The reluctant scientist: systems thinking and power relations in social practice.

I am currently in Hobart, preparing to participate in a workshop tomorrow which is focused on household energy vulnerability. It is being run by Energy Consumers Australia and the focus is on developing effective tools to support consumers. Here is the spiel:

ECA is running a series of workshops with stakeholders to develop practical, user focused tools and products that are tailored to consumers navigating the complexity of the energy market.

Content of the workshop

The workshop is a focused and interactive 2 hour session that will:

  • share the research generated through Power Shift to date
  • get feedback on the consumer segmentation framework proposed through the recent report Supporting Households to Manage Their Energy Bills; and
  • work with stakeholders to prioritise the practical tools and resources needed to help Australian households manage their energy use and lower bills.

This should be a very interesting workshop as one of the areas I am addressing in the Ignite*Energy research is the importance of developing tools to support householders facing energy vulnerability. From the research it is clear that it is critical to tailor information to align with the audience and that their needs are complex and diverse.

In the workshop we will be looking closely at a framework drawn from the market segmentation from the Power Shift research. The ECA website states that:

Power Shift is a body of research providing energy companies, government and regulators with evidence on which to build better-targeted and more effective, and innovative energy management services and programs that deliver outcomes for consumers.

Segmentation can fulfil an important role in understanding what is needed by consumers. My focus takes the notion of segmentation one step further to develop personas – characters which can help to identify and shape the needs, wants, opportunities and barriers for different kinds of people facing a range of circumstances.

Regarding the design of the Ignite*Energy workshops (scheduled for late April), we will be using a range of tools including the use of personas to facilitate storytelling and develop pathways for action. The goal is that through active participation the workshop group will explore a range of ways to understand and act on their energy use. Aside from the use of personas, we (Josiah and I) will also use a range of other tools including a virtual reality experience.

In terms of how the research is informed by theory, I am fascinated by the rise and rise of social practice theory being applied in the context of the arts and more broadly in areas where the goal is to influence social behaviours. Elizabeth Shove’s research into energy efficiency and comfort is a great example of how this theory can be applied to many different contexts.

When you start to work with a persona, it opens up an opportunity to ideate what the bigger picture issues are. The persona / character exists within an ecosystem of relationships, contexts and other pluralities which all create competing priorities and focii. These relationships are not in isolation either, they connect to other people and communities simultaneously creating micro and meta narratives of experience. Systems thinking appeals to me because it takes this complexity into account as a means to envisage ‘bigger picture’ issues but also to address the relationships and behaviours that impact the ‘system.’ At some point I would like to unpack this a bit more…

I also came across this interesting article today, It reminded me of a discussion I had at an urban design conference where the Cartesian split between head and body came up in a discussion. My initial reaction was laugh – I thought we had done with Descartes? His theory was very ‘live’ back in the 1990s in cultural / art theory, but so much work has since challenged this discourse, I was surprised it came up. Anyway, this article by Abeba Birhane, talks about how a fixed notion of the self was problematic, referring to Cartesian dualism as one of the problematic imaginings of the self. Referring to Bakhtin, she states:

The 20th-century Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin believed that the answer lay in dialogue. We need others in order to evaluate our own existence and construct a coherent self-image. Think of that luminous moment when a poet captures something you’d felt but had never articulated; or when you’d struggled to summarise your thoughts, but they crystallised in conversation with a friend. Bakhtin believed that it was only through an encounter with another person that you could come to appreciate your own unique perspective and see yourself as a whole entity. By ‘looking through the screen of the other’s soul,’ he wrote, ‘I vivify my exterior.’ Selfhood and knowledge are evolving and dynamic; the self is never finished – it is an open book.

How we build self knowledge and a sense of sovereignty over one’s self is a critical aspect of how personas could be used to help people extend, connect and identify actions to reduce their energy use and costs. In addition, this process hopefully will give participants a great senses of efficacy over their household energy consumption, so they are empowered to make better decisions at home.

References
Elizabeth Shove (2018) What is wrong with energy efficiency?, Building Research & Information, 46:7, 779-789, DOI: 10.1080/09613218.2017.1361746

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