Change our behaviour, change the world

ChangeLAB project explores responsible development strategies

March 21, 2009 | By David Landry

In trying to achieve sustainable development, 'sustainable' is the difficult bit. Development, willingly undertaken by stakeholders and often producing immediately tangible results, is an easier sell.

But how is development to be carried out responsibly? And how can the initial enthusiasm generated in implementation of this programme or that round of awareness-raising be sustained? How does one convince people to reduce consumption? In a nutshell, what does it take to get people to change their behaviour?

"An environmental project might look good on paper, but the results often don't continue when the project ends," says Alessandra Pala, who heads the REC head office's ChangeLAB project, which offers a new, long-term approach to sustainable development practices. ChangeLAB operates from the premise that sustainable development can be achieved by engaging directly with citizens in order to decouple consumption from economic growth.

Eight organisations are participating in this three-year project, representing seven pilot projects in Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK. In CEE, the REC head office has joined REC Estonia as a ChangeLAB contributor in running the pilot project in Estonia. The project is funded in part by the European Regional Development Fund programme Interreg IIIC, and each Interreg region is participating in ChangeLAB.

Evidence and knowledge

ChangeLAB is based on the 'Precede' and 'Precede-Proceed' models, developed by Lawrence W. Green and Marshall Kreuter. These models from the early 1980s describe an intervention planning process designed to address greater societal behaviour in healthcare issues. By 1991, Green and Kreuter had defined health promotion as "the combination of educational and environmental supports for actions and conditions of living."

Such planning involves: identifying overriding problems and behavioural risk factors; investigating mediators or determinants of risk behaviour; subsequently assigning intervention goals and methodology; designing a comprehensive intervention package; and then implementing and disseminating the package. Each step should be evidence-based.

In terms of applying knowledge from the Interreg IIIC partners, ChangeLAB has been developed to cross-culturally experiment with a range of approaches on changing behaviour, and is rooted in methodologies including regulation, financial penalties, information, education, social pressures, and enablement through infrastructure. is an interesting online tool that features a database of best practices — the Knowledge Base and Digital Technique Planner — a direct result of an aim to provide a transfer mechanism of experience between sectors and across cultures.

ChangeLAB partners discovered early on, however, that much data remains unshared and unapplied after initial success. Pala said the Digital Technique Planner was used in ChangeLAB's pilot project in Estonia, using what had been a solution implemented first in the UK but which might be 'Estonianised' for use in that country.

An electronic muse

The planner, again based on Green and Kreuter's theories, uses an interactive program allowing program designers to identify predisposing determinants (awareness, social norms, knowledge, self-efficacy), enabling determinants (financial resources, technical resources, organisational resources, skills), and changing consumer patterns that reinforce determinants of their target group. However, the first important step in aiming at changing behaviour of a chosen target group is strong familiarity with the target group itself.

The Digital Technique Planner actually acts as a sort of electronic muse or idea generator to which local flavour can be added. Pala demonstrated the program's potential and showed how easy it is to formulate a simple scenario.

For example, we wanted to see schoolchildren in a CEE country doing more walking: one of the basic examples suggested on the website. After 15 minutes and a little debate, the planner presented 19 popular methodologies, along with scores expressing relevance. Top scores were given to 'Enforcement and Penalties,' 'Agreements,' 'Promotion' and 'Demonstration.'

Of course, one has to apply a little common sense (as the website instructions warn), and penalty threats might be a bit over the top in efforts to encourage positive behaviour, but the other methodologies create ideas for any numbers of projects, rewards — and, ultimately, positive reinforcement of sustainable lifestyle behaviour.