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5 ways to scale up energy efficiency, person to person

This article is adapted from the book Energy is Social.

Invisible. Unconscious. Dependent upon habit. You could use these words to describe the human relationship with energy efficiency. We prefer to think of them as the keys to unlocking its potential.

Every day, data paints a more detailed picture. If we could only find a way to fully adopt energy efficiency on a mass scale, it could reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, and reduce the carbon footprint associated with energy production. There’s a reason why many refer to energy efficiency as “the world’s most important fuel.”

In our first ebook, Energy is Human, we outlined why most of the programmatic and marketing efforts used today fail to engage people in energy efficiency: They neglect to acknowledge the complex and largely invisible nature of our relationship with energy.

We also provided the path for designing a more human approach to marketing energy efficiency — by understanding the actual relationship between humans and their built environments, recognizing what energy means to people in their daily lives, and engaging psychological and social drivers of human behavior and decision making to improve awareness, consideration and sustained adoption.

Our need to connect is as fundamental as our need for food and water.

Brand Cool has focused on the need to connect energy efficiency to people’s intrinsic motivations to be better, more effective and capable versions of themselves. And in the programs and states where we work, the results from this approach have been promising. However, time is not on our side.

We need to foster change on a far greater scale. We need to shift focus from individuals to communities. We need to spark a social movement. And we need to do it now.

Energy is Social outlines five critical shifts in approach that can help us get there.

The power of human connections to influence behavior change 

Social behavior is wired into our operating system and serves as a primary motivator of our actions. In fact, renowned psychologist and scientist Matthew Lieberman contends that our need to connect is as fundamental as our need for food and water.

In his book, Social, Lieberman uses neuroimaging to demonstrate how we’re profoundly shaped by our social environment. For example, we actually experience physical pain when our social bonds are threatened or severed. This social pain alters our motivational landscape, shifting us from “narrowly self-interested” behavior to actions motivated by social connection itself.

Furthermore, this innate need to connect has preprogrammed humans to engage in voluntary actions that benefit others. In other words, altruism is a functional part of our “operating system” and the way that we connect, support and build community.

Referred to as “prosocial behavior,” it represents a largely untapped opportunity to scale and accelerate energy efficiency at a cultural level, penetrating workplaces, neighborhoods, households and beyond.

On the following pages, we share five ways to use human connections to scale up behavior change from the individual to larger communities, along with the environments we believe hold the most promise for widespread engagement.

Shift 1: Use social influence to shape corporate participation 

Social influence is when people’s emotions, opinions or behaviors are affected by others.

Shared values are the first link in this causal chain of effect (Stern, 2000). It’s why successful organizations establish a vision to guide a company’s values and provide it with purpose. Energy efficiency and sustainable practices can be a part of this success if they hold an authentic and demonstrable place within an organization’s values.

To foster this connection and initiate participation, many energy and environmental efforts have developed pledge systems. These range from engaging individuals (e.g., ENERGY STAR®: “Change the World,” Green Faith Pledge) and schools (PowerSave Schools), to buildings and companies (Better Buildings Challenge, America Business Act on Climate), to federal and state carbon pledges.

The beauty of these is that they offer a prepackaged vision and value system that’s not only aligned with built-in human motivators such as affiliation and altruism, but is also proven to work!

Studies have shown that signing a public commitment is a more powerful facilitator of long-term change than providing incentives (Pardini and Katzev, 1983). First, it offers a platform to publicly commit to a shared purpose, tapping into our innate prosocial orientation and providing an onramp to connections with others.

As the theory of Personal Norm Activation suggests (L. Berkowitz ed., 1977), making a commitment cements the desired course of action as a personal norm — we see it as a moral standard in ourselves. Because of this, we’re more likely to hold ourselves accountable to actually doing the desired behaviors, which in turn stimulates and reinforces the desired social influence.

Putting it into practice:

Provide social mechanisms to reinforce and recognize people and organizations for their commitment. Institutions and businesses that are making great progress in energy efficiency and sustainable practices have embedded the essence of the pledge in their culture by:

  • Launching partner programs to provide a supportive framework for social sharing and networking with a larger group, and reinforcing emotional benefits by recognizing leaders publicly at the industry, state and federal level for their commitment.
  • Helping individuals maintain a positive sense of identity and a strong connection to their work group by involving them in the piloting and adoption of more energy efficient options, such as switching from individual office space heaters to energy efficient floor mats or from individual coffee makers on desks to a centralized coffee station (Social Identity Theory Model, Tajfel & Turner, 1979).
  • Demonstrating leadership’s commitment by establishing goals for energy efficiency, key performance indicators to measure progress, budgets for energy upgrades and behavior change, and roles and responsibilities as a part of the strategic planning process.

Signing a public commitment is a more powerful facilitator of long-term change than providing incentives.

 Shift 2: Give power to the people early on in the process

Energy efficiency initiatives should be viewed less as sets of mandates, and more as opportunities to comprehensively influence our community’s culture.

Top-down or traditional hierarchical approaches to creating energy efficiency standards or goals almost always fail — people lack motivation and accountability if they can’t make the leap from understanding the new standards to applying them at a functional level. However, when people are included in the process of translating newly adopted standards or goals, they can help define what success looks like.

This creates horizontal accountability, where people are able to negotiate what’s mutually most relevant, engage in joint activities, feel responsible, and carry out and maintain the behaviors in their experiences over time. Intrinsic human motivators such as autonomy, control, efficacy, altruism and affiliation are all activated when we build horizontal accountability into efficiency standards.

Putting it into practice:

Don’t just teach. Show and tell. In our research with organizations that are effectively deploying large-scale behavior change, the concept of “show, tell and discover” pops up over and over.

At one large, prominent university, facility managers at each building have incorporated learning through teaching exercises to not only innovate the way everyone thinks about energy efficiency, but spread the application of best practices, including:

  • Staff routinely accompanies vendors on facility walk-throughs to inspect equipment and systems to transfer knowledge and brainstorm what can be done to improve operations.
  • Staff members discuss best practices at weekly meetings to share what they’re doing, the results they’ve had and discuss with others how they can apply similar techniques and behaviors to their job.
  • Facility crews meet with faculty and students to connect the topic of energy efficiency with how people are using the building and to solicit their ideas and encourage participation. They then reinforce how efforts are making a difference through signage that shares the latest facts and appreciation.

These simple practices improve outcomes and make energy efficiency more visible across the entire campus — from helping people feel respected for their work and prideful in what they do, to decreasing training expenses—all without the need for less effective “carrot and stick” mechanisms like paid incentives.

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