Governments are impactful - but not always in the way they expect, says Sociologist Elizabeth Shove


How is it possible that non-energy policies are much more relevant for our energy demand than the energy policies themselves? For sociologist Elizabeth Shove from Lancaster University, such unintended outcomes of public policies are related to misconceptions about mechanisms of change - and particularly to the ways governments usually approach individual and collective behaviour. In our interview, she questions the assumptions behind popular ideas like nudging or user-centred design, offers insights from her research on consumption and technology and outlines an alternative to think about social innovation: The practice approach.

Elizabeth, the efforts of the public innovation community are finally beginning to pay off. Governments seem to increasingly believe that public services should be centred on the citizens, as they are the users of governmental services. In a recent lecture, however, you claim it is a “mistake to focus on the user.” Why do you hold this view?

You know, the notion of a user on the one hand and a technology or service on the other is very common in a lot of fields. The question, then, is how we best fit these two things together. In this context, both users and technology are understood as relatively fixed entities.

My point is that I would not separate users from technologies in that way. Technologies configure and construct ever-changing users. On the other hand, technology is constantly appropriated, integrated and modified. Recognising this two way relation might seem a bit odd, but it enables us to ask more interesting questions.

For example, a student of mine looks at people who use iPads, except that she is not: She asks what the different practices are that iPads have become a part of, as well as how they have become engrained in everyday life. Patterns of change are not really a question of a technology, a use or a user, but rather a question of how things find their way into a whole ecology of existing relationships and arrangements. If you appreciate these many links and relationships and yet you still focus on the responses of a user, it limits what you can do.

Let’s give an example. If you wanted to encourage people to recycle more, would it be too narrow a focus to consider a specific service, such as recycling bins in public places and how their design can be as user-friendly as possible?

Yes. If you have these bins, you have a history of objects, you have a history of definitions of waste, you have histories of everyday cooking or shopping. You have so many different threads running through. To understand how an initiative such as recycling bins in public places works, you need to ask, “What is the world in which this practice is situated?” 

Of course, you can talk about users, you can interview them and treat them in that role, but they are also part of a wider population. What they do is not an idiosyncratic or a personal phenomenon. Their actions come from somewhere and have a range of impacts, and they are related to their partners, families, or who knows what. If you simplify it to the seemingly manageable relationship between technology and the user, you miss those important components. 

Then are new technologies unable to change people’s behaviour? Take, for example, smart meters that measure your water or electricity consumption. Such innovations are an important component of the various smart city strategies being designed.

Smart meters are completely irrelevant to the bigger energy demand picture. There is a lot of history of water and energy research saying this kind of intervention can make a reduction in water or electricity consumption of 5 -10%, but no more.

It is quite understandable why they cannot make a bigger impact. Usually, energy is for heating or cooking. Will the introduction of a smart meter mean that consumers think: “Am I not going to have dinner tonight?” Is that the implication? Proponents of smart meters never say, “Let’s change your eating habit.” It is sold as if you were now in command of your electricity, which is not the case. What it will do, however, is enable different tariffs. This type of technology is for the supply side and might be significant there. 

In the public sector, especially in those areas where there is an interest in innovation and change, behavioural sciences and concepts such as nudging have become quite impactful. In the UK government, there is even a Behavioural Insights Team dedicated to this area. What do you make of that approach?

On a conceptual level, it reinforces these ideas about choice and individual agency. Even nudging and the idea of unconsciousness are definitely tied to the individual. Nudges target individuals, even if by means of infrastructures. Again, some questions just slip away from attention—for example, how the electricity system has structured what people do from refrigerating food to using laptops, or how people have come to shower every day. These changes exist beyond the realm of nudging.

From 2013 to 2018, you led the DEMAND Centre where you studied end use energy demand by focusing on “what energy is for.” A key claim was that energy is not used for its own sake but as a part of accomplishing social practices at home, at work and in commuting. What does the idea of “social practice” add to the debate on behaviour and behaviour change?

That is a good question. What you find now in a lot of writing is that behaviour and behaviour change are becoming a little bit unfashionable. People who work in those fields start to feel slightly uncomfortable about it, and now they prefer the word “practice” because it sounds better. This is completely wrong. 

