Nudging toward sustainability: Researching the power of an individual’s behavior

Parking lot view of evolve1
Parking lot view of evolve1

Please turn off the lights when exiting the room, society thanks you

Living in society means we are under the influence of others. This power can impact our behaviors and actions, which can result in both positive and negative results. For Mohamed Yousuf, the power of influence formed an integral part of his graduate studies research.

A recent Master of Environmental Studies in Sustainability Management graduate, Yousuf used his thesis to bridge quantitative methods of carbon emissions reporting with qualitative methods of social influence frameworks. His goal was to identify effective strategies to reduce workplace energy consumption through minor adjustments in employees’ work routine. His living laboratory was evolv1, a net-positive energy, zero-carbon building in the University of Waterloo’s David Johnston Research and Technology Park. evolv1 is an example of high-performance green infrastructure and the perfect location to examine the energy behaviors of occupants within a sustainable building.

To influence evolv1 employees, Yousuf used a tool known as nudging - the use of gentle, unobtrusive prompts to educate and modify unwelcome activities. "We are constantly shown nudges in our everyday lives, from calendar reminders to loyalty programs. When these encouragements minimize environmental impact, they are referred to as a green nudge," Yousuf says. "Green nudges have been proven to be informative and influential and result in reductions in energy, water, and fuel."

For two weeks, the lighting and electrical consumption patterns for the tenants of evolv1 were monitored and recorded for baseline information. Then, for four weeks, a series of announcements and behavioral strategy flyers were distributed to encourage a decrease in energy consumption. The energy consumption for the nudging phase was then compared to baseline to determine the percentage of electricity consumption savings.

The results of Yousuf’s interventions showed some tenants had reduced plug loads and lighting, with reductions as high as 39 per cent. However, some tenants showed increases during the nudging phase, suggesting that gentle prompts alone may be ineffective at changing people’s behaviors. Previous studies have found that the timing of nudges can have a marked difference in their effectiveness, which could have also impacted the results. Yousuf’s findings show the need for increased research into green nudges, including timing nudges to certain energy consumption phases, or combining them with other incentives for increased effectiveness.

"I hope to advance the skills and knowledge gained from this research to drive positive change in both research and practical sustainability applications," Yousuf says. "I want to contribute to the development of comprehensive sustainability initiatives that amalgamate data-driven insights with effective behavior change interventions, fostering a holistic approach to environmental management."

The power of influence on human behavior is an important tool for a more sustainable future. By understanding the power of societal influences and studying it at an individual level, we can better realize its potential on a global scale. Finding innovative solutions to promote positive environmental behavior will assist in solving complex challenges facing our world.
Christina Pope