42.3 Framing the role of technology in transformation of consumption practices: beyond user-product interaction

Ida Nilstad Pettersen , Department of Product Design, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Trondheim, Norway
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  • Changes in lifestyles and behaviour patterns can contribute to climate change mitigation. Social and technical changes are however intimately related, and consumption practices entangled with technology. The ways in which products and systems are interacted with determine their actual sustainability impact. At the same time, the physical environment – the buildings, infrastructures and technologies, influence and constrain the choices of consumers and their opportunities for changing their lifestyles. Nevertheless, the traditionally perceived disconnect between behaviour and technology still seems to dominate, as when policy-makers emphasise information campaigns as means for changing behaviour and energy efficiency measures when targeting technology. There is however no one-to-one correspondence between pro-environmental attitudes and pro-environmental behaviour, and reductions in energy demand due to increased energy efficiency rarely pan out in practice. It is necessary to acknowledge that social and technical changes are intimately related, and look at the possibilities for redesigning the complex material landscapes in which individuals lead their life, in order to make more sustainable consumption practices viable. Here, the role of technology in transformation of consumption practices is in focus.

    A rapidly growing branch of design research is concerned with the possibilities for using design strategically to push users towards more sustainable practices. The common denominator is the acknowledgement of design as to some extent prescribing ways of use, of design solutions as influenced by the values and considerations of their developers, and, of the actual sustainability impact of many products and systems as determined by how they are really used. Based on theories such as feedback, persuasion, constraints and affordances, scripts and critical design, and, by drawing on theory and techniques from user-centred and user-involved design disciplines like interaction design and participatory design, several strategies for design-led influence on behaviour have been identified. What is argued is that by understanding users, it is possible to use design strategically to nudge individuals towards more sustainable use patterns. Strategies include provision of feedback on the consequences of behaviour, provision of sustainable choices to empower users, ‘unfreezing’ of habits and encouragement of critical reflection upon practices, persuasion, steering or forcing users into sustainable use patterns, or obstruction of unsustainable use. A central variable is how much decision-making power and responsibility is delegated to the technology. Others advocate that emphasis on intangible qualities and benefits other than the environmental can strengthen the ‘emotional durability’ of design solutions and prevent premature replacement. The conceptual ideas abound, mostly targeting individual devices.

    Design research into the possibilities for positively influencing behaviour has so far largely addressed designers’ solution space and decision-making process, together with the specific strategies for individual products and systems. Little attention has been paid to the larger, highly complex picture, where many actors and structures interact and influence both technology development and the evolution of consumption practices. The role, potential and feasibility of design solutions developed to alter consumption practices must be seen in relation to the broader set of actors and power structures that are at play both in the design and the use context. For example, at the supply side, to achieve the most radical innovations and largest sustainability gains, product portfolio management and the early stages of innovation processes are recognised as critical. Such early decision-making, as well as the elaboration of design briefs and product specifications, often happens at a managerial level within the company or client, leaving designers to operational work and with little influential power. At the same time, the structural context within which commercial design practitioners operate may be said to work against rather than contribute to sustainable consumption. In companies’ constant strive for new market shares, design resources are often directed at fuelling overconsumption among the affluent and creating wants and desires by constantly envisioning new products and services. Moreover, while formal design processes may be informed by use and users, they end where consumption begins. It is extensively documented that in processes of domestication, consumers appropriate technologies they bring into their private cultural spaces, giving them meaning and making (or not making) them familiar and part of routines and everyday life, in ways that may or may not have been intended by the designer. It is not possible to force actions upon individuals through well-designed artefacts. Users may ignore and even counteract the inscriptions of designers.

    In order to understand under what conditions design and design-led initiatives can contribute to making consumption practices more sustainable, it is necessary to look beyond the triangle of designer, product and user. To do that, it is examined what possibilities open up by drawing on theoretical concepts that can reconnect and contribute to a better understanding of the relationships between and the influences on behaviour and technology; production and consumption. First, a brief overview of perspectives on the status of design for sustainability implementation and conditions for sustainable innovation in industry is outlined. Next, theoretical concepts and resources from the social sciences, such as distributed agency, scripts, practice theory, socio-technical systems and multi-level models of technological change are introduced and discussed in terms of their adequacy for framing further investigation into the role of design-led initiatives in transformation of consumption practices. The concept of cleanliness and the practice of laundering are chosen to illustrate the dynamics at play. Finally, the identified theoretical frameworks are applied to distinguish and further explore the relevant actors, structures and initiatives related to the current and future role of technology in the evolution and transformation of such consumption practices.