3 ways IT can support greener behaviors

How do we change people's behavior to reduce GHG emissions?

A group of us sat around an oak rectory table in a former monastery which now serves as the headquarters for Garrison Institute, our host for the "Climate Mind and Behavior" symposium. A monastery reverberated as the right setting for contemplating more righteous behavior.

The purpose of the symposium was to share academic research and real-world projects on how to best shift behavior using social and behavioral sciences. As the lone IT professional, my goal was to contribute on ways that technology could support behavioral programs.

Why Is Changing Behavior Critical

"Behavioral approaches," explained Dr. Karen Ehrhardt-Martinez, director of Climate Mind and Behavior at Garrison Institute, "offer the promise of large, rapid and relatively inexpensive means of reducing carbon emissions."

There are case studies where people achieved incredible results just through their personal efforts.

Research on building performance uncovered two to three times variation in performance. The least energy efficient buildings with the most energy smart occupants outperformed better buildings with less savvy occupants. If we could learn from positive behaviors and craft programs to duplicate them, the returns would be fabulous.

Top 3 Areas Where IT May Contribute

Along with the happy anecdotes of change, presenters also reviewed those efforts that had complications such as maintaining the change over long periods or scaling the change effort to large groups.

IT may complement behavioral strategies by doing what IT does best; automating repetitive activities, finding meaning in large amounts of data and providing instrumentation to help us optimize.

1. At Your Service: Automate desired behavior shifts whenever possible

When looking to reduce energy use in its many research labs, the change management team at the University of Toronto uncovered that the fume hoods required to remove toxins are huge energy consumers. Although critical for health and safety when researchers are present, fume hoods that are running at maximum speed are a waste of energy when the lab is empty.

This appeared to be an ideal candidate for a behavior campaign, since the only task was for each researcher to pull down his/her fume hood before leaving the lab. What could be simpler?

The program failed over time, although it was well defined, exceptionally executed and supported by management.

Focusing on behavior is a popular tool among budget strapped change managers, since a behavior program is often a smaller investment compared to more systemic changes. "We did not have a budget", explained Zannah Matson, research assistant at the Centre for Environment, "affecting people's behavior was our only option."

One idea, based on my research, is to use automation, since occupancy sensors to manage fume hoods provide a payback of less than a year. Other good candidates for automation are repetitive activities such as hibernating a computer, turning off devices when not in use, and lowering building temperatures.

Costs of technology continue to decline, so opportunities to use are increasing. Partnering with a green finance manager and applying behavioral insights to convince management to invest wisely is equally important in the quest to reduce energy use.

2. Have It Your Way: Use IT business intelligence to present appropriate messages

Several speakers highlighted research by change management guru Robert Cialdini. "A well-known principle of human behavior says that when we ask someone to do us a favor we will be more successful if we provide a reason," states Cialdini in his book "Influence."

"People simply like to have reasons for what they do," he wrote.

Ehrhardt-Martinez cautioned us that the wrong reason could turn people off. She encouraged us to work within people's current value system and focus on developing an appealing message based on those values: "We don't need to change beliefs, we need to change behavior."

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