Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.


A gentle nudge in the right direction

If we all stop overfilling our kettles and instead boil only the water we need, in a year we will save enough electricity to run the UK’s street lighting for nearly two months. But how can we be persuaded to change our behaviour?

The answer may lie in an ongoing experiment in one small street in Brighton. Over three weeks spanning March and April, residents of Brighton’s Tidy Street have voluntarily reduced their electricity consumption by 15 per cent.

The Tidy Street project, which has sparked interest around the world, is deceptively simple: participating residents were asked to read their electricity meters daily and enter the readings into a website, where a database and specially developed software gave them feedback on how much electricity they were using compared to the average for Brighton, and for other UK regions.

Then came the eye-catching bit: the results were displayed on the road surface outside the residents’ homes, in the form of a giant chalk artwork created by local artist Snub. It showed graphically how Tidy Street energy use was dropping, day-by-day, further below the Brighton average.

Tidy Street has successfully harnessed the persuasive power of social norms: an innate human tendency to go with the herd. Studies have shown, for example, that someone who typically drinks, say, 10 units a week, and is told that five units is the norm, will reduce their consumption.

Project leader Dr Jon Bird, a Brighton resident and research associate in the Open University’s computing department, specialises in human-computer interaction. Tidy Street is one of several projects he is carrying out under the banner of Change, an initiative funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to explore how technology can be designed to change patterns of human behaviour.

“One of the novel features of this project was the manual electricity monitoring,” says Dr Bird. “Typically, projects of this type have used automatic smart monitoring, which doesn’t require people to physically read their meters. But we believe the low-tech approach was effective at raising people’s awareness of their electricity use.

“But raising awareness by itself is not sufficient to change behaviour. The other very important aspect was the street art. People have said it was just a big stunt to get publicity – and it certainly has got publicity – but it’s also been a remainder to all the participants every time they step outside their door.

“Everyone said that they had at some point explained what the street display was about to someone else – friends or family, or passers-by. Effectively it had turned them all into champions of the project.”

Seventeen of the 52 households on the street took part and they typically made energy savings through simple steps, such as turning off lights and appliances they weren’t using. “It’s been brilliant,” says resident Kim MacDonald.

“My electricity usage is between a third and a half of what it was. Now I turn everything off at the plug instead of leaving it on standby.”

Some residents chose to monitor the consumption of individual appliances, using a plug-in meter supplied by the project. One of those who took that option was Heather Hacker, 85. “I’ve been paying bills all my life and I know I need to pay for electricity, but the meter made me aware that a kettle needs a lot. It was frightening to watch it go round.”

Tidy Street is an example of what the Open University’s researchers called “nudge technology”, a marriage of behavioural science and innovative ubiquitous technology that we will be seeing a lot more of as our understanding of its potential expands. “Nudge technology is giving people that bit of information that will nudge their behaviour towards values they care about,” says Professor Yvonne Rogers, who is leading the university’s contribution to Change. “What’s important is to give the right information, at the right time, in the right place.”

She illustrates this with another project, the augmented shopping trolley, designed to encourage awareness of “food miles”. As each item is loaded in the trolley, a sensor on the handlebar identifies the product and a simple LED display lights up showing how far the item has been transported – four lights for UK produce, eight for Europe, 16 for further afield. The device can also be used to measure other parameters, such as fat content or salt content. “Our design principle is to let people see what they are interested in, and keep it simple,” says Professor Rogers.

In Tidy Street, Dr Bird is preparing for the next phase of the project, which will involve monitoring gas as well as electricity consumption, for a period of six months. “While there has been a 15 per cent reduction in energy use, you have to temper that by saying it’s only been over a period of three weeks. We will need to maintain that for a longer period to really show that it is having an effect.”

Dr Bird is quietly confident the Tidy street approach will work anywhere, but only on the locals’ terms. “You have to go into the community, talk to them, engage them, find your champions, who will then find other people, and you can build on that. It doesn’t have to be about a single street – it can be a few streets, an estate.”

He has been contacted by different projects around the world wanting to use the software he has developed for Tidy Street, which is open source and freely available to all. Perhaps the most ambitious approach is from a potential partner who wants to run a similar scheme in Abu Dhabi, says Dr Bird.

“That will be quite a challenge as the United Arab Emirates has the highest per capita carbon footprint in the world.”

A workshop on the efficacy and ethics of using nudge techniques to change behaviour takes place tomorrow at the Open University, see the Change website. For more information about the Tidy Street project or software, contact j.bird@open.ac.uk

‘Our history will evolve with each different voice from our past’

By Rachel Garnham, senior project manager, History of the OU project

Knowledge of the past is essential, without it we would be without identity, we would be “lost on an endless sea of time”, said Arthur Marwick, the first professor of history at the Open University. With this in mind, the OU has begun examining its own history and effect on students, education and society.

The project’s findings will be published in a book that details how the OU was founded in 1969 despite opposition from numerous quarters; the sustained attacks of the 1980s; and its expansion into the “national treasure” of today.

The university is looking to current and former staff and students for help, hoping to gather the memories and perspectives of those with experience of the OU. The online living archive will evolve with contributions from some of the 2 million people who have studied with the university. Whether in written form or as pictures or videos, the archive is designed to ensure it does not take a top-down, single voice approach, but takes onboard and highlights the many different views and experiences that it has helped create.

We hope the visitors will participate in debates and share stories about the impact the OU has had on their lives – be it personally or professionally. They can bring the past to life in a thought-provoking way and illuminate our understanding of the complexity and richness of adult learning.

People will not only have the opportunity to make contributions, but also comment on those of others or material added by the project team. This includes some highlights from the rich audiovisual archive at the OU.

The research could inform the OU’s response to changes now occurring in higher education. Debates on funding, partnerships, research, and technology require a long-term perspective and benefit from many voices.

This project seeks a wealth of contributions to produce a comprehensive OU history. To add yours, go to www.open.ac.uk/historyoftheou or email history-of the-ou@open.ac.uk. This year is the 40th anniversary of the OU’s first intake of students.