Energy efficiency and behaviour change workshop

Last week Tom Hargreaves attended a policy workshop on behaviour and energy efficiency hosted by the Centre for Science and Policy (University of Cambridge – and the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC).

The event was attended by small number of DECC employees and a range of social science academics who were brought together to discuss ways to improve policy making on energy efficiency and consumption behaviour. Prior to the workshop attendees were asked to provide short responses to two questions focussing on a) how energy efficiency behaviours might be improved among the public and b) how communities might be involved in this process. Participants responses to these questions were extremely varied but could, arguably, be grouped around two core themes: first, those that adopted ideas from psychology and behavioural economics on how to encourage individuals to make different energy consumption choices, and second, those that sought to explore energy consumption and efficiency as but part of larger social practices that are collectively negotiated within pre-existing infrastructures of provision.

The discussion at the workshop centred around the different theoretical models being used by social scientists to understand behaviour, with a great deal of attention (more than is normally the case at such workshops) given to ideas about social practices and how policy makers might influence these. The general consensus at the workshop appeared to be that all approaches might have something to offer at different times, in different places, with different groups. Accordingly, key recommendations were that DECC should experiment with multiple theoretical approaches at the same time, seeking to preserve diversity in its interventions rather than becoming locked-in to a single narrow understanding of behaviour. Importantly, the DECC participants appeared to recognise that this requires adopting different conceptualisations of what ‘behaviour’ or ‘practice’ is from those they have adopted up to now. Further, that with this recognition, understandings of what role policy makers can play, what might count as ‘evidence’ and how we might understand ‘society’ are also subject to variation depending on the theoretical approach adopted.

It was a very interesting workshop and very refreshing to hear policy makers grappling with alternative social science approaches. It did, however, remain quite abstract and theoretical in focus. Having said that, I’ve already received an invitation to a second workshop that will seek to concretise the insights of different theoretical approaches around specific policy issues. I’m hoping this will provide an excellent opportunity for the project team to further contribute to important policy debates about community energy.

Tom Hargreaves