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Power To The People

Say you want a revolution

We better get on right away

Well you get on your feet

And out on the street

Singing power to the people

Power to the people

Power to the people

Power to the people, right on

(John Lennon)

Text: Frank van Empel

I  State of Mind

Cognitive State of Mind > Affective State of Mind > Neuro-scientific State of Mind

1. Revolutions in our minds

Revolutions not only take place on the streets of unstable countries in South America or Africa. They happen in the minds of ordinary people too. From the Sixties until halfway the Eighties of last century a so-called Cognitive Revolution happened in the psychological perception of the human mind. The human mind is a kind of computer, scientists stated those days. A cold data processor, a machine without feelings.

At the end of the century emotions, feelings and intuitions entered the mind, during a silent ‘Affective Revolution’. They blew up the image of our ordered minds that are supposed to weigh the pros and cons of whatever against each other. This was merely a passage to a third revolution in half a century. Now it was the turn of the neuroscientists to hold the red flag. They use super sensitive machines to scan our minds in order to measure brain activity. As a result we have to deal with controversial conclusions like: Man has no free will. The idea that we control our behavior with our thoughts is an illusion. Our minds don’t steer our bodies consciously. More than we realize our behavior is determined by factors beyond our control.

Can they prove it? ‘Well…yes’. For instance with this famous experiment by Benjamin Libet (1985): the neuroscientist asks a person to raise a finger at a self chosen moment and watch a clock to time exactly when he or she notices the consciously taken decision to move the finger. In the meantime the researcher measures the brain activity. Conclusion: a half of a second before someone reports the decision brain-activity already reached its peak.

Our behavior is reigned by fear and lust, by all kinds of impulsive feelings, intuitions, expectations, frustrations. You name it! We decide on the hoof, not behind a desk. Whenever we are confronted with a choice we immediately have a feeling about it, positive or negative. Go for it, because what really happens after this split second decision is that we start to reason towards a conclusion that has already been drawn. Motivated reasoning. If we follow neuroscientology, we cannot but conclude that it doesn’t make sense to just tell people what to do. There is a big chance they will not act upon it.

2. Juxtapositions[1]

Jane Jacobs, an American-Canadian writer and activist with primary interest in communities and urban planning, already stated in 1961: ‘You can’t make people use streets they have no reason to use. You can’t make people watch streets they do not want to watch.’ Jacobs’ plea was a strong argument written in monologue about how to secure streets where the public space is unequivocally public and badly in need of eyes to secure safety. A government, any government that tries to convince or enforce people to fill up empty streets for the sake of security of the ones that live there or the strangers who don’t know better, is doomed to fail. Jacobs: ‘The safety of the street works best, most casually, and with least frequent taint of hostility or suspicion precisely where people are using and most enjoying the city streets voluntarily and are least conscious, normally, that they are policing.’[2]

The basic requisite for such a surveillance is a substantial quantity of stores, bars, restaurants and other public spaces sprinkled along the sidewalks. Moreover, there should be many different kinds of enterprises, to give people reasons for crisscrossing paths. There’s more to say about this, but the message is clear: people don’t want to be pushed around by policymakers and authorities to make them change their behavior. They want freedom of choice. Public servants that want them to change habits and routines will have to be more clever.

The making of reality never is a linear process from a to z. As Herbert Butterfield, a British historian and philosopher of history, says (1965): ‘History is full of accidents and conjunctures and curious juxtapositions of events and it demonstrates to us the complexity of human change and the unpredictable character of the ultimate consequences of any given act or decision of men.’[3] So, even if the government is smart and chooses for the subtle tactics of obliquity[4], the government cannot be sure of people’s real behavior. The only thing we can do is: trying to influence the context in which decisions are made. Try to influence the mood of people with inspiring fine arts, qualitative outstanding architecture, flowers and colours such as yellow and orange.

3. Swamp

Now let us jump to the issue of human behavior in relation to the use of energy. In order to improve policy interventions aimed at influencing the consumers’ behavior, the European Commission, under the Intelligent Energy for Europe program, at the end of 2006 decided to cofound the project BEHAVE. The aim of this project was to draw lessons from an evaluation of 41 energy behavior change programs from all over Europe, combine them with theoretical insights, provide an overview of best practices, and create guidelines to develop and implement successful policy interventions aimed at consumers. A quote from the final BEHAVE report, one year later, underlines what fifty years ago already had been noticed: ‘Theory demonstrates that behavior is a complex phenomenon. It is a product of factors both internal (attitudes, values, habits and personal norms) and external to the individual (fiscal and regulatory incentives, institutional constraints and social practices).’[5]

Sounds promising, you may think. But essential links are missing. Quote from one of the BEHAVE Work Packages: ‘Literature does not explore the relationships between internal factors and external constraints in any depth’. In other words, there is no way to predict on how people will react to incentives. If we pull all of this together, we have to conclude that behavior change is a very tricky subject. It feels like a swamp, devouring the policymaker when he least expects it.

