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Promoting energy-sufficient behaviour in cities

 

In collaboration with three cities, the researchers carried out interventions to induce behavioural change in mobility and home energy use. Working with sports clubs allowed them to reach people from all walks of life. Social processes and direct experience trigger change. The collaboration between researchers and cities enabled scientific rigour as well as interventions with practical relevance.

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Project description (completed research project)

Cities are key actors with regard to the energy transition in Switzerland. Many cities carry out interventions to promote changes in behaviour. However, it is a challenge to reach people who are not environmentally conscious. One strategy for reaching the wider public is to collaborate with formal social groups (e.g. sports clubs). Such groups offer opportunities for building more trustful relationships as well as an arena for direct experience and social learning in which social norms can be shaped.

Aim

The goal of this project was to study the potential and challenges of using formal social groups as intermediaries for energy-saving interventions. This was done by developing, implementing and evaluating interventions in close collaboration with the Swiss cities of Winterthur, Baden and Zug. Furthermore, the added value of such research-city collaboration was explored.

Results

Three interventions were carried out in the domains of mobility and hot water use. It was found that sports clubs are effective multipliers of a programme promoting bike instead of car use for going to sports training sessions. Clubs were able to motivate people who would not have participated if they had been approached individually. This led to a reduction in the use of cars by people travelling to training facilities. The evaluation of an e-bike trial for car owners revealed the importance of social processes: the more positive feedback participants got, the stronger was their intention to drive less. Moreover, trying out an e-bike led to a reduction in situations spontaneously associated with car use even one year after the trial. A related effect was found for showering: experiencing a low-flow showerhead in a public swimming pool had a positive effect on attitudes towards such showerheads and corresponding purchase decisions.

At the process level, workshops with researchers and practitioners helped in identifying the different types of success factors that are necessary for effective research-city collaboration.

Relevance

Implications for research

Literature suggests that collaboration with intermediaries is an effective approach for gaining access to different target groups. The project team carried out a series of empirical field studies that provided insights into the suitability and effectiveness of formal social groups as intermediaries. In line with previous studies, the team found that social processes can be important triggers for behavioural change. However, this effect may well be domain-specific: while social norms were important for motivating bike use instead of car use, social processes seemed irrelevant for the promotion of low-flow showerheads. What is more, collaboration with formal social groups is no panacea, as both time and resources are required to establish such collaboration.

Collaborating with cities when designing and implementing interventions offers interesting opportunities for researchers. For instance, it allows them to collect contextualised field data of high external validity.

Implications for practice

Depending on the context and behavioural domain of interventions, collaboration with formal social groups can be an effective strategy for reaching new target groups. In this process, personal contacts between cities and social groups are crucial, particularly city departments that do not traditionally work in the energy domain, such as the sports department.

Direct experience (e.g. of e-bikes or of energy-efficient showerheads) is an effective trigger for behavioural change. Offering opportunities for such experiences is thus a promising framework for interventions in the energy domain and possibly also in other domains (e.g. sustainable nutrition).

The systematic evaluation of interventions is key for gaining knowledge from interventions and transferring insights to other contexts. Collaboration with research has proven beneficial in this respect.

Original title

Using formal social groups to promote energy sufficient behaviour in cities

Project leaders

  • Prof. Bettina Furrer, Institut für Nachhaltige Entwicklung, Zürcher Hochschule Winterthur
  • Prof. Dr. Michael Stauffacher, Department of Environmental Systems Science, ETH Zürich