How can drinking water customers be moved to themselves save water? And is it actually possible to exert such influence? That is the objective of this practice-oriented research project, in which we challenged participants to consume as little tapwater as possible over a given period.
The development and testing of the pilot fits within a broader line of research, in which the central question concerns what is possible and what is not possible when it comes to influencing customer behaviour.
Stimulating water conservation of private customers
Dealing with water in a conscious and sustainable manner is increasingly becoming a focus of attention in the drinking water sector. Drinking water customers who adjust their domestic water consumption in periods of drought, for instance, actively participate in limiting the damage to nature and the environment. They also contribute to limiting possible problems in the distribution network that might arise because of peak demands. But the sector still faces an important question: How can we effectively influence the behaviour of customers?
In 2019, within the ‘Behavioural Sciences and Data’ project, the first exploration effort was made with a view to answering this question. Lessons learned from 52 (international) studies into the effectiveness of various techniques to influence the water-conservation behaviour of domestic customers were collected and published in a peer-reviewed paper in the Journal of Environmental Management.
The next step was to translate the results of this literature study to the Dutch situation, taking account of our own context and of different customer perspectives. The Water Conservation challenge in the present project was one of the outcomes, alongside the Joint Research Programme’s Customer project, ‘Behavioural Influence in Practice’, which began in 2020. Targeted at drinking water conservation, both projects will throw light on project opportunities and effective design principles for behavioural influence, based on systematic understanding and empirical knowledge.
Influencing behaviour through competition
Up until now, the drinking water utilities have mainly tried to influence the behaviour of private customers through awareness campaigns. These present information about the importance of water conservation and often propose concrete tips, like taking shorter showers and using a water-saving button on the toilet. Other influencing tactics, such as framing or nudging, have not yet, or only to a limited extent, been applied and tested.
A new path was taken by setting up a Water Conservation challenge. During a given period, customers were challenged to use as little tapwater as possible, and they could make their performance visible to others via an online platform. There was the possibility of challenging oneself, but also of challenging others, like friends, neighbours and classmates.
The participants could use the online platform to share experiences, inspire each other, and motivate each other to press ahead with water conservation. The objective of this practice-oriented research was to use a pilot to develop and test the challenge, so that its effectiveness could be studied on a defined scale. The drinking water utilities can now roll out the challenge in city neighbourhoods and/or villages, to offer their customers this water-conservation tool.
Besides expanding our knowledge of customer water savings, the Water Conservation challenge did the same with regard to our understanding of the possibilities and impossibilities of influencing customer behaviour more generally.
- The project produced the following concrete results: insight into the opportunities, design principles and effectiveness of challenges in the area of drinking water conservation.
- Implementation of a modern ‘Water Conservation challenge’.
- Empirical knowledge about the experience of participants with the challenge, and how this influences their awareness (e.g., which conservation tips offer the most prospects for action and why).
- Synthesis of the results in a presentation and trade publication.