Recently public interest in global warming has been growing, making it relevant to use the momentum to act. Now is the time to bring CO2-emissions down. And though the context seems to provide the right circumstances for change, it still won’t be easy. There is no foundation in theory.

This is the point where POWER-project TrIsCo comes in. POWER is a EU programme to stimulate regions into the direction of a low carbon economy. Like in most EU programmes international cooperation and knowledge dissemination is an important condition. TrIsCo – with participants from Estonia, UK, Spain, Italy, Sweden and the Netherlands – aims to:

  • Enable different ‘islands’[6] of communities (households, businesses and public bodies) to reduce their Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emissions by changing their behavior towards their use of resources;
  • Embed sustainability (social, economic and environmental) into behavior change drivers;
  • Overcome barriers to implement low carbon communities.

II.  TrIsCo-Findings

4. Picking Best Practices

One step beyond the BEHAVE project, the Transition Islands Communities project (TrIsCo) focuses on the exchange of good practice, training seminars, experience and expertise by multi-disciplinary teams across and cross border regions, in order to create ‘Empowering CO2 Reduction’ catalogues of instruments, initiatives or local authority action plans with quantifiable measuring tools for public bodies, commerce and the public to take action themselves and to be able to assess their own success. These catalogues can then be applied across Europe to achieve sustainable carbon reduction through behavior change.

That sounds pretty instrumental, but it is up to the POWER Rangers to bridge the gap between policy and ordinary European energy consumers, taking into account new insights and the smell of new theories about behavior change that come along. The POWER-Rangers from the Brabantse Milieufederatie – a federation of environmental pressure groups in the province of Noord-Brabant, the Netherlands – didn’t spend too much time on literature, instead the BMF started to inform a multitude of ignorant people about six best practices selected with a little help from the Province:

  1. The (national) climate street party competition (CSP) is all about energy saving. Inhabitants of different streets or neighbourhoods work together and compete with other streets on reducing the use of fossil fuels. The success depends on the activity and creativity of the people that participate. The aim of the CSP is to help neighbours to save as much energy as they can. The overarching goal is to make the multitude more conscious about energy saving in relation to CO2-emissions and to stimulate people to take real action. If the Dutch POWER-Rangers would have studied literature they had found proof of how well chosen this best practice is. The influence of social norms on individual choices is incredibly large, though many will deny this. Literature tells us that people often don’t know the real causes of their behaviour.Research by Nolan c.s. on energy consumption behaviour shows how oblivious people are of the true reasons of their own actions. Participants declare they save energy because of environmental reasons, costs and moral motives. What others do, how they behave is not of great influence, people state. Analyses of consumption patterns however show that the use of energy in the surrounding neighbourhood is the best indicator for individual consumption. At some stage researchers tried to convince people of the benefits of energy efficiency, and what happened? The most effective argument for saving turned out to be information on energy consumption by neighbours.[7]
  2. The ‘Energy Café’ concept is part of the Climate Street Party (CSP) competition 2009/2010. A concept that could work just as well as a stand-alone project. Energy Cafés offer people a chance to meet with a professional energy advisor to exchange knowledge on energy reduction and energy saving techniques, as well as find answers to questions they might have about energy issues.
  3. The ‘Farmer meets Neighbour’ initiative enables farmers to cover the roofs of their stables with solar panels, paid by consumers who receive green vegetables, milk and fruit as a return on investment.
  4. Like the Energy Café the ‘Golden Star Municipalities’ concept is part of the Climate Street Party competition 2009/2010. It provides local authorities with knowledge and tools to promote interaction between municipalities and citizens with respect to CO2 reduction and saving energy.
  5. The Night of the Night is the highlight of a campaign to raise awareness for the importance of darkness for the natural environment and for (un)necessary energy use.
  6. Because of language and/or cultural barriers immigrants in the Netherlands are a difficult target group to reach by educational programs, communication and/or activities by government, or municipalities. The KlimaTeam project is an initiative of the Brabantse Milieufederatie (BMF) that reaches out to immigrants using a train-the-trainer set up with trainers from within migrant communities. People with different cultural backgrounds are educated on energy efficiency issues. Then they are supposed to disseminate this knowledge to their own network and community.

The bottom up approach that is applied here fits the way the Environment Centre (tEC) in Southampton operates like a glove. tEC hosts a range of community based activities like community and business road shows, training sessions for local authority staff, schools visits, environmental audits for businesses and a free phone consultant number. The road shows travel to supermarkets, shopping centres and all kinds of events covering insulation, energy saving measures, grants, smarter driving and renewable energy. It is all about raising awareness, building on the assumption that people can change their behaviour if they choose to, out of free will – voluntarily. People cannot be changed by others, or because other people think they have to. So, people have to be convinced of the value and benefit of behaviour change, or they have to be influenced in more sophisticated ways. In times of trouble and crisis people prefer style, not sloppiness, adventure, not conformity.

