User Engagement and Social Norms: An Interview with Kristin Goldbach

On August 13, I headed back to Fraunhofer ISE to meet with Kristin Goldbach. Ms. Goldbach’s background is in environmental science and sustainable urban development, with a focus on participatory approaches. Her research examines user behavior pertaining to renewable energy and Smart Cities in different European settings; Ms. Goldbach’s master’s dissertation was about her work on the EU’s ORIGIN project, and she’s currently working on the EU’s iUrban project.

(Note: The following interview is not a direct transcript. It is written by me, Priya Donti, and is based on notes I took during the meeting. The interviewee reviewed this writeup before its publication.)

Priya: What is your definition of Smart Grid?
Ms. Goldbach: I define it as the management of decentralized energy. You regulate supply and demand together with ICT infrastructure. It involves things like electric cars, demand-side management, and “smart users.”

Priya: What do you feel is the current role of user engagement studies in the push towards 100% renewable energy?
Ms. Goldbach: In Europe, the transition is still very technology- and policy-focused. Any Smart Grid implementation right now is in field trials and test tariffs, to see if demand-side management works. During these tests, which last up to 3 years, you can really only measure short-term impacts. It’s hard to measure long-term impacts.

Priya: How would you measure those longer-term impacts?
Ms. Goldbach: When we write proposals for our European projects, we have to write a lot of tech-driven content. To measure long-term impacts, we need to fundamentally change the research community and incorporate the idea of measuring a transformation into something new. The Smart Grid “business model” has three aspects: technology, revenue, and participation. Right now, tests, are very money- and info-driven, incorporating things like cheaper tariffs or automation. However, these tests are not playful to get participants involved, and participants don’t understand how the utilities are helped by demand-side management. Some projects do incorporate social scientists and information campaigns, but participants often drop out. Participants also have differing situations we need to be aware of; for instance, a Bed-and-Breakfast owner may need to wash their linens at a very specific time, families with small children have certain needs, etc. The Smart Grid concept is to have users as active co-managers of the energy resource, and this is a fundamental transformation.

Priya: Do you think there will be a long-term change in how people view privacy?
Ms. Goldbach: I don’t have an opinion on that yet. Demand-side management deals with habits and daily routines, and so interferes with privacy. There’s in general a distrust towards utilities, so people may not like utilities automatically controlling their heating (for instance). There would need to be a lot of transparency and information campaigns. The current set of users for Smart Grid tests is self-selected and tech-affine, and so not reflective of everyone’s attitudes towards saving energy and having their behavior influenced.

Priya: In your iUrban paper, you talked about energy usage comparison and competition. Could you say a little bit about that?
Ms. Goldbach: Comparison and competition methods are always controversial. If you ask people beforehand, they say they don’t want to be compared, perhaps because they feel they’re unique or are afraid of their ranking. But then these methods are very effective. On a large scale, you could probably use clustering to make sure people are compared to others like them. However, one-on-one competitions with friends or people they know may be more effective, even if those competing are dissimilar, because then the competition is personal, fun, and local.

Priya: In the same paper, you talked about the relationship between attitude and behavior. Does that disconnect hinder policy?
Ms. Goldbach: Yes. As you read in my paper, many things can go wrong in the gaps between attitude, intention, and behavior. It takes time for some measures to become normalized and easy to do. For example, it took a while for recycling to catch on. For some people, social norms influence behavior the most.

Priya: How do you change these norms? Do you take a top-down or a bottom-up approach?
Ms. Goldbach: I guess both. My dissertation looked at an eco-community, and people moved there because they believed that they should save energy. They tried hard to use the demand-response techniques, but they still struggled to time-shift their energy usage. So the question is, how much can actually come from the bottom? Additionally, interventions need to be well designed. Engineers are currently designing solutions that aren’t right for the average user. The interfaces are nice but too complex, since people really just want to know the answer to the question, “Can I wash my clothes now, and if not, when?” It’s also sometimes not clear to participants what value the technology is adding. For instance, they can just look outside and see if the wind is blowing to figure out if wind power is abundant. The benefits of the technology must be clear.

Priya: Do Smart Grid technologies distract from this fundamental changing of norms, or do they help?
Ms. Goldbach: I go back and forth. I think they could help, but we haven’t found the right solution or intervention yet. When we depend exclusively on energy efficiency aims, we have this idea that we don’t have to compromise comfort… but we could probably compromise some comfort. In Australia, nobody cares when the electricity goes out for an hour, but in Germany, energy is considered a right. The exact temperature to which we heat our homes is not an absolute need but has been normalized over time. I read in another paper about norms and comfort zones that showering daily wasn’t the norm just two generations ago; our grandparents’ generation used to bathe just once a week. The norm for showering has shifted from “I want to be clean” to “I want to be refreshed.” A similar norm-shift has affected how we heat our homes now.

Priya: How do you think we can transfer Smart Grid technology to developing countries while being sensitive of norms?
Ms. Goldbach: No idea. Developing countries should have renewable energy, but it’s a completely different set of people. Energy consumption per head is currently lower in developing countries, so maybe there’s an aspect of keeping it that way? That being said, if a developing country has the correct technology — solar PV and solar thermal in India, for instance — maybe they can use more energy because there’s more available. In any case, doing a “copy/paste” of technology and policy doesn’t work. Lots of big players are trying to do that, and while the knowledge is important, it needs to be fit to local customs.

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