November 19, 2014

Tapping Into the Power of Behavioral Science

We are good at building water infrastructure. Dams, pumps, storage tanks, water towers, wastewater treatment facilities, desalination plants, water-recycling systems, and the like. As a society we have the materials and the engineering talent, and with enough money we are good at solving technical problems. Not only are we good at this stuff, we generally prefer to build things even if it is more expensive and less effective than alternative options for solving our problems.

So why do we like to spend so much money pouring concrete, setting rebar, and constructing edifices? Well, for one it creates jobs and generates economic activity which helps raise the standard of living for our communities. These are things we can all rally around and are easy to describe, justify, measure, and possibly most importantly, see. They are tangible. You can touch them.

For example, communities around the world are investing billions of dollars in large desalination infrastructure projects to provide new water supply sources. These projects are not only very expensive, but they have substantial environmental impacts, including the creation of copious carbon emissions from the power plants required to generate the energy to push brackish water through the reverse-osmosis filters used to remove salt and create potable water. These greenhouse gas emissions arguably contribute to further climate change, which is part of the reason that increasingly arid regions are encountering greater water stress. So, in these cases, a very expensive solution to a critical societal problem is actually contributing to the conditions that led to the problems in the first place.

So building things, while not always advisable or efficient, is relatively easy. What’s much more difficult is changing people’s behavior. Humans are creatures of habit and behavior change is typically something that occurs incrementally, and over a long period of time. Yet it is well understood that if we can make small changes in our behavior both individually and collectively, we can create substantial benefits for our own lives, for our local communities, and for society as a whole.

Over the past couple of decades, behavioral psychologists have found that by providing individuals with information about their resource use, and comparing consumption patterns with similar people, we tend to ‘move toward the norm’ in our usage patterns. If we are using more water than our neighbors, and are given information explaining how we can easily become more like our peers, we tend to change our behavior relatively quickly.

When it comes to better water management, this approach clearly has some significant advantages over infrastructure investments:

  • It’s very, very cost-effective. It only takes gathering data and communicating relative usage to the target groups. When it comes to resource management, improved efficiency has been consistently demonstrated as the least expensive new supply option.
  • It provides benefits nearly immediately. No waiting for permits and environmental reviews and construction delays. Just start communicating with consumers and the savings begin to accrue.
  • It has no unintended consequences. There is no side effect to behavioral change. Use less and you simply use less. There is no associated environmental impact from more efficient resource use.
  • It extends the useful lifetime of our existing infrastructure assets, creating more value for our investments, and reducing the capacity needs of future systems.

Here at WaterSmart, we feel strongly about changing the way the world uses water, and we are dedicated to using methodologies developed in the field of behavioral psychology to drive more efficient use of our most precious resource. And to further advance this objective, we’ve developed a new white paper titled Tapping Into the Power of Behavioral Science. This paper includes a detail review of research into the nature of behavior change and how these principals can specifically be applied to the water industry to not only improve water-use efficiency, but to improve the ability of water utilities to better engage with their customers and manage their operations.

I invite you to download a copy of the free report. I also encourage comments on the research and recommendations. If you don’t buy the story, tell us. If you think we missed some important concept, let us know. One of the purposes of this blog is to facilitate a dialog in the water industry on innovative approaches to better resource management, and I hope that this white paper will do a small part to encourage that dialog.

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