Engagement is a two-way street: Strategies for utilities to help people help the environment

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A version of this post originally appeared in the KLH Sustainability blog.

Last month, I presented at the International Water Association’s Efficient Water 2017 conference. The quality of the content and people at the conference was incredibly high, better than many other events I’ve attended recently. A large part of this is due to the fact that the water sector is finally moving beyond the engineering details of pipe, pumps and membranes and into the reality of the role of people in sustainable water management. There were conversations on policy and regulations, development, behaviour change, customer engagement, demographics, incentives and market mechanisms, retrofits, strategic planning, university collaboration, home visits, apps for data sharing, certification, taxes, real estate transactions—and that only covers the sessions I was able to attend!

The positive and dynamic energy of the conference is tainted in my memory, however, by a statement one presenter made. I won’t call him or his company out specifically (though, he was white, male and works for a water utility), but what he said was a jarring reminder of how many in the industry still act, even if thinking among industry leaders has matured. He said (and I paraphrase), “I hate the word engagement. I don’t care about engagement. I just care about education.”

That may sound innocuous enough on the surface—semantics, even. But it does illustrate a fundamental problem with the way professionals (and this isn’t specific to water) all too often show disdain, for customers, the public and people in general.

So, what’s the difference between education and engagement?

Education in this context flows in one direction. It’s the all-knowing utility/city/property owner teaching the customer/public/resident about facts. Often, the theory is that X (climate change, water scarcity, waste, etc.) would be better if only people were educated about it. That’s not entirely incorrect, but it ignores the fact that people aren’t stupid and there are many reasons for why people make the decisions they make, a lack of information is only one part of it.

Engagement, on the other hand, is two-way. It acknowledges that people aren’t passive, that they don’t necessarily respond to being told what to do, and they often offer lessons for professionals to learn, too.

Engagement, on the other hand, is two-way. It acknowledges that people aren’t passive, that they don’t necessarily respond to being told what to do as though they are children and they often offer lessons for professionals to learn, too.

The beauty of this conference was that it showed with many examples the multi-dimensional nature of, and multiple avenues for, engagement and why it matters.

Many of the sessions were about tools to help people make their own decisions, going beyond simply educating them about the problem or what to do. One panel brought together representatives from the US Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense, Australia’s Smart Approved Watermark, the EU’s Water Label and the UK’s Waterwise Checkmark to discuss water efficiency labelling programmes and how they can all do more to improve uptake and consumer choice. Northumbrian and Thames Water described their home visit programmes H2ecoEvery Drop Counts and Smarter Home Visits, which involve in-person, in-home water use assessments and tailored solutions for water efficiency. While the programmes already provide good outcomes, most are continuing to do more to improve the way they engage. A few speakers presented on DAIAD, an open source technology system that measures your shower water use and provides real time information to your phone to help adjust your water use.

The DAIAD technology and the rise of smart meters has shown that data can be collected on more than just water quality or utility-scale water usage, it is also being collected at the micro-scale in ways that can teach the industry more about behaviours and demographics.

An example of this came from multiple speakers who talked about how improved meters and data collection have allowed utilities and researchers to analyse water use patterns and develop new ways of classifying users. These more detailed ways of segregating users reflect how people act and respond differently due to demographics, type of dwelling, location and even what time they get up in the morning. Having this information helps utilities and water advocates understand the different actions, attitudes and approach of different types of people and how that impacts on water use (and beyond). They can then better tailor engagement to help different water users.

Too often, professionals make assumptions about other people’s behaviours based on their own, which in industries that are not particularly diverse, mean the assumptions are often wrong. With better quality engagement, we can understand water users better for the benefit of the industry, the user and the environment. Success happens when we work with people to make changes, not when we summarily tell them to make a change.

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Hands on design: sustainable LEGO homes

I was recently back in Chicago for the holidays and while searching for something warm to do downtown with my family, I took them to see the city model and exhibition at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Before we could make our way from that to the Chicago Biennial, we stumbled into one of CAF’s LEGO Build Workshops and before you know it, three+ hours had past and we were all creating architectural masterpieces.

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My sister built a bright, airy modern school building. Her partner built a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired party house. My partner built the tallest skyscraper he could (earning envious stares from nearby children). What did I build? Ultra-realist me built three UK-style terraced houses.

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But wait, there’s more! They were not just any terraced houses, they were sustainable terraced houses! Perhaps I’d spent too many hours focused on my work project the week before, but I decided to bring back a little bit of London to Chicago.

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Features you’ll find in these sustainable terraced houses:

  • Simple building form, resulting in improved fabric energy efficiency
  • Front and back gardens, providing ample private outdoor space

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  • Shallow plot with dual or triple aspects, meaning lots of daylight
  • Space for waste, recyclables and food waste/compost bins

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  • Rain barrels/water butts collecting water for use in the back gardens for the middle and one of the end terraces

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  • A greywater recycling system on the other end terrace
  • Shared roof terrace with biodiverse roof elements (ok…there were no landscaping legos, so pretend there are plants & log piles and substrates for holding water and whatnot)

Obviously I don’t win any points for originality, but for my structured mind, it was a nice creative outlet and who doesn’t like to play with Legos?

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Starting a conversation on technology and social media for engaging water users

In a few weeks, I am flying off to the Dead Sea in Jordan for this year’s International Water Association‘s (IWA) Jordan Water and Development Congress. I’ve been involved with the IWA for a couple years now, at first attending conferences, but more recently as part of the leadership team for the Public & Customer Communications Specialist Group, as well as a presenter at conferences, including the Efficient Urban Water Conference in Cincinnati earlier this year.

At the Congress in Jordan, I will be rapporteur for a few sessions under the Turning the Tide on Water Resources theme; co-leading the Specialist Group annual meeting; and, most interestingly, leading a workshop on information and communications technologies (ICT) and social media for the purpose of engaging water users and customers. It’s all part of a project we as a Specialist Group are kicking off to help provide resources to water professionals interesting in using technology for engagement, but unsure of where to start.

I was given the opportunity to write in more detail about the project for the IWA’s blog, which you can read in full here and see an excerpt of below.

Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) can improve interaction between those who manage water and those who use it, even in rural areas or resource poor settings that lack consistent internet access. But, which technology is the right one for each community or region? With the vast array of tools available—from social media to apps and SMS to smart devices and more—water professionals need help navigating the options.

A Twitter campaign to map and respond to water leaks may be a useful tool for one community; while another community may need remote sensors that provide information to users to manage their own water use; and yet another in a rural area might gain the most from an SMS platform that allows people to understand and monitor water availability.

For those of you attending the IWA Jordan Congress, please attend the session or get in touch with me! For those of you not attending the Congress or involved with IWA, we’d still love to hear your thoughts. Put them down in the comments or contact me directly.