By Julia Hawkins, Ashden PR and Digital Media Manager
I have a distinct memory of being in my university halls around this time of year, wearing a t-shirt, perched on a hot radiator and feeling a lovely breeze on my back through the open window. Luckily for me, fuel bills were included in my quarterly rent. Like most of the rest of us at that time (I’m not saying when!) I was blissfully unaware of the concept of human-created climate change.
Fast-forward to 2012 and while increasingly apocalyptic predictions for our climate may have focused the minds of the green geeks among us, many remain ostrich-like about the issues.
Just how do we get people to break ‘bad’ habits and form ‘good’ ones – like switching off lights, chucking in our cars and wrapping up warm instead of whacking up our thermostats?
We spoke to Neil Jennings of Student Switch Off, winner of this year’s Ashden Award for behaviour change, which has grasped the nettle of how to motivate people to save energy when there’s no financial incentive for them do so. Here are his thoughts on the subject.
What is Student Switch Off all about?
At participating universities, different halls of residence compete with each other to see which can achieve the greatest reduction in electricity use, with rewards at the end of the year for the winners. Students are engaged through photo competitions, quizzes and social media. Some of the most enthusiastic ones get training in how to motivate their fellow students in the most effective way to get them to join in with the energy-saving effort.
What actions are you trying to get students to take?
We keep things very simple. Students only have four ‘asks’ – putting extra layers on when they get cold, putting saucepan lids on, switching lights and appliances off and only putting enough water in their kettle for what they need.
Surely students are more interested in beer and the opposite sex than they are in saving the planet - how do you get them to listen? The student population is actually a very interesting one, as we’re talking about people who are going through a big change in their lives, and research has been done that demonstrates that people going through transition are often particularly receptive to new ideas.
That’s why we focus on raising as much awareness as possible when students first move into halls to encourage them to adopt energy-saving habits early on in their university lives. When they first arrive many of them aren’t aware of the effectiveness of things like putting a lid on the pan and when we tell them it saves time as well as energy they’re usually pretty happy to do it – saving them time for more important things!
There are other similar initiatives that focus on people in transition – for example, the winner of the London Mayor’s Low Carbon Prize came up with an idea where people going through the transition of moving home are given a USB stick called the ‘green key’ with lots of information about how they can reduce their energy use.
In the same way, when people start a new job, their inductions can be a great place to introduce them to new ideas that can turn into habits. People will try to fit into the culture that they join, so they will take on new behaviours much more easily.
How do you motivate people?
We’ve taken a lot of our ideas from Futerra and others’ research which shows that people don’t respond to nagging – they respond to positive incentives and fun! So we motivate people with the prospect of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, nightclub tickets and Lush products. Without these kinds of incentives many of them just wouldn’t be bothered to engage with our messages. Peer to peer engagement is also critical - people are much more likely to take action if it’s their friends that remind them.
You’ve talked about social media – how important has it been to the success of Student Switch Off?
Nothing will ever replace the value of face- to face interaction, but you can get your messages out much further and faster using online media. ebook ()> in particular has become a really important tool for spreading messages quickly to large numbers of people. For example, we recently ran a Facebook competition at Canterbury Christ Church University where the photo of students putting pan lids on with the most ‘Likes’ won a litre of Ben and Jerry’s ice-cream and in 2 days almost 800 students had ‘liked’ their favourite photo.
How do you make sure peoples’ new habits stick?
People will carry on with their actions if they feel like they are being valued. So for instance we encourage our ambassadors to say thank you if they see a friend doing something they’ve encouraged them to do. That creates a positive association with the action and makes it much more likely that they will do it again.
Reminders are also really important for maintaining action. So at a campus level we aim to have a ‘leader board’ showing which hall has performed the best so far in all the student halls, which reminds people of the effect that their actions are having and maintains the element of competition. We also create peaks in awareness every couple of weeks, for example with new photo competitions, which help put energy saving back at the top of peoples’ minds.
If you had one tip for other people embarking on a behaviour change campaign, what would it be?
Know your audience. We meet people ‘where they are at’ – we’re getting them to change their behaviour without them needing to change their beliefs or values. And when we train our ambassadors we steer them away from banging on about climate change, which can turn some people off, and instead get them to focus on what’s relevant for the people they’re talking to – for example the competitive element for sporty people, the club tickets for party people or the environmental angle for geography students.
Tell us what you've done..
This blog for Guardian Sustainble Business focuses on the trend towards online 'gamification' of behavoiur change. Student Switch Off features prominently in it, as do liftshare and Cambridge County Council, winner and runner-up respectively of our first ever Eurostar Ashden Award for Sustainable Travel. We'd love to hear more success stories of achieving behaviour change, however you've done it - you never know, you might even win an award for it!