50 participants from 5 continents: introducing the Academy of Change

This article was first published on LinkedIn 10th December 2020

This time last year, we were in Wuppertal, Germany, preparing for the second round of the Academy of Change. We spent three days at the offices of our project partners, ‘think-and-do tank’ CSCP, passing through Paris on the train and stopping off for pizza in Cologne. We were fed fresh vegetarian lunches, enjoyed views of green mountainsides from tall windows, and took a walk by the low-carbon Wuppertal Schwebebahn ‘sky train’.

We were there to plan one of our most exciting and international projects, unaware at that point how sustainable lifestyles would again rise to the surface as a topic in 2020. The Academy of Change is our training programme, funded by the KR Foundation, which upskills NGOs practitioners working on any aspect of climate change, biodiversity, or sustainable lifestyles. Participants are given a from-scratch introduction to behaviour change over six months of online workshops and mixed-media delivery, covering everything from behavioural models and tools for change, to insight and evaluation principles, and broader ethical and political aspects. Enabling practitioners to incorporate behaviour change principles in their work feels ever more important as this year comes to a close and the notion of ‘building back better’ is transforming the climate conversation.

When we look back on more than a decade of delivering behaviour change in the real world (it was our 11th birthday this week, in fact) it’s striking that all our projects address an aspect of building back better in one way or another. The term may not have been around in the same way before 2020, but enabling people to adopt the behaviours of a fairer, greener society has always been the foundation of our work. Our approach blends deep insight, behavioural science and big ideas to deliver interventions on a range of topics, from active travel to sustainable diets to the circular economy. The Academy is the project where we step back, take stock and think about what it means to help others create change.

A major aim of the Academy isn’t just to reinvigorate participants with the potential of behaviour change for their work, but to give them a practical process for creating it. One of the most consistent pieces of feedback we had on the 2020 round was that participants felt that they not just been given a new approach, but a structure and tools to put it into practice. The course is, in part, a walk-through of the process we use at Behaviour Change, moving from a deep insight phase into applying behavioural models and tools, evaluation planning, and finally implementation — acknowledging all the way that changing behaviour is an art as much as a science, and that the realities of people’s lives are the most important considerations for the success of an intervention. Theory and evidence are vital components, but to make the leap into something relevant and engaging, imagination and creativity are needed too.

For our team, it’s good to step back and be reminded how fresh a behaviour change approach feels to those who are new to it. Once you’ve started thinking about the difference between attitude and action, you see it everywhere: how quickly people jump to communications as the route to change, when that very tendency to ignore the practical realities of people’s decision making may actually be the problem. A realistic view of human behaviour means recognising some basic truths: we’re often irrational (though, famously, “predictably irrational”), and we’re heavily influenced by habit, as well as our environment and social context. The UK’s meat intake is a case in point: though awareness of animal welfare issues, health impacts and the climate change toll of red meat in particular has risen, the UK’s total meat consumption has actually gone up over the last decade. Similarly, recent research found that researchers working on climate change are more likely to fly than other academics. Our lesson for participants here is not that changing attitudes isn’t worth doing — but that at the outset, you need to decide whether you’re going after awareness or behaviour change, and be clear about your focus from then on.

The events of 2020 have also asked us to do better on a broader level. Plans for our opening event in central London in May, complete with live speakers, coffee breaks, and a buffet lunch, were scuppered by covid. The upside was that, as an organisation working on sustainable lifestyles among other things, we were forced to walk the walk and hold this event virtually for the first time rather than asking participants to fly. Fifty faces on a screen, beaming in from bedrooms and studies all the way from Canada to Vietnam, wasn’t how we expected to open the course — but now we’ve done it once, we may never go back to inviting participants to travel.

We were opening the course as the Black Lives Matter movement was reaching a new pitch in mid 2020, and all of us were having important, often difficult, conversations about race and equality in the UK and internationally. Behavioural science is a largely white-dominated field, a problem not only from an equality of opportunities perspective, but also because there’s skew and bias in studies and research. We deliver the Academy of Change course to participants from two dozen countries on five continents, so we need to be careful not to imply that findings from research carried out in the UK are somehow universally applicable to all of humanity. Some behavioural scientists have noted the bias inherent in research in WEIRD countries — that is, ‘White, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic’ countries. One study from the University of British Columbia found that people from WEIRD societies make up as many as 80% of study participants, despite being only 12% of the population — we encountered this while preparing the course content and having to search harder to find case studies from the Global South. One of the most valuable aspects of the Academy of Change course is the opportunity to think about some of these broader issues around behaviour change, including the skew to research carried out in the UK and US.

There’s no doubt that, with conversations about sustainable lifestyles reaching a new pitch, behaviour change is going to be a hot topic from now on. The Committee on Climate Change estimate that 62% of our projected emissions reductions in the UK will have an element of behaviour change, whether that’s embracing walking and cycling as a nation, normalising a much lower intake of meat, fish and dairy, or increasing uptake of food waste recycling across the country. If you’d like to find out more about the Academy and behaviour change in general, check out the website here. We welcome applications from all over the world; our 2020 participants dialled in from Hungary, Lebanon, Chile, the Netherlands, Kenya and more. We don’t think there’s anything else out there quite like the Academy — it’s not, primarily, a course in behavioural science, but in planning, evaluating, and delivering behaviour change. With renewed interest in sustainable lifestyles, we’re hoping that more organisations than ever will be looking to amplify the impact of their work with citizens — exciting times to be a behavioural practitioner.

We run a newsletter, sharing thoughts and insights from ten years of delivering behaviour change in the real world. If you enjoyed this article, or would like to be added to our mailing list, drop us an email at info@behaviourchange.org.uk.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.

Behaviour Change is a not-for-profit social enterprise. We create social and environmental change with big ideas grounded in behavioural science