Home Sweet Energy-Sufficient Home: The potential of persuasive apps for households’ energy and climate transition

Cellina, Francesca (2023) Home Sweet Energy-Sufficient Home: The potential of persuasive apps for households’ energy and climate transition. PhD thesis, University of Milan Bicocca.

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Climate protection goals require a transition in all energy consumption domains. In this work I focus on residential energy demand and assess the effects of persuasive smartphone apps promoting energy sufficiency (i.e. a reduction in the absolute amounts of energy demand, aimed at meeting people’s basic needs within ecological limits) to support the transition to a low-carbon society. Thanks to the diffusion of information and communication technologies that provide novel real-time sensing and tracking possibilities, persuasive apps that trigger energy saving have increasingly spread worldwide, welcomed as promising tools to implement highly interactive behaviour change techniques. Rigorous analyses providing evidence on their effects are however still missing. Moreover, the optimal design of their features has still to be identified. Previous research has found that app-based policy interventions are affected by critical limitations that had already emerged for behavioural interventions in general: a lack of scientific rigour in the empirical evaluations of their effects, poor grounding of app features on behavioural theories, and a tendency to rely on technocratic approaches. Furthermore, they are at risk of only producing short-term, transient effects. Scholars have therefore called for more research on persuasive apps: what are their energy and carbon saving impacts? Do they differ across heterogeneous user groups? Do they last in the long-term? Which features should the apps include, to favour greater engagement by users and therefore better support the energy and climate transition? Tackling these research questions, I collect evidence on the effectiveness of three app-based interventions targeting energy saving in households, that were designed before my dissertation work and were run in Switzerland between 2016 and 2022. For the first two cases (enCompass and Social Power), under quasi-experimental research designs I per- form fixed effects panel data regressions aimed at estimating the average treatment effect on samples of self-selected treated households, both in the short- and in the long-term (up to two full years after the end of the intervention). I also look for possible heterogeneous effects on varying the households’ characteristics. For the enCompass case I additionally verify if the effects depend on the level of intensity of app use. For the third case (Social Power Plus), instead, I analyse two questionnaires that were administered to self-selected treatment group households, in order to collect both quantitative and qualitative insights on their evaluation of the app’s features. For this case I also perform a qualitative analysis of app-mediated interactions between the involved households, to verify whether a social learning process was activated, thus contributing to shape the evolution of social norms and competences towards more sufficient energy consumption. Due to the variety of their configurations, the three cases provide me with insights to better understand the actual potential and relevance of persuasive apps in the framework of low-carbon transitions. The enCompass and Social Power app-based interventions were significantly effective in reducing consumption and carbon emissions during the intervention, with average treatment effects respectively of 4.95% and 9.23% (statistical significance at the 0.05 level; effect size, measured through Cohen’s d, respectively equal to 0.35 and 0.51). By considering households using electricity solely for non- heating purposes, enCompass even managed to reduce electricity consumption and CO2 emissions by 14.46 % with respect to the baseline (large effect size, d= 0.91), with a 0.01 significance level. Analysis of the Social Power Plus case suggests that these results are mostly related with use of app features focusing on the individual level (energy consumption feedback and goal setting), which were more appreciated by the users than features acting at the social level (sharing of experiences on the in-app forum). However, in the long-term (one or two years after the end of the intervention), the statistical significance of the treatment effects disappeared and practical significance estimates show that energy consumption reverted to pre-intervention (if not higher) levels. These results confirm the problem of long-term effectiveness already emerged in literature for other types of behavioural interventions and seem to challenge the body of literature that values social influence techniques as beneficial for a long-lasting change. The evidence I found tends to dampen enthusiasm about behavioural policies based on persuasive app use: taken in isolation, persuasive apps seem not to be effective in driving long-lasting change for the needed energy and climate transitions —not even when leveraging social influence techniques. Also at the light of the review I performed on previous research and of the related theoretical backgrounds, I suggest that a critical reflection on persuasive apps is needed, and propose to rethink their role in sustainability transition processes. From the research I performed in this dissertation, it emerges that a promising venue for future research, informed by Social Practice Theories, might be to keep using persuasive apps, but to include them in broader, trans-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder “living lab” processes. The aim of such living labs would be to collectively challenge and re-design current shared cultural and social meanings, material components, and competences around energy-demanding and carbon emitting practices. In the living labs, persuasive apps might serve as ancillary tools providing the community of involved stakeholders with monitoring, public commitment and experience sharing opportunities. Change would however mostly stem from the interactions by different stakeholders, including institutions, within the niche represented by living lab processes, rather than from the app themselves.

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