Sustainable Communities & Behaviour Change

Since at least the 1992 United Nations (UN) Conference on Environment and Development, local sustainability has been a topic of interest to policy makers. In the decades that followed this UN conference a number of frameworks exploring how local and community level sustainability can be enabled were developed.

These frameworks have up to now included actions aiming to enable sustainable consumption, sustainable lifestyles, sustainable behaviour and societal transitions. More recently frameworks for sustainability at the local level are including futures-oriented approaches such as civic participation and co-production, social innovation and social entrepreneurship as well as digitally enabled solutions such as collaborative economies, open data, collective awareness networks, open democracy and crypto-currencies.

Within the discussions about sustainable communities, we have also seen the emergence of austerity related narratives such as the social, solidarity and collaborative economy and broader topics such as de-growth, post-GDP indicators and commons-based approaches.

In many countries there has been a noticeable shift away from paternalistic local governance towards creating the conditions and social capital that enable communities to lead and take responsibility for their collective wellbeing.

This has led to, and in many cases followed, innovative practices such as urban farming, community energy projects, community bonds, local currencies, co-design of community infrastructures and co-delivery of public and community services. Conversely, some cities and regions have looked to ‘active citizenship’ as an answer to budget cuts that have resulted from austerity.

Sustainable Communities

In a broad sense, “sustainable communities” actively and co-operatively work to reduce their impacts on the local and global environment and to foster resilient and prosperous communities that ensure economic and social wellbeing.

The areas that many sustainable communities and community initiatives focus on are broadly housing, energy, mobility, food and local economic needs. By actively working towards sustainable development goals, a sustainable community can bring about wider benefits to those living within the community. This can be an increase in community cohesion and integration, wellbeing, security and safety, health and creativity.

These factors can also have wider societal benefits. For example, increasing wellbeing and physical health can have economic impacts in terms of reduced strains on health and social services.

Other key issues relate to structure, scale, politics and social dynamics of sustainable communities. There is often a dynamic interplay between structure and innovation in terms of how sustainable communities and community initiatives develop. For example, how communities organise, define what matters (community vision), agree and prioritise what needs to be done and how they can be empowered to act are all important considerations.

sustainable communities and community initiatives traditionally focus on housing, energy, mobility, food and local economic needs.

Barriers to sustainable Communities

There are a number of well documented barriers to sustainable communities and community initiatives.

Lack of internal capacity (skills, knowledge, finance) to take action, setting up an organisation, business planning, employing staff/volunteers.

Lack of a critical mass of committed individuals with the desire to participate

An imbalance in the skills among those that participate to, for example, develop the organisation, manage volunteers and staff

Low social capital, connectedness and influence (e.g. with other community organisations, with the council)

Lack of specialist knowledge around the practical or technical potential of ideas e.g. waste prevention, reducing CO2 emissions

Lack of understanding of the policy, political, planning and regulatory system

Cultural mismatch between communities and other stakeholders

Lack of trust from between stakeholders and community, in particular the communities’ ability to deliver

Collective behaviour change

From the desk and field research on sustainable community initiatives, there appeared to be some behavioural insights that will be more relevant for future intervention and service design. These include:

Intrinsic motivations
Sustainable community initiatives are reliant on the motivations of individuals to collectively organise. These motivations to take collective action can be viewed from a number of different perspectives.

For example, intrinsic motivation relates to how the act of doing something is inherently satisfying whereas extrinsic motivation relates to the receipt of awards (or avoiding penalties).

Self-efficacy is the belief a person has about their own ability to undertake a particular action that will result in the desired outcome. A high self-efficacy can also explain why some individuals or communities persevere in spite of numerous challenges. Self-efficacy is important in that it relates to how cognitive processes such as mindsets and values actually translate into behaviour.

A key issue that is related to social capital is the principle of reciprocity and it can in part help explain how peer support and group activities contribute to community development.
Reciprocity is typically defined as a social norm that involves in-kind exchanges between people, in particular within some form of a community.

Evidence suggests that the way individuals are perceived by others is key to their sense of self. These insights in addition to other empirical research suggest that the powerful social mechanism of social norms and reciprocation can be explored and applied at minimal cost to encourage people to stick to personal commitments more closely.

Creating connections
The literature presents a number of theoretical perspectives and empirical evidence that show how social connections can influence behaviour in a myriad of ways.
This ranges from the power of social norms to the fostering of social capital.

Removing frictions
A principal that is widely applied in the context of design, in particular service design and user experience design is removing “frictions” or “hassle factors” that make desired actions or behaviours among service users difficult. Frictions describe a range of interactions that an individual (or community) may have that inhibits them from achieving their goals within a particular service context