20 Nov, 2012

Sustainable behaviour by design

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

In the fourth article on sustainability and design, Chris Sherwin makes the case for design as an essential part of the sustainable behaviour toolkit

If you’re reading this over morning coffee or afternoon tea, chances are you’ll have put the kettle on. Putting aside the sustainability impacts of coffee, tea, milk or sugar sourcing, which an eco-literate audience will likely know, or the social value, conviviality and cultural importance of these rituals, the humble kettle itself encapsulates many of the central sustainability challenges around behaviour change and consumer engagement.

In this article, I want to use the kettle to unpack an important area of sustainability and design: creating sustainable behaviour.

‘Cool’ kettles

The kettle is estimated to account for 4% of UK household carbon emissions and simple changes to its design could have a potentially huge impact on this figure.

Almost all the energy consumed by a kettle (95%) comes from boiling water. This is made worse by inefficient behaviours like over-filling and allowing hard water to fur the element. In addition, people actually boil their kettle on average 2.4 times for a single cup, switching on then getting distracted by EastEnders, the footie or a phone call. They then reboil as they think the water is not hot enough.

Amazingly, studies show that the single biggest innovation to tackle inefficient use and behaviour would be the good-old whistle. Removing whistles in the move from gas hob to electric counter-top instantly eliminated the need for an audible prompt that it was time for tea. The main variables that influence a kettle’s impacts are therefore behavioural, not technical.

Moving beyond the message

Most of the written word on sustainable behaviour, seen extensively on the pages of major media platforms, is characterised by what I call a communications-driven approach. This uses education, awareness-raising, campaigns – essentially messaging – to change minds, capture hearts and shift behaviour via tools like advertising, PR and social media. So how about a ‘turn off the switch’ campaign for our case study above? I’m not entirely convinced we can communicate our way out of this one.

This approach relies heavily on getting the message right, about which I have two concerns. First, this can be tricky given that messages will compete with the estimated 3000+ ‘buy-more, use-me, new-and-improved, limited edition’ mainstream marketing messages North Americans are said to receive daily. Second, many people are simply too busy to succumb to even the most sophisticated sustainability messages, and there are already calls to move beyond clever slogans. “I seriously doubt consumer’s ability to choose their way out of trouble,” says green guru Jonathon Porritt.

I’m convinced we can really ‘help’ consumer’s by using design for more sustainable behaviours, building behaviour change into the solutions themselves.

Like their marketing and communications cousins, designers are particularly skilled at influencing behaviour through creating better experiences or selling more of a particular product. We must now turn all those powers of design persuasion to sustainable behaviours.

Kettles and other products

The impact of kettles and many other products can be changed, reduced or even eliminated by smart design. The common problem of over-filling for a single cup, can and is being tackled through better water-level indicators or windows. Integrated filters can purify water when filling, to avoid element furring. Adding a temperature gauge light to tackle the problem of reboiling (water only needs to be 90C, not 100C for tea or coffee) indicates water is still hot enough to use. There is a growing and positive trend for adding whistles in modern kettle design, hopefully for both style and sustainability reasons.

So you could ask people to switch off, but a far better option is to build-in the behaviour change and consumers will do it naturally.

Designing for more sustainable behaviour

Look around and there are almost no limits to the areas which sustainable behaviour influenced by design can be applied, including battery ‘powercheck’ testing strips that indicate the charge and which can extend battery life by up to 40% and avoid their unnecessary, and potentially toxic, disposal. Pavement-less street design around South Kensington’s museums counter-intuitively slows traffic and increases pedestrian safety. Or indeed the infamous fly-tattooed urinals in Schipol Airport that nudge male users to reduce spillage by 80%. Roca’s intelligent plug design which feeds back the litres of water draining out of your sink. These examples show how design provides people with solutions or behaviours that are simply better, not just greener.

If you’re thinking, ‘oh that’s just product design’, I’ve already argued how products contribute to UK consumer’s carbon emissions. We ignore them at our peril. Adding behaviour change by design to our sustainability toolkit would therefore make sustainable behaviour not just easier and more automatic, but ultimately more exciting and aspirational for consumers too.

Chris Sherwin is head of sustainability at leading design and innovation consultancy Seymourpowell. He tweets on these issues at @sherwinnovator

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