‘WATCH!’ the banner on tEC’s website commands. ‘Beautiful video about sustainable living on the Swedish island of Gotland, a product of tEC’s TrIsCo project ’. Like tEC and Noord-Brabant Gotland is a partner in the TrIsco Project funded under POWER. Gotland is Sweden’s biggest island. The inhabitants of this island are special. They have decided to become an ecologically sustainable society within the course of a generation. The message of this extremely slow movie is a message of a closed community where people recycle everything and grow their own fruit, vegetables and kids. No imports. A wrong one in 2011, we need an open, dynamic society instead, where people don’t spend their whole life at the same place, where authorities don’t prescribe peoples’ do’s and don’ts.

All regions have at least one authority on their back; the Central Government. Some are small and powerless, others are just screaming, shouting, claiming and pretending. The UK government for instance recently stated that success in changing behaviour was based on strong enforcement of existing or new laws. ‘To make it an effective intervention,’ the regional correspondent of South East England puts top-down and bottom-up dynamics into perspective, ‘the behaviour required by the legislation should be unambiguous, easy to be monitored, policed and enforced, be within the competence of the individual to comply, have a clear rationale understood by the public, have a severe and multi-faceted penalty for non-compliance; and have an associated high probability that non-compliance will be detected.’ Conclusion: the UK-government is still living in the past. It is reliving the Cognitive Revolution.

Energy policy in Italy is a blend of top-down and bottom-up measures, the correspondent of Reggio Emilia reports. The main issues of the national energy policies are the high demand for energy and the dependence of the fossil fuels international market. To meet these challenges important strategies have been directed – before the Fukushima disaster!!! – towards the liberalization and the promotion of nuclear energy infrastructure. These strategies have been put in standby mode after the nuclear disaster in Japan. Within this national framework, there is enough room for regional initiatives. In the Emilia-Romagna Region a network of public and private organizations called INFEA stimulates behaviour change through Environmental Education. On top of that 69 Centres for Environment & Sustainability Education (CEA) act as network nodes for the regional system. A new Regional Law (Regional Law N. 27 of 29/12/2009) supports the CEA actions and the INFEA network system launching projects and generating new Eco-Laboratory schools and training courses in order to build up new skills. Financial resources, expertise and facilities are provided in various ways to the INFEA actors by specific projects.

Moreover several development campaigns are launched during the last years which are recorded by and still living on specific web portals that are constantly updated: LIBERIAMO L’ARIA (Get Air to be free), ACQUA RISPARMIO VITALE (Water, a vital saving), In FORMA e FELICE con BIKE & GO (Fit & Happy with Bike & Go), CONSUMABILE – impariamo a stare al mondo (Able to consume –learn to live in the world).

The interactive mode of communication with citizens has been and will be increased with the adoption of the newest Web-technology for the ER Region portal. The potential of this tool has been enlarged by digital infrastructure in the ER Region. A higher goal is to improve institutions and citizens’ attitude towards self-responsibility with respect to collective learning through the spreading and the sharing of information.

The roadmap has much more to offer, in Estonia and in Andalucia. However we refrain from another summing up of bottom-up initiatives, fitting into a larger picture. Such would kill curiosity, enthusiasm, motivation and creativity in the minds of bystanders to come up with some bright ideas and analyses themselves. To draw the circle round, we finish where we started: in Noord-Brabant, the region that skipped theory and gave the floor to practice. Some of the lessons learned bring coherence in the storyline. A modern network society is not served by bottom up processes alone. There has to be some coordination at a higher level.

5. Lessons Learned

Behaviour change starts with participation from below, at the community level where people communicate with each other. Being ‘on speaking terms’ is an important prerequisite for people to take responsibility and initiate common actions to improve their own living conditions (the concept of ‘do-democracy’ has been identified in this respect and is presently explored and further developed by the Tilburg School of Politics and Public Administration).

Schools that offer inspiration are able to nourish behaviour change. Being at school and learning should be fun, because this is where young people start to formulate their ambitions for life. Schools and teachers help them to generate the passion and to grow attitudes that are needed to achieve sustainable ambitions.

Behaviour change requires a new type of government. Public administration should learn to do less and achieve more by bringing different groups of people together. Its’ specific role can be identified as directing more effective social interactions that are needed to establish a more sustainable society. The new type of government is based on a governance model in which the ‘public cause’ has become the ‘common cause’ of citizens, communities, local entrepreneurs, and government institutions alike.

That is why behaviour change needs to be learned by example and ‘good practices’. There is a need for better understanding the mechanisms underlying productive interaction patterns that are needed to trigger behaviour change.

