As part of her work on citizen engagement within ATELIER, Beatriz Pineda Revilla from Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences investigates the impacts that a Positive Energy District (PED) has on the behaviour of new residents. How does moving to a smart home, located in a neighbourhood with a “green identity” such as Buiksloterham, affect residents’ behaviour and in which ways? The role that technology plays in a PED is quite prominent and there is a risk to heavily rely on technology to reduce energy consumption and to become energy positive. Beatriz therefore argues that there is an acute need for a threefold reflection to:
- expand the debate beyond the reduction of energy consumption towards a reduction of energy demand, so not only thinking in terms of how to reduce our energy consumption but to also question if we really need so much energy in the first place;
- bring the debate to the lifestyle level instead of remaining locked into the dimension of the dwelling. Energy consumption takes place when we travel, when we choose a certain food product at the supermarket, when we waste food, etc., and not only within the private sphere of the home;
- explore not only the individual level but also the role of the community as a social context where a new understanding of normality is discussed, modified, and constructed, in other words, where energy norms are shaped.
Beatriz has therefore written an opinion essay that has recently been published in the Dutch magazine “Bewogen Stad” (2nd edition “Climate Change”, November 2020). Within this article, she builds upon and critically digs into these three reflections, which are based on her PhD thesis “From efficiency to decency: Cultivating energy needs in urban communities”. Read the original article “Naar een slimmere levensstijl via stedelijke gemeenschappen” here. Read an English translation of the original article below.
Transitioning towards smarter lifestyles by the hand of urban communities
Author: Beatriz Pineda Revilla
Imagine that you will soon move to a smart home. As promised in the brochure, the house will be equipped with new technologies that will simplify your daily life and make it more energy-efficient. A smart thermostat, connected to your phone, will allow you to program the temperature before you arrive home so that it is warm and cosy when you come in. Thanks to a kitchen grinder you will easily get rid of your organic waste. Solar panels and a ground-coupled heat exchanger will generate the energy needed to run all your devices, including your new energy efficient washing machine with an A+++ label or the smart fridge in your kitchen that will tell you when you are running out of your favourite foods. And, if you are moving into “Republica”, a currently under construction housing complex in Buiksloterham, in Amsterdam North, you will also become automatically member of a local energy cooperative, where residents will trade energy peer-to-peer using a local energy market platform. In many countries like the Netherlands, this seems to be the future we are moving towards, a smart future where technology is playing a central role and as everything related to technology, it goes fast. At a rapid pace, we are constantly jumping into the next technological advancement, frequently lacking the time to stop and reflect on the daily choices we make. In a time when climate change consequences are becoming self-evident we look for solutions to reduce our energy consumption. Will technology save us? Is this smart future the way to go and will it suffice? Or will it arrive the moment when we need to also change our habits? What is the role that urban communities can play in shaping energy-related norms? This article aims to provide some space for reflection around these questions, offering a critical view on the current role that technology plays in the energy transition and some insights on how urban communities shape this transition towards a “smarter” future.
The risks of relying on technology
Energy, unlike water or waste, is invisible. This intangibility makes it challenging to raise awareness towards the reduction of energy consumption. Normally people do not think of the energy they consume, instead they think of the activities that energy allows them to perform such as having a bigger home, riding a powerful car or flying to an exotic destination to enjoy a holiday. Therefore, when confronted with the need of reducing energy consumption, the straightforward answer is to look at technology and see what energy efficiency devices can do to improve our energy intensive lifestyles. Research is showing the risks of this approach by looking into the so-called “rebound effects”, an increase in energy demand following the introduction of a more energy efficient technology. The potential energy (and monetary) savings by households are “reinvested” in additional activities or goods, thereby maintaining current energy consumption levels and in some cases even increasing them. Some examples of this rebound effect are the expenditure of the expected savings in higher comfort, the growing number of electrical appliances, the increasing size and number of individual dwellings and the rapid growth in car ownership and distance travelled. The result is an overall increase – instead of the necessary decrease – of energy consumption. Another risk of blindly relying on technology is to overlook the challenges related to the social acceptance of new technologies. Technological advancements alter our daily routines and understandings of what is considered normal, which act as a barrier for change (e.g. social acceptance of wind farms due to changes in the landscape, biodiversity loses, the lowering of property values, etc.). Even if smart homes come fully equipped with all energy efficient devices that does not necessarily mean that residents will understand them or have the skills to use them appropriately (or even to use them at all!). Technology can be a great ally in speeding up the energy transition but it is necessary to acknowledge that technological advancements needs to go hand in hand with behavioural changes.
