Disruption Project Tackles Key Government Research Needs

(Reposted from Greg’s blog http://drgregmarsden.wordpress.com/)

The Disruption project (www.disruptionproject.net) is a 3 year project funded under the Research Council UK’s Energy Programme seeking to identify new ways to develop and implement lower carbon and more energy efficient travel. The project suggests that businesses and individuals are more adaptable to new situations than is typically assumed and that this could open new opportunities to change patterns of living such that they are less dependent on carbon intensive travel. The project will explore, through a series of practical studies, the extent to which travel practices that are assumed to be routine are frequently disrupted as part of unplanned (life) events.

A recent review of research commissioned by DEFRA has examined a similar proposition – considering whether “moments of change” can be used to stimulate pro-environmental behaviour change, particularly drawing on psychological theories of behaviour change. The report (Thompson et al., 2011) concludes:

From a theoretical perspective, there are good reasons to believe that significant life events provide a promising opportunity for breaking existing habits…There is some promising empirical evidence in the academic literature, but this is relatively scarce and also very largely confined to transport behaviour. Anecdotally, almost all of the limited number of people we spoke to – academics, practitioners and campaigners alike – found the moments of change hypothesis plausible prima facie. However, on the whole they were not aware of, or had not themselves collected, data that could demonstrate changes in habitual behaviour actually occurring at moments of change” (p157).

Our research suggests that one of the reasons why evidence on change is limited is because we have not specifically looked for it. Much of our data is cross sectional in nature and therefore of limited use in answering such questions. The report makes a series of recommendations for future research which the Disruption project is already beginning to address in two key areas:

New research methods:

DEFRA Research Recommendations

  • “Conducting qualitative research with people who have already changed their behaviours in order to understand the motivating factors, especially in relation to the timing of behaviour changes.
  • Developing action-research projects based on real-world situations and interventions.
  • “Mapping” the life course in terms of people’s contact with service and organisations that could potentially deliver a behaviour change intervention.” (p14)

The Disruption project is conducting a series of longitudinal ethnographic studies with families in Brighton and Lancaster which will provide in-depth understanding of the before, during and after implications of moments of change that typically occur. We are also conducting a longitudinal study of the impacts of the Olympics disruption on journeys to work. The research project examines the issues from a range of theoretical perspectives (including the psychological approaches on which the DEFRA study draws and mobilities). By taking a broader socio-technical systems approach we also bring research into the broader system, organisational and governance context, which informs and shapes our mobility patterns, to the fore. One of our contentions is that moments of change or disruptions are interesting because of what they reveal about our travel practices – not because they are of themselves necessarily the right tools for change.

Deliberative Policy Design:

DEFRA Research Recommendations

  • “Exploring the relationship between people’s receptivity to interventions at different “moments” and the message content and framing.
  • Exploring whether the source of the intervention impacts on its acceptability and efficacy.
  • Exploring whether upstream or downstream interventions are most effective at moments of change.”

Our research design includes a series of policy design workshops with expert groups and the general public. Each of these groups will be invited to consider, in the light of the evidence, what types of changes to the broader system, the specifics of particular policies or the framing of policy will be effective in promoting a transition to lower energy consumption for mobility. The project will conclude by bringing the solutions and the groups together to genuinely co-design a set of acceptable and effective measures which may be implemented by governments, business, regulated industries or individuals.

DEFRA report Thompson, S., Michaelson, J., Abdallah, S., Johnson, V., Morris, D., Riley, K., & Simms, A. (2011). “Moments of change” as opportunities for influencing behaviour: A report to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. nef (the new economics foundation). Defra, London. Download here