Being provocative with practice theory: an interview with Yolande Strengers
Yolande is a Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia, where she co-leads the Beyond Behaviour Change research programme with Cecily Maller. She has published widely on practice theories. She spoke to us when she was visiting Brighton in July 2016. We talked about how she came to practice theory and how she used it, especially outside academia. One of the key points was how one might use practice theory insights to intervene in other kinds of practices and disrupt assumptions behind policy.
I discovered practice theory during my PhD on smart metering technologies, interaction design and the environment. I read Elizabeth [Shove]’s book, Comfort Cleanliness and Convenience, and started to make the connections with my own project [since] comfort and cleanliness are responsible for most of the energy and water consumption in the home. So the project became about, how do smart meters affect comfort and cleanliness practices? And that’s what all the empirical work with households was about: how people live, how do they heat and cool, how do they wash and launder, do the dishes, clean up? And yes they had smart meters or they were part of various types of demand management trials, but I was more interested in how those practices were being disrupted or not by those different types of interventions. Households had this blinkered idea, coming partly from industry and government, of what energy is, what sustainability is, what the environment is. So they were just engaging in these programmes and thinking about how to turn their lights off. The [comfort and cleanliness] practices actually undermined energy and sustainability savings because they were continuing to change in resource-intensive directions, but these smart metering interventions weren’t really having an impact on them.
I came from the energy industry and from a communications/PR and media background so I was really interested in how I take these messages to policy and industry. I started to develop a programme of research that not only critiqued, but also started to think about what else could be done that was actually productive, using theories of practice. I tend not to talk about practice theory when I talk to industry or policy makers. I tend to use provocative concepts that disrupt their way of thinking. So I’m trying to intervene in their practices without necessarily making them practice experts or theoretical experts.
The main concept I developed was a fictional energy character called Resource Man. [See this link to find out more about Resource Man: http://interactions.acm.org/archive/view/july-august-2014/smart-energy-in-everyday-life-are-you-designing-for-resource-man]. What I was trying to do was say, ‘You’ve created this consumer in the image of yourselves and this is really problematic’. I remember presenting Resource Man to a group of engineers in the energy industry and they all thought it was hilarious. But then you could see the penny drop, like, ‘Ah, actually, we’re all Resource Men’. And when I started to talk about what really goes on in homes and also about how women are responsible for most energy consumption through the domestic practices of the home, they really got that. A lot of them were married and could relate to the fact that their wives and children ignored everything they said. So it really started to connect to them on that level.
Lately I’ve been talking about pets. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation recently produced a vision for the future – four smart energy scenarios with various combinations of data and technology. And I looked at it and thought, that’s great, but how are people going to live in 30 years’ time? What practices are they going to be performing when we get to 2050? So I used my own work to look at some of the trends that could occur in the next 30 years and one of the big ones that I thought was really interesting – because it was provocative – was changes in pet care. There’s a humanisation trend of animals occurring more widely, and there was some indication in my empirical work that people are starting to heat and cool environments, houses, for animals. This is happening in the UK too, heating spaces for pets. But in Australia we have one of the highest pet ownership rates in the world and of course pets stay at home during the day when everyone goes out. So the hypothesis was that by 2050 stay-at-home pets, if they have their own hot and cool environments, could flatten peak demand. Which is part of the reason we’re bringing in this smart grid, in Australia anyway. So this could change the need for these technologies that were in these scenarios, they wouldn’t necessarily be relevant any more if this change in practice occurred. So again developing this ‘stay-at-home pets’ scenario was a way of disrupting the dominant vision and pointing key stakeholders towards practice, and how everyday practices are changing and how that’s going to disrupt or change the vision for the future and energy demand landscapes and the types of technologies that we might need. Pets are totally