FEATURE16 September 2016

Smart behaviour change

Behavioural economics Energy Features Trends UK

Claire Maugham, director of policy and communications at Smart Energy GB, explains how the unique challenge faced by smart meter rollout has prompted a fresh look at behavioural science.

Between now and 2020 every home in the UK is being offered a smart meter, and similar rollouts of digital energy technology are taking place in other advanced economies.

But installing technology that shows energy use in pounds and pence is just the beginning. Our ambition must be to empower consumers to make better informed choices about their energy use. At Smart Energy GB, we’ve invested in new behavioural science research because we want the potential benefits of smart technology to be realised.

A new white paper – A Smart Route to Change – is the result of our work in this area over the past year. The study looks at how the ‘disruptive moment’ of smart meter installation can re-engage consumers with their energy use.

The scale of the rollout requires a fresh approach to how we apply behavioural science to a mass public campaign: the approach needs to take into account a vast range of human behaviours and different complex consumer journeys.

We focused on two models:

  • COM-B: based around thinking systematically about barriers and enablers of specific behaviour
  • MINDSPACE: developed by the Institute of Government to apply mass public policy behaviour change goals, based on a mnemonic – messenger, incentives, norms, defaults, salience, priming, affect, commitments and ego

Both have their benefits and limitations when applied to different scenarios. We identified MINDSPACE as the best starting point for a model that’s right for developing the tools to support people in best using their smart meters. This framework can adapt to a diverse and mass audience and amend the levers and incentives to change behaviour accordingly.

Drawing on the knowledge of experts, our white paper develops a smart approach to applying MINDSPACE – mapping out the steps to apply to each consumer journey.

We believe that this approach can enable us and others to work together to identify tools and interventions that will best stimulate change and empower consumers to use their smart meters and think afresh about how they’re using energy in the home.

Central to our paper’s findings was the importance of tapping into existing behaviours. Making simple changes to the household routine are the most likely to become habitual. Different stages of the smart meter journey – pre-installation awareness, installation and longer term change – are important for different audiences. And simple communications to consumers, for example providing information about their energy use and bench-marking it against ‘people like you’ who live in similar areas or houses, can result in long-term change.

Individual energy companies and government policy-makers will consider how these ideas can best translate into practical applications. Some possibilities include the following:

  • Households could be given a ‘teaser package’ a few days before installation with easy-to-follow energy saving ideas and engaging content
  • A simple box checklist could be given to bill-payers with examples of actions they can take to maximise smart meter benefits
  • A ‘smart like me’ app or programme could benchmark energy use against similar properties and postcodes in real time
  • Personalised weekly and monthly emails or app messages would reflect individual energy use and provide electronic feedback on their individual actions

The hope is that our paper will arm all those involved in Britain’s national energy transformation with invaluable insights into perceptions, experiences and behaviours alongside the types of interventions consumers might respond positively towards.

Through engaging with households at the right time and in the right way, we can empower them to make choices that will have a big impact on their experience as consumers, and on Britain’s carbon footprint.

Claire Maugham is director of policy and communications at Smart Energy GB