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Behaviour – your secret weapon for real sustainability

Changing human behaviour is the best way to leverage the full benefits of technology to meet sustainability goals, says Jeandré du Randt, BE Innovation Lead at 4Sight.

Johannesburg, 27 May 2024
Jeandré du Randt, BE Innovation Lead, 4Sight.
Jeandré du Randt, BE Innovation Lead, 4Sight.

One of the most common, but hidden, causes of project failure has been non-compliance of people. In post-project assessments, this cause of failure is usually subsumed under rubrics like “lack of communication” and “inadequate stakeholder management”.

This failure is particularly prevalent in technology projects, where there is an apparent universal tendency to see the solution as purely a technical issue. While of course the technology is critical, it is of no use if it remains unused, or employees find workarounds in order to allow themselves to continue doing things the same old way.

What I want to argue is that the need to put behavioural change alongside technology is particularly important in today’s drive to shift the global economy towards sustainability. We are successfully developing technologies and, more importantly, systems that generate more information for us to use in making industries like manufacturing, mining and transport, as well as buildings, more sustainable.

The fourth industrial revolution – making it real

The big shift came with the so-called fourth industrial revolution (4IR), which essentially saw the previously inanimate world become smart, creating the internet of things. Sensors in buildings, on equipment, on vehicles and so on are now transmitting growing torrents of data back to corporate systems, which in turn can mine this data to obtain insights into how to improve the way things work. From a sustainability point of view, this might mean fewer processes harmful to the environment, or lower consumption of fossil fuels and so on. This information is used to change “the way we do things here”, and that’s where we come up against the problem of conservatism alluded to above.

How do you get people to use the technology, or to follow where the data analytics lead? It’s complicated.

An important concept is nudge theory, which proposes a way to influence behaviour and decision-making by making information available to them that would tend to reinforce behavioural change. This theory, combined with significant capability in adoption and change management is key to achieve the behavioural change needed.

In both local and international markets, we are using dashboards driven by key performance indicators to drive behaviour change. One could think of this approach as going a step beyond reporting to suggest ways to act.

For example, a customer of ours with a very large building able to accommodate 80 000 people is typically only hosting an average of 20 000 per day – all thanks to changes in work styles in the wake of COVID-19.

Like an increasing number of commercial buildings today, the building is fitted with all manner of sensors relating to temperature control and such like. Making buildings smarter is becoming important, and in South Africa, they are now certified in terms of their EWP (energy, water performance). This energy and water efficiency makes a building more or less attractive to tenants, not least because its performance affects their scope one and two figures, which is required to improve the company’s overall sustainability score.

But that energy efficiency is not fully realised until it is actuated by human behaviour. In my example, the building’s energy efficiency will be optimised only if the smaller complement of people work in the same area, so that the bulk of the building can be left unheated or cooled. The dashboard reporting on the building needs to be designed to give managers visibility of the consequences for how the workplace is configured for the day, and what the impact the various options would have on the company’s sustainability targets.

Of course, these sustainability KPIs are increasingly tied back to managers’ performance bonuses.

Segment of one

The above example is a relatively simple one to illustrate the basic point. Thanks to the strong progress made in artificial intelligence (AI), and the massive computing capacity available through the cloud, data analytics are getting better in terms of the insights they generate, but they can do more. One result is that we now have the capability to segment a group into individuals. Obviously, this is changing the way that marketers think, but it also has huge potential for driving the massive behavioural changes we will need to reach our sustainability goals as humans.

In other words, using technology, we can craft and deliver information and insights designed with a specific individual in mind, optimised to push the buttons that will make that person make certain decisions. Desired behaviour would then be rewarded or punished, depending on how the programme is designed.

Technology is giving us automated reporting that enables us to track our progress towards sustainability goals; imminently, it will allow us to address each person individually and offer them reasons for making good decisions – all in the name of realising goals more rapidly.

In the end, the technology is just one part of a complex solution that, above all, must include a clear plan for changing behaviour. Only once the humans are on board will the marvels the technology can deliver be realised.