge approach arguing that it does not transform peoples attitudes, values or motivations level and  leads only to relatively superficial changes in behaviour. Nudges aim to maximise user choice, however Rowson argues they, “change behaviour by stealth rather than engagement” (pp. 16). A holistic and reflective approach to changing behaviour is required if changes of scale required are to be cultivated.

Strategies for Changing Behaviour (Lilley, 2009)

Strategies for Changing Behaviour (Lilley, 2009)

Changing behaviour can be attempted in a variety of ways with different levels of involvement from the user in the decision making process, this is best described in the figure from Lilley (2009). Despite strategies for changing behaviour being identified by Lilley (2009) there is little guidance for designers on how to implement behaviour change strategies within their projects (Lockton, Harrison and Stanton, 2010). Feedback is one type of behavioural intervention such as that provided by in-home displays, it is important to consider all types of behavioural interventions to understand which ones may be applied in conjunction with such feedback.

It is anticipated that the gap between control systems and feedback systems will narrow. With trends towards the increased functionality of heating controls it is logical that feedback on consumption may be included to enable changes in behaviour. While design and policy can influence and provide incentives to change our behaviour takes a concerted effort and creating new habits takes sustained effort.

Due to the large scale and longterm changes in behaviour required to meet our CO2 reduction targets, enabling and encouraging people to change their behaviour is of paramount importance. If we are to achieve any long term changes I believe this can only come from people who have an intrinsic motivation to change their behaviour.

From an ethical point of view I also think the motivation for changing people’s behaviour should be clear and the people involved should be allowed to make an informed choice, therefore any initiatives should have an educational element. Concurrently systems also have to be simple, effective and accessible to enable users to engage successfully with technologies and achieve the desired outcomes.


Further reading

Lilley, D. (2009) Design for sustainable behaviour: strategies and perceptions, Design Studies, Vol. 30, No. 6, pp. 704-720.

Lockton, D., Harrison, D. and Stanton, N. A. (2010) ‘The Design with Intent Method: a design tool for influencing user behaviour’, Applied ergonomics, 41(3), pp. 382-92. DOI:10.1016/j.apergo.2009.09.001

Thaler, R.H. and Sunstein, C.R. (2009) Nudge: Improving decisions about health wealth and happiness, London: Penguin.

Rowson, J. (2011) Transforming Behaviour Change: Beyond Nudge and Neuromania, The Social Brain project, The Royal Society of Arts, London, Available at:


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