Over the last few years I have seen behaviour change becoming increasingly discussed and acted upon across many of the organisations we work with. Stakeholders engaged with the low carbon agenda are more conscious of the need to understand the diverse drivers that influence how we live our lives, the decisions that we make and the implications of these actions.  

However, when delivering low carbon, resource efficient or energy efficient activities, consideration of behaviour change can be missed, or considered as secondary. This means that opportunities for lasting impacts may not be realised, especially when large infrastructure or technological investments alone appear to guarantee significant carbon savings.  

For example, energy efficiency retrofit schemes such as Home Energy Efficiency Programmes for Scotland: Area Based Schemes (HEEPS: ABS), transform poorly performing housing stock into highly efficient properties. Through these schemes, householders are promised huge savings from the installation of insulation, new boilers, draught proofing and so on. Yet the predicted savings from these programmes will not be achieved if householders adapt to their improved property in ways that do not reduce energy consumption, such as householders opening their windows when their home gets too warm, rather than adjusting their heating controls to achieve savings on energy bills and reduce carbon emissions.

People respond to new technologies and improvements in different ways. Understanding and exploring how people respond to changes must therefore be a fundamental part of our planning and policymaking processes for a low carbon society. We need to avoid considering behaviours as something that comes after we have delivered a technological or regulatory change. I’m currently working on an project that is seeking to do exactly this by exploring how behaviour change advice can be integrated into energy efficiency programmes.

What is exciting is that policymakers and those involved in change programmes are starting to shift their thinking around this. Instead of having a ‘behaviour change box’ in their strategy and planning, they are incorporating behaviour change as an outcome rather than an input to their programmes. This results in focusing on the activities that will deliver the desired behaviour change, including material or legislative changes, social factors, information and skills, rather than on a requirement to ‘do something’ on behaviours in addition, or after, a programme of work.

In the case of domestic energy efficiency, this results in starting a policymaking process with a householder and what could cause them to reduce energy consumption, not with a property that needs to be upgraded. When you do this, how people use their homes is considered alongside upgrading the fabric of the building – people and behaviours are placed at the centre of policymaking.

ISM ToolThere are many routes to achieving this but the Scottish Government’s ISM tool (Individual, Social and Material) provides a simple, intuitive approach to thinking in this way.

Changeworks has been commissioned by the Scottish Government to deliver a series of workshops to support policy makers on the development of climate and behaviour change measures using the ISM tool. Our initial work on this has provided new insights and approaches for policymakers and delivery agencies across diverse policy areas. We have also applied ISM and other behaviour change techniques with a wide range of clients including local authorities, wider public sector organisations – such as the Scottish Parliament and Historic Environment Scotland – community groups and third sector, such as Energy Saving Trust.  

It’s getting harder to achieve carbon reductions; the easy technical fixes have been made on our journey to a low carbon future. We are getting there, but more work and understanding is needed on the multiple factors that cause us to act in high, or low, carbon ways to ensure that our efforts are maximised and we meet the Scotland’s carbon emissions reduction targets. Integrating behaviour change thinking into our planning and delivery is essential for us to continue to move forward.   

If you would like to explore how placing behaviour change at the heart of policy and programme development could influence your activities, help you to improve understanding of the context within which you are working, or help you to evaluate your activities, please drop me a line.


Ale Hilliam, Changeworks





Alex Hilliam is Changeworks’ Principal Researcher in Behaviour Change