Behaviour change also requires us to learn to communicate together in a better way. Learning to speak a common language can be regarded as the fundament for ‘the art of living together’.

6. Preliminary Conclusions by BMF

BMF: ‘The dominant view among policymakers still is that by nature people make rational decisions. It is expected that the right decisions will be made, once there is an equal playing field, a market mechanism in place, and sufficient information available. Policy efforts are thus often aimed at providing the ‘calculating citizen’ with enough transparency, information, and publicity, as well as exposing him or her to a fair amount of competition.’

Comment: some people either have been sleeping for 25 years, or don’t like to admit being wrong.

‘More and more evidence points towards the direction that human choices are far from rational,’ the BMF acknowledges. ‘Emotions and social relations play an important part.’ However, the BMF does not adopt the storyline of this essay. ’In spite of this,’ the BMF continues, ‘behaviour remains predictable to a certain extend and can be influenced, directed, or manipulated, even without the classical government ingredients of financial incentives or the regulatory framework of do’s and don’ts. The desired behaviour might be triggered by slightly altering the context and by supporting social innovations (based on the explorative study “The human decision maker” by the WRR – Dutch Scientific Council for Government Policy, report nr 22, 2009).’

Human nature is diverse. It is also mutable, for better or worse. And it is influenced not just by one-to-one interactions, but by the multitudinous society in which each of us is embedded.[8] (…) ‘A push and a pull; a tension between conflicting desires. This is all it takes to tip our social behaviour into complex and often unpredictable patterns, dictated by influences beyond our immediate experience or our ability to control.’[9] We can try to detect patterns in complex structures like human behaviour and react on that, or we can learn to trust our feelings, our intuition and our mind’s eye and make our own choice impulsively.

7. The Mind’s Eye

Psychologist Ian Robertson advocates to use imagery and not words to get what we need and want. ‘Western societies,’ Robertson argues, ‘have largely lost the ability to think in images rather than words.’ With that ability we’ve lost important clues about why we are doing what we are doing. The right half of our brain has a limited capacity to deal with words, research reveals. It can ‘know’ things, but it is unable to ‘say’ them. The famous scientist Albert Einstein was a lucky guy. He went to a school that taught children to think visual, in images. At the age of sixteen he used imagery to carry out a breakthrough ‘thought-experiment’ that laid the ground for the splitting of the atom. He famously declared: ‘Words or language…do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought…my elements of thought are images.’ Words however are not useless. They bind images together. Robertson: ‘Our memories are stories studded with images that illustrate the narrative. Without the words we are left with isolated visions – often emotional, colourful and vivid, but nevertheless as fragmented and confusing as dreams if they are starved of the narrative power of language.’[10]

We don’t remember much of our early childhood because toddlers don’t know how to use words and create stories for themselves. One who can create stories for oneself, can construct them for others too. And the ones that know how to spice these narratives effectively with images can even manipulate people. That is what Al Gore did in ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ and in ‘Our Choice’.  This is true as well for populists who gain votes on dissatisfaction or insecurity in society.

© WoordWerk

Ecolutie, 14 November 2011

The EU POWER Programme was meant for research, knowledge sharing and experiments that lead to a Low Carbon Economy by EU regions. Of all derived projects, the province Noord Brabant joined five. TrIsCo was one of them

Related essays on the Power Programme: Joint Effort Society (JES), Power for Wood, Beyond a Mere Mobility Thing and Magnitude & Murder


[1] Juxtaposition is the placement of two things (usually abstract concepts, though it can refer to physical objects) near each other. [2] Jane Jacobs, The Deadt and Life of Great American Cities, Vintage Books Edition, December, 1992, p.36. [3] Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History, New York, 1965 p.p. 21/66. [4] Obliquity is the notion that complex goals are often best achieved indirect. For example, happiness is the product of fulfillment in work and private life, not the repetition of pleasurable actions, so happiness is not achieved by pursuing it. The most profitable companies are not the most dedicated to profit. [5] BEHAVE, Evaluation of Energy Behavioural Change Programmes Intelligent Energy – Europe (IEE), Work Package 3, Evaluation of Projects and Best Practices, Final Draft Report, 13 December 2007, Summary, p.2. [6] The term ‘island’ refers to communities with distinct characteristics at different stages of engagement in the climate change agenda.  [7] Nolan, J.M., P.W. Schultz, R.B. Cialdini, N.J. Goldstein en V. Griskevicius (2008) ‘Normative social influence is underdetected’, Personality and social psychology bulletin 34, 7: 913-923. [8] Philip Ball, critical mass, how one thing leads to another, Arrow books, 2004, p. 537. [9] Idem p 588. [10] Ian Robertson, the mind’s eye, Bantam Books, 2003, p 12-37.

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