How do we freshen up the rhetoric about a sustainable built environment, to bring more profound change in our practices?

Dr Chris Foulds, GSI

By creating an international network that challenges established theories, and thinks about ‘practices’ not ‘behaviours’

What was your starting point for this work?

We ultimately wanted to find a different way of promoting and thinking about a sustainable approach to the built environment. We wanted to move away from the dominant research and policy-making assumption that an individual’s actions are dictated by rational choice – that individuals always make informed decisions. This thinking has led to policies for promoting sustainable technologies – alongside awareness-raising initiatives – being developed that hope to convince individuals to buy those technologies and then use them in the ‘correct’ (rational) way. This thinking is combined with a belief that technologies hold the answer.

Our starting point is very different. We argue that people consume resources and use the built environment (whether sustainably or not) for practices meaningful to daily life such as cooking, driving and working. We argue that people only use resources and technologies (a car or a bus) because of the services they provide (getting you to work), meaning that individual rational choice is often an illusion (there may be no good bus routes). Overall we are looking at practices rather than behaviours – and at building a more profound understanding of practices. In social science literature behaviours are actions, whereas practices are more productive to look at as they are complex; they are also routinised sets of behaviours that evolve over time.

The Network looks at how practices are organised, performed and have changed over time. For example, heating one’s home has evolved a huge amount. Thanks to central heating we have been able to improve the home environment which impacts on our health and well-being. But, technologies such as central heating have in turn, directly shaped the social expectations of (and the skills required to) keeping warm. For example, one might be seen as a bad host if our guests are cold, or a bad parent if our children wake up to ice on the inside of their window. Once upon a time, ice on the inside of your window was entirely normal, but the social norms have changed and central heating has enabled this.

We thought it would be effective to advance this new thinking by setting up an international network of 18 or so early-career researchers in the field of social practice who have an interest in sustainable built environments, and freshen up the approach to current research. It is called the ‘Practices, the Built Environment and Sustainability’ Network.

What will the Network discuss?

The Network argues for a shift in thinking and policy-making, away from a focus on technological development or ‘behaviour change’ (take the bus, don’t drive), towards understanding and intervening in practices that underpin what people actually do day to day. The Network will discuss both the everyday practices of people as well as those of professionals (e.g. architects, planners, policymakers, landlords, office workers) in the built environment. It is interested in, though not limited to, looking at the following features of such people’s practices, how they: have evolved; are organised; transcend traditional sectorial distinctions (e.g. water, transport, with one another; are influenced by different actors and change agents; can be steered in more sustainable directions; are influenced (or not) by traditional approaches targeting a more sustainable built environment; and can be researched in innovative ways (both theoretically and methodologically).

Why set up a network?

Previous social science research relies heavily on the notion that either technology or indeed education can alone improve, influence, and alter the way in which we make our world more sustainable. When either fails to deliver, we wonder where it all went wrong! This over-simplistic viewpoint means we often lack a deeper, more profound meaning of our behaviours, or ‘practices’. By setting up a network of international academics we hope to challenge the traditional rhetoric and find new, improved ways of thinking.

What impact has the Network had so far?

The formation of the Network has already had tremendous reach across research institutes worldwide. As a result of last year’s events we produced nine ‘thinking notes’ that have solicited responses from some of the arena’s most esteemed commentators. While the Network is UK-centric it has brought together some of the brightest early-career researchers and industry representatives from countries around the world such as Australia, Canada, Denmark, Ireland and Norway and opened up the door to interest in future collaborations and visiting fellowships.

A practice vs a behaviour: Example - trying to make showering more sustainable

A behaviour focusses on individual behaviours such as saving water and power. It assumes individuals are in control, often leading to awareness campaigns about how much energy and water is used in every shower.

A practice looks at showering as being historically and culturally specific, as well as co-dependent on the evolution of technologies. It crucially recognises that people do not necessarily care about energy and water but about the services showering provides (such as cleanliness or invigoration), and social expectations of ‘normal’ levels of cleanliness.

Research matters

What inspired you?
This project was about setting up an international network around a particular cutting edge set of ideas. It’s about collaboration for a better future.

Any surprises?
The number of applications we received to join the network was overwhelming and we received eight times as many applications as there were places available.

As a result we decided to increase the network from 15 places to 18. Why does this researcher network matter? The main importance of this network is that it provides an innovative approach to sustainability and practices relating to the built environment that can help to inform future government policy.

Dr Chris Foulds is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at our Global Sustainability Institute. Chris is an interdisciplinary environmental social scientist, with a keen interest in how people (households or professionals) respond to interventions that target reductions in how much they consume. Chris’s current research interests centre around the following four interrelated themes: energy and the built environment; sustainable consumption and socio-technical change; interdisciplinary and theoretically informed methods and the role of the researcher.

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