Behaviour Change in the Digital Age

As part of our 15th year, we are deep diving into four key topics, including digitalisation, to explore how we can enable positive impact right now towards more sustainability and a good life for all. We were curious how our sustainable lifestyle (SL) team works on digitalisation at the intersection of behaviour change towards more sustainability. To find out, we interviewed Rosa Strube, Head of SL Team to discuss its potential.

Digitalisation and living a good life within the boundaries of our planet – how do these two topics connect?

Digitalisation is an enabler for a number of different processes, therefore, the interrelations between new technology and digital processes on the one hand and lifestyles and behaviours on the other are manifold. If we take a look at the areas of our lifestyles that have the highest environmental impact – housing, mobility and consumption – digital innovations offer solutions that save resources. From smart home appliances to connected mobility services, digitalisation can make our daily choices easier or assist us in decision making, for example, by using default settings that enable more sustainable outcomes. In this context, mechanisms such as digital product passports are increasingly being introduced to transparently communicate the properties of products.  By increasing transparency and offering the chance to compare products, digitalisation can support consumers to choose the more sustainable options. Smartphone APPs and watches can also encourage more sustainable behaviours, especially toward active mobility or food waste reduction, for example by using gamification elements. Quite important is the role of digitalisation in enabling collaborative consumption activities by reducing transaction costs or increasing the availability and visibility of sharing economy examples. We are working with businesses as well as consumers to facilitate exchange in favour of comprehensive and inclusive solutions. Through the European Circular Economy Platform (ECESP) leadership group Retailers, Consumers and Skills, we are exploring the potential of digital technologies to make products more circular, but also to encourage circular behaviour at the same time. We pay particular attention to the issue of skills, as we are aware that there is not only a financial gap in terms of technology ownership, but also a gap in digital literacy. There are considerable discrepancies when it comes to skills needed for using digital tools, especially considering that many are not designed with accessibility in mind. Recent research also indicates that there is a ‘data gap’ with certain societal groups not being able to access digital tools or services due to lack of wireless connection. Only by putting extra emphasis on overcoming these existing inequalities, we can ensure that digitalisation leads to a good life for all.

In addition to inclusiveness, data security and the digitalisation footprint pose concerns as well…

Yes, that’s correct. In the digital world, trust is the currency that really counts. Many citizens have a sense of mistrust toward large companies or governing bodies that have access to their data. With its General Data Protection Regulation or the European strategy for data, the European Commission has established ambitious and binding rules on the use of personal data, yet, many open questions remain. As long as the analysis of personal data is often a central part of business models in the field of digital services, it remains to be seen how this challenge can be overcome. Many aspects need to be taken into consideration: the way data is collected, how it’s stored (including environmental impacts), how it’s governed (emerging ideas like data trusts or commons as alternatives) and how it’s used (e.g., for private or public benefit).

From a behaviour change perspective, how willing and under which conditions are people ready to take up the ever-growing digital tools and possibilities?

First of all, we need to acknowledge that people’s lifestyles vary considerably. Lifestyle choices are driven by different preferences and aspirations and this diversity is something that we have to be considerate of at all times. When it comes to integrating digital tools into our daily lives, we see notable differences between the digital natives and the older generation, but also between early adopters of all ages and groups who are either less keen on, or lack access to, digital devices. We have engaged with citizens from different socio-economic backgrounds in five European countries as part of our INHERIT project and discussed with them future scenarios of how digitalisation could enable a more sustainable life. The analysis showed that citizens were mostly willing to use digital tools in support of sustainable living when such tools added more convenience to their lives. Other personal benefits such as cost reduction were also driving factors. Data privacy concerns and insecurities as of how personal data would be handled were a major concern among all groups. What we can draw from this experience is that for a digital tool to lead to more sustainable lifestyles – be it on a personal or organisation level – a detailed analysis must precede its design. Which behaviours do we want to change with the new tool? What is the most efficient way for that to happen considering the target group specifics? How to best address data security concerns? All these questions should be thought through carefully. A case in point is our collaboration with Vodafone as part of their employee engagement programme, Mission Green. As a scientific and implementation partner, the CSCP supported the programme with its expertise on sustainable behaviours and by providing guidance in behaviour change. This know-how was directly fed into an app that was created to support employees to make more sustainable choices.

Can you name three aspects in the intersection between digitalisation and behaviour change that deserve special attention in the future?

First, digitalisation can be an enabler to close the gap between intention and action for a more sustainable lifestyle. Digital tools, such as apps or virtual networks, if used well, can have great potential to get people to start a new behaviour and get them to maintain it over time. They can build engagement using social norms, take advantage of gamification approaches and prompts to support behaviour change.  Examples such as Vodafone’s Mission Green or our collaboration with MyFoodWays exemplify this idea.

A second aspect is ensuring not only equity in terms of access to digital tools but also increasing digital literacy across all groups in society. The European Commission has recently announced the European Skills Agenda setting ambitious objectives for upskilling and reskilling in order to meet the demands of the green and digital transition in jobs and beyond. Building upon the success of our capacity building programme the Academy of Change (AoC), we are looking to create a similar format to support Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in assessing their needs and shaping their goals with digital lenses on. Using an understanding of digitalisation as an aspiration as well as a tool, we are keen on accompanying CSOs as they advance their digital maturity. I believe that CSOs that tap into the potential of digitalisation not only become more resilient but are in a better position to be a stepping stone towards the fairer and sustainable future that we strive for.

Finally, matters such as trust and data privacy concerns require continuous dialogue among all actors in society. Digitalisation can be a force for good in changing behaviours toward more sustainability, but only if its benefits as well as shortcomings are discussed in transparent and constructive ways. With a strength in multi-stakeholder engagements, we support the establishment of sector-based platforms where digital tools are developed, tested and communicated with one goal in mind: more sustainability.

For further question, reach out directly to Rosa Strube.