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All Change? Experiments in sustainability transformations

The 2014 New York Climate Summit and the host of activities surrounding the event in September reiterated broader discussions amongst policy, business and civil society sectors on the need to significantly transform the way in which we live on to more sustainable pathways. However, many of these discussions have taken place at a level far removed from the everyday practices of mainstream consumption such as taking a shower, cooking breakfast or heating the home; practices that are inescapably situated within complex socio-technical systems replete with different rules, skills, devices and understandings of acceptable and appropriate behaviour.

Despite this complexity, an increasing number of initiatives are bringing together scientists and citizen-consumers, often in collaboration with private sector, governmental and non-governmental actors, to try to translate theoretical models and imagined scenarios of more sustainable living into real life settings.

In one such project, CONSENSUS, these experiments are called ‘Change Labs’. Within these Labs, units of analysis can range from simulated living laboratories to entire cityscapes, but all seek to support transformations towards sustainability and often take a step-wise process for bringing about change:


They have taken the form of city experiments, with initiatives such as City Watch in Ireland, which is exploring how citizen-contributed sensor data in combination with data from sensors deployed by municipals and utilities can be used to make cities sustainable and connected. It uses on-board sensors in citizen mobile devices and investigates how the power of the crowd can be exploited to signal wasteful practices and highlight green initiatives, turning citizens into sensors to create a dynamic green map of Dublin and creating the impetus for a greener Dublin. City Watch has also recently joined forces with Dublin City Council to give citizens a say in city policy developments via an online opinion and sentiment survey toolset ‘Your Dublin Your Voice’. Similarly, The Future Cities Laboratory in Singapore is a transdisciplinary research programme focused on sustainable urbanisation. It is trialling new technologies, novel public policies and services, or social innovations within urban spaces.

On a smaller scale, simulated living laboratories co-design and evaluate innovative products and services with users in an imitation ‘home’ setting. The forerunner in this space is MIT and their House_n initiative which explores the intersection of new technologies, materials and design on lifestyles, through projects such as PlaceLab. The PlaceLab is occupied by volunteers who live in the home for a period of time in the knowledge that nearly every aspect of their behaviour is being monitored to assess interaction patterns with new technologies and home environments.

In-House Change Labs forgo the hyper-controlled environment of simulated living laboratories and work with householders in their own homes to explore the impacts of and reactions to innovations, prototypes, or niche activities for more sustainable living. One example of this is the LEEDR project, which brings together information gained from energy monitoring, video ethnography and workshop techniques to explore opportunities for reducing energy demand within households. Elsewhere, as with the CONSENSUS HomeLabs experiment, Change Labs are explicitly co-producing knowledge around sustainable consumption.

In the first phase of this project, a process of participatory backcasting led to co-designed scenarios and transition frameworks. This began by setting out the challenges that result from current consumption patterns – essentially identifying the specific dimensions of unsustainable consumption within Irish households. One dimension was household water consumption. Irish households consume around 60% of all water supplied in Ireland, but there are often mismatches between the location of water sources and centres of demand, making water treatment and supply expensive. Meanwhile, climatic changes are predicted to increase these mismatches both in terms of geographical and seasonal availability in the future. Of this water consumption, more is used for personal washing than any other household use (more than 30%) in Ireland. An increase in power showers (which are both water and energy intensive), treating all water piped to households to drinking quality standard, and little or no reuse of water are all increasing the costs of water supply and consumption. Coupled with cultural trends for more frequent washing, a perception of abundant rainfall (despite a low level of rainfall harvesting for household use) and a low awareness of actual water use,  these trends have resulted in an economically and environmentally unsustainable landscape of water use in Ireland. So, while no absolute or agreed targets of what constitutes ‘sustainable’ water consumption exist, it was clear from this initial phase of research that current household consumption in Ireland lacked resilience in the face of uncertain impacts of climate change and socio-economic challenges (Davies et al., 2014[1]).

Following this backcasting activity, the HomeLabs research team set about collaborating with a range of actors from public, private and civil society sectors. These collaborations led to the of design interventions to support participants in moving towards more sustainable food and water consumption. These interventions included devices (e.g. volumetric water flow meters and home composters), simulated regulations (water targets and carbon footprints) and behavioural guidance (information on preventing food waste and cleanliness without water consumption).

The team then recruited householders who were willing to allow researchers into their homes and have their everyday consumption practices disrupted by a combination of these new technologies, products, regulations and information over an intensive five-week period. The interventions served as probes to advance understanding of current practices, but were simultaneously being tested for their potential to instigate sustainability transformations in everyday practices.

In the case of personal washing, interventions aimed to build adaptability into washing practices, supporting a greater connection to water sources and services, and ensuring water was used efficiently during washing. Finding that householders often lacked awareness of how much water was actually being used while they washed, researchers combined data from multiple sources to provide accurate information. The research also revealed that water is often used to meet multiple needs beyond cleanliness – the water for a long, hot shower or bath frequently being used as a way to relax in the evening or after sport, or conversely as a means to wake up in the morning with a brisk power shower. Researchers used the HomeLabs to explore with householders whether it was possible to meet certain needs such as relaxation or revitalisation through alternative, and importantly, less-consumptive practices such as meditation or stretching. Researchers also encouraged participants to reflect on their regular washing practices (such as showering daily or even twice daily) and consider whether such frequencies of showering were meeting important needs or were simply the result of habitual behaviour.

Meanwhile, in the eating HomeLabs, interventions focused on supporting more sustainable food acquisition, smarter food storage and kitchen management, and promoting sustainable options for handling unavoidable food waste. The HomeLabs used innovations from new sources, working with start-up entrepreneurs to design products for more sustainable eating, such as biodegradable kitchen-top food waste caddies that reduce the smell and messiness of separating out food waste for collection. They also included trialling basic home aquaponic kits to assist householders in growing some of their own food, irrespective of the availability of garden space.

While still a ‘work-in-progress’, a benefit of HomeLabs-style research is that it can provide an additional layer of understanding about the relationships that might emerge between socio-technical change and its socio-environmental consequences. Literally, getting out into people’s homes in this way demonstrates that societal context can be as important as technical innovation when it comes to transformations around sustainable consumption. Not that such research is a silver bullet for system transformation, for even if HomeLabs reveal positive stories of transformed consumption practices, the nuances and variations within households and the constantly shifting context of everyday life means that mainstreaming such sustainable outcomes remains a significant challenge. But whilst perhaps not a solution, such experiments are an essential testbed for grounding and interrogating promising practices for sustainable household consumption. In the words of Barack Obama “Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

Additional Resources

Further details on these initiatives can be found in the Change Lab Briefing Note,1: at: This Briefing Note is an output of the HomeLabs research, part of the CONSENSUS: Consumption, environment and sustainability project funded by the Environmental Protection Agency’s STRIVE research programme 2009–2013 (Grant Number: 2008-SD-LS-1-S1).

Davies,A.R., Fahy, F. and Rau, H. (2014) Challenging Consumption: Pathways to a more sustainable future, Routledge: London

Davies, A. R. (2014) Co-creating sustainable eating futures: technology, ICT and citizen-consumer ambivalenceFutures, DOI:10.1016/j.futures.2014.04.006

Doyle, R., & Davies, A., R. (2013). Towards sustainable household consumption: exploring a practice oriented, participatory backcasting approach for sustainable home heating practices in IrelandJournal of Cleaner Production, 48, 260-271.

[1] Davies, A.R., Fahy, F., Rau, H. (2014) Challenging Consumption: Pathways to a more sustainable future, Routledge: London.