A lifestyle approach to reducing energy demand
This emphasis on reducing energy consumption by technological means often overshadows a key question that lies beneath: Do we really need so much energy to have a good life? Decreasing energy demand, in other words, reducing our own energy needs, is not the most popular approach. It implies changing our habits which is not an easy task, especially if we live in a comfortable way. Most energy efficiency devices are linked to the dwelling, many times locking this discussion to the sphere of the home (maybe stretching it out into e-mobility due to the direct connection to the home charging poles). However, thinking beyond the energy efficiency paradigm and paying attention to reducing energy demand, brings the discussion outside the dwelling and transforms it into a lifestyle question. Many Western households’ energy consumption activities happen outside the dwelling (frequent flying for work or leisure or eating a hamburger at a restaurant are two of the most energy demanding examples). All our actions, whether they are related to the home, to our food consumption patterns, leisure activities, mobility choices, work circumstances, etc., are intertwined and influence each other. A psychological phenomenon worth noticing here is “moral licensing”, which can be considered a rebound effect when observed at this lifestyle level. Moral licensing explains why people who initially display moral or sustainable behaviours are more likely to later on behave in immoral or less sustainable ways. For example, vegetarians or vegans who fly often and believe one behaviour compensates for the other. More holistic approaches that encompass different lifestyle dimensions will enable a shift towards energy policies that not only aim at reducing energy consumption but that also enable the contestation and reduction of current energy needs.
The role of urban communities in shaping energy norms
Targeting energy demand reduction requires innovative energy policies. Exploring community-centred energy policies is one of the possible avenues. This implies researchers and policy makers identifying and working with urban communities instead of focusing on individuals as the unit of analysis of target group of their research and policies, respectively. It is true that many factors that influence social change are intrinsic to the individual such as attitudes, habits, and values but there are others that are extrinsic such as fiscal and regulatory incentives, institutional constrains and social norms. Focusing on the latest, social norms are crucial in triggering long-term social change and are shaped by the socio-spatial context where individuals live and interact. One type of socio-spatial context that deserves further attention in the energy transition is that of the urban community. There are different types of urban communities, some are place-based communities, bounded to a geographical location, for example a neighbourhood, and others are communities of interest, which emerged around a common topic or interest shared by their members. When looking at it from a sociological perspective, a community can be understood as a relational space shaped by the social interactions among the members that, in turn, regulate the social norms of the community. Discussions triggered by questions such as “How much energy do we need to live a good live (so that others can have a good life too)?” happening at the community level have the potential to challenge Western consumeristic lifestyles. What if enjoying a local holiday or eating less meat (or no meat at all) becomes the new normal because community interactions normalise these less energy intensive lifestyles? How do changes in discourse happen due to community interactions?
As my recent PhD research findings have revealed, both researchers and policy makers need to acknowledge the wide variety of groups and communities that exist in cities nowadays and the very diverse ways they frame their lifestyles choices. Current energy policies are developed based on the belief that individuals’ actions are oriented towards money saving choices while, when focusing on communities instead, it turns out that monetary frames happen to be finely intertwined with a wide range of other motivational reasonings such as the care for one’s own wellbeing and that of the beloved ones, broader environmental concerns, willingness to belong to a community or fit into a certain group, energy efficiency motivations, etc. Working with communities has revealed as well the importance of emotions in triggering social change. For example, narratives and artistic expressions (a documentary, an art installation, humor, etc.) can spark emotions in a community setting which, in turn, help transform energy-related data and information into meaningful knowledge, which is crucial for shaping social norms. The way communities interact (online, face-to-face, in a hybrid setting, etc.) and exchange and co-create energy-related data and information also plays a role in this process, being face-to-face interactions still crucial to build up the necessary trust to have meaningful interactions leading towards the contestation of current social norms. Understanding the impact of these “communities of discourse” in shaping social norms around energy demand and exploring ways to nourish them are worth being investigated and applied by policy makers to advance community-centred energy policies. This future work with urban communities needs to use the technological advancements, acknowledging the crucial role that technology needs to play in the energy transition, but without overshadowing deeper questions that touch upon our core values as a society.
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