It is completely wrong because behaviour is still thought to be something that individuals do. Practices are quite different to that; they exist across space and time, and people are, in a way, the carriers of practices. The focus would be on the practices rather than on the actions of the individuals, which is a completely different paradigm. In the DEMAND Centre, this works through every level of what we did, from the way we defined problems to the kind of research projects we conducted and how we understood them. 

For example, one research project was on the mobile elderly. It turns out that older people are travelling more than they ever have done before. We were interested in the practice of long-distance travel in this cohort. When you retire, you are entering a commercial field with a very particular set of offering, such as cruise ship holidays. How you take advantage of the different kinds of opportunities is very strongly linked to ideas about well-being, or whether you feel that travelling to Peru is a silent sign of youth when you are 72. At the same time, we did not want to find out about habits or preferences of individuals, but rather about the broader social patterns and how they change as you move from one period of your retirement to another.

At DEMAND, you often worked with public entities. How did they react to the paradigm shift from behaviour to practice?

Well...some elements of the practice approach really challenge the government and how it understands itself. Although people in policy often do talk about behaviour change, it is within very narrow limits: a choice between one tiny option and another tiny option. There is a real fear of appearing to be a nanny state, so talking about changing large-scale practices is obviously challenging.

The irony there is that the government is actually shaping the bigger practice landscape all the time. Investing in high speed railway lines or airports is one such example. Indoor heating provides another one. Indoor climates have changed by six degrees since the 1960s. While campaigning to set the thermostat down by one degree, the government maintains the indoor temperature of its own building stock at 22 degrees. 

So, government is shaping what counts as normal in a much more fundamental way than it usually understands—not by programmes or laws to change behaviour, but by what it does every day. That is the kind of schizophrenic thinking of everyday government business.

Your research shows that non-energy policies actually affect energy demand much more than dedicated energy or climate policies.

Absolutely, yes. We did empirical research on how higher education policy and health care policy affect energy demand. In the former case, since universities are in the business of attracting students, and since student ratings are important for universities they respond to all kinds of student requests, including for libraries to be open 24/7, with obvious effects for lighting and heating. 

The issue of peak demand can be examined in a similar way. For example, one of the projects in DEMAND, Institutional Rhythms, looked into the flow of people into and out of hospitals. You might expect people would leave hospitals at all times of the day, but they come out between 3 and 5 p.m. There are fixed discharge procedures, meal times, and other schedule procedures. These things add up and create a massive temporal funnelling with unintended effects on the rhythm of activity, on traffic jams and on peaks in energy demand.

In your opinion, should public administrations think more about the unintended consequences of their decisions?

Yes, because unintended consequences happen in a lot of ways. There is a lot of modelling going on in public policy, no doubt in Switzerland, too. The problem is that the underlying standards carry assumptions about what is normal and what should be delivered, with real impacts on society. 

Take the Committee on Climate Change, which does a great job of modelling with the figures from government departments. It estimates how much energy is needed to heat British homes and assumes they are all heated uniformly year-round within the range of 18-22 degrees, which they are not at the moment. Therefore, massive amounts of future energy provision are anticipated, just because of little judgements like that. Another example is that of the assumption that hot water use is rising with GDP. Why? 

Assumptions like these just get sedimented layer after layer in public standards and guidelines, and that is where governments perhaps have the greatest effect on social practices—in thinking about the very mundane things they are actually doing. To accomplish this, introspection would be my first bit of advice. 


Prof. Dr. Elizabeth Shove teaches sociology at the Lancaster University in the United Kingdom. Before joining the department of sociology in 2000, she worked as deputy director of the Centre for the Study of Environmental Change in 1995 and acted as director of the Centre for Science Studies. Her early research on environmental change is informed by the tangible and widely discussed practice theory. She authored and co-authored over a hundred papers and books which focus on the relationships between consumption, everyday practice and ordinary technology. She was also co-director of the DEMAND Centre. The collaborative programme takes a distinctive approach to end use energy demand, recognising that energy is not used for its own sake but rather as a part of accomplishing social practices in everyday life.