Smart cities need smarter citizens to deliver on the promise of new energy technologies

Don’t believe the hype. Today there is a lot of innovative new technology being developed to enable the cleaner, more efficient energy system that will be needed in the smart cities of the future. But while the technologies are getting smarter, the people using those technologies tend to stay the same.

There are plenty of reasons to get excited about breakthrough developments in areas like battery storage, the Internet of Things, big data and machine learning. But technology does not drive change by itself – you still need to factor in the human element. And old habits die hard.

While shiny new technologies hit the headlines and grab the investment, behaviour change remains a major challenge. Just look at the uphill battle in convincing more people to car share – a simple change with significant benefits, helping to lower a driver’s individual fuel costs, alleviate traffic, reduce air pollution and cut carbon emissions.

Citizen behaviour strongly influences city energy use. One light or appliance may not matter much in the grand scheme of things, but when you multiply them by millions it can make a big difference. Encouraging people to upgrade equipment and switch things off when not needed can really lighten the load on the electricity grid.

Similarly, fashion and dress codes play an important role in energy consumption. More efficient building management technologies to keep cool in summer will not deliver their promised savings if people turn the air conditioning up higher so they can wear a suit and tie around the office.

Looking at many energy innovations you see an 80/20 rule in effect, where 80 percent of the real world impact depends on the willingness of individuals or organisations to move away from the status quo and do things differently.

So technological advances need to be brought to market with the assistance of design and marketing expertise, to bring the users of that technology along on the journey. After all, many people were perfectly content with a regular old mobile phone, until the iPhone showed them what a smarter phone could do and made them want to change.

However, energy behaviour has proven to be a particularly difficult nut to crack – the smart meter today is quite different from the smart phone. One of the major issues is that people don’t get very passionate about energy use, outside of generally complaining about the costs.

Our understanding of what does and does not work in low carbon behaviour change has advanced significantly in recent years, and continues to develop. The key is understanding people’s interaction with technology, and empowering them to change on their own terms.

We know that it is not just a matter of telling people how and why. A simple emotional cue can have a far greater impact than an intellectual explanation. Similarly it is a constant battle to sustain change once it has occurred, as people can readily slip back into bad habits.

Like a lot of the solutions to climate change, there simply isn’t an easy answer. It is a complex problem that requires a multi-faceted response taking into account different local contexts. And because of the systemic nature of the challenge, this is an area where city governments are often uniquely well-placed to lead the transition.

Although the private sector plays an important role in developing and delivering low carbon technologies, they shouldn’t be expected to be responsible for how people use them. However, city governments, municipalities and other public bodies can create transformation both through their own direct actions and their broader powers to influence their local area.

To unlock the full system-wide benefits a number of different elements are needed. This includes: driving economies of scale through public procurement of clean technologies; building enabling infrastructure; enacting new regulations and standards; influencing the education system to increase public understanding of climate change and resource efficiency issues; and showing leadership to influence citizen expectations and behavioural norms.

If this is done right it can help deliver the clean energy future that we will need to achieve within the next couple of decades if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Truly smart cities will be the ones where smart technologies and smart people come together.