Are you a Sustainability egg, or a chicken?
I needed an example of user influence on a building’s carbon emissions for my CIBSE talk on Tuesday night. I had a nagging feeling that the lofty goals of the BedZed zero-emission development in South London had been compromised by user behaviour and, after a bit of digging, found a study which suggested the difference between the highest energy users on site and the lowest was an incredible factor of 8. That’s a colossal range given everybody has the same technology. And it’s not just BedZed, the Western Harbour development in Malmo and the Vauban neighbourhood in Freiburg have both struggled to get residents to change their behaviour to match the ideal.
This goes for virtually any product – you can design washing powders to wash clothes at low temperature, but if consumers keep pushing the temperature selector on their washing machine upwards ‘for luck’, the benefit won’t be felt. User behaviour is probably the ultimate challenge for the sustainability professional.
There are two responses to this:
1. Continue to design the neighbourhood/product/system to make green behaviour easier than business as usual. At one client we removed the bureaucracy around using their teleconferencing system and it went from gathering dust to being overwhelmed almost overnight;
2. Accept that your product is only one part of the larger jigsaw and you can only do what you can do. It’s not P&G’s fault that my washing machine doesn’t have a 15°C setting, so I can’t make the most of Ariel Excel Gel’s low temperature performance, but there is now an incentive for the washing machine manufacturers to design one in.
I think the latter is very important – someone needs to jump first. We talk about ‘chicken and egg’ to describe apparently unsurmountable problems, but in evolutionary terms the egg did appear before the chicken. Are you going to be that egg?