Guest blog: Screw work, let’s play (with sustainability)

One of the most popular stands at Ecobuild was – guess what – having the most fun: SolarAid.


By Charlotte Webster

It’s not what I imagined to be the biggest lesson from Ecobuild, the world’s largest green building show, but ‘screw work, let’s play’ summed it up.  Not exactly the book by John Williams, he advocates seeing work as play (which I do happen to agree with), more the understanding that humans are all big kids really and just want to have fun.

ExCel was brimming, once again, with the best minds in green construction, renewable energy, sustainability, urban design and policy development. Whilst the general sentiment was one of cautious optimism, to quote the comms director of one trade body ‘preventing the positive policies we have in place eroding away’, there was an overarching frustration at the lack of speed of change needed to implement so many of the intelligent technologies and designs being showcased. The launch of The Green Deal commonly touted as a missed opportunity, with messaging and it’s call to action simply out of touch with human behaviour.

It was in the seminar ‘carrot or stick’ that it all came together.

What will achieve behaviour change?

Was it intelligent policy designed so the general population will and can act? A revamped approach to government communications (Rebekah Philips, Green Alliance)? Price falls of ‘good’ products and services and rising prices for ‘carbon dense’ goods (Dr Cameron Hepburn, LSE). Perhaps it was down to organisations to encourage positive, sustainable behaviours on an individual level (Duncan Young, Lend Lease), or even enforce it (David Symonds, WSP)?

In reality, the conclusion was that it has to be a mix of the above. But what became increasingly clear was the growing emphasis on the emotional.  Here’s why. Society falls into three clear categories when it comes to addressing sustainable behaviour and climate change, argues psychologist Oliver James:

1. DENIERS (The majority sit here.)
2. MALADAPTIVE RESPONDERS (A fair few are comfortable here, blunting their emotional response by blaming others or using diversionary tactics).
3. ADAPTIVE COPERS (The minority and active, going through a process of mourning before finding a practical solution).

Whilst human behaviour is both emotional and rational, the climate and energy challenge is increasingly spilling into the emotional field due to its magnitude.  A common response from the maladaptive being: ‘It’s such an insurmountable challenge that it’s easier to bury my head in the sand (but I’ll do something positive if it’s easy and feels good).’

Let’s face it, traditional ‘stick’ communicators (Government, policy formers, climate scientists & engineers) aren’t fabulous at understanding psychology and emotion. Some are, but there’s vast room for improvement.  Green Deal, nuff said.

What about the carrot? Well, it only works if it’s appetising. In the past financial incentives may have worked, and do have a role to play, but I think we’ve progressed somewhat and are increasingly looking for something more fulfilling on top of finances. Cost savings are important, but often the message delivery is achingly dull.

That’s why I believe what will bring about change is play.

Yes, play. Let’s face it, us humans like fun. We don’t like being told what to do, within reason, and generally sustainability communications is dull and /or overwhelming. This isn’t a new theory, and I’m quite sure there are plenty of communications professionals who will claim this thought their own. But my argument is that businesses must play more, not just consumers. It’s central to society as a whole (and why not – we all need cheering up).

So, winning the sustainability game is about communicating play? Taking a load off, laughing, playing with making your own, working with recycled materials, coming together to talk, eating well and feeling positive about the future. That may sound idealistic and somewhat naive but, as Tom Idle argues, acting in a slow, low carbon way is actually very rewarding and enjoyable.

But how will play really bring about change?

First, I agree with Duncan Young from Lend Lease that the sustainability / fun correlation, and resulting change, can only start with the individual experience. Once one experiences a true understanding of presence and being in the now, retreating from the idea of ego and personal gain, then there can be true engagement in society and the world as a whole. This spiritual enlightenment, if you like, happens with thinking space and doing. Getting your hands dirty gardening, reconnecting with nature and those around you. Acting, changing, engaging, proving that things can be different. This enlightenment isn’t driven by cost cutting and obligation, but by enabling fun behaviours – not just in the home, but at work too.

Will there be a social revolution?

Yes, argues Oliver James. I agree and this is how I think it will play out, with a big emphasis on business communications.

1) PLAY: We  place more emphasis on play than traditional work. That’s not to say we won’t work hard, but there must be a sense of fun in our work.

2) BETTER WORK: Workplaces, let’s face it that’s where we are, should encourage sustainable and enjoyable behaviour. Of course it’s about enhancing productivity through enabling interests that will improve performance at work. But it’s not about working harder, but better.  Plant growing, exercise, socialising and more will increasingly happen in the workplace. After all, the only reason for people to come into work in the internet era is to network and collaborate. Day to day admin can be done anywhere.

3) COMMUNICATION: Information on how to have fun, and what to play at (ok, read sustainable policy and incentives) will be communicated in a light hearted way, placing how and when we want to do things at its heart  – the ‘gameification’argument. For example, if you buy a house you’re more inclined to play, or do it up, in the first few years. That’s when energy efficient measures will be undertaken, so why not target new house buyers in an engaging & entertaining way at the right time?

4) ACTIVATION: Now this is the challenging, but as I see it, very necessary bit. An active, politically engaged society is what we’re missing here, there’s no denying the prevalence of apathy. But once you have people in the game, enjoying doing less, consuming less, and happier, this is when they will start to want more (change, not stuff). For me, hubs of change – and that’s work places for now – must and will become vocal. Yes, organisations of all shapes must facilitate political change beyond their own lobbying needs.

Over 1,000 companies exhibited at Ecobuild this year. Just imagine if each one felt comfortable signing up to end fossil fuel subsidies ( for example). It’s the one major obstacle stopping the green building industry taking off.  Global fossil fuel subsidies topped half a TRILLION US dollars in 2011. Meanwhile, global renewables was subsidised to the tune of just US$88 billion. Sounds logical doesn’t it?

But whilst an increasing number of companies are finding their political voice, it’s not as many as it should be. If more felt liberated from shareholder pressure to do so, politics could change overnight.

The challenges facing society are very real, serious and imminent. I’m not suggesting our reaction shouldn’t be serious. To avoid catastrophe and enable critical mass engagement, effective communications must be seen as an urgent and necessary step. I’m arguing that it’s simply not about the ‘carrot or the stick’ anymore. It’s the crucial bit in between – the carrot stick. The fun and humour. It’s the glue of society.

Fun is not about consuming, it’s about doing, it’s the emotion, being in the now and playing. It’s time for Government and businesses communications to get with the now and start making people laugh.

Screw work, let’s play.


This was first published at ccgroup.

Charlotte is head of clean technology at CCgroup, having joined them in June 2012. Former PR Manager at Solarcentury, Charlotte has over eight years’ Clean Technology and sustainable business PR experience. Charlotte co-launched SolarAid, a charity that aims to replace kerosene lamps with solar alternatives in developing countries. She holds a BSc. in Geographical Sciences from the University of Bristol and has trained in PR, journalism and documentary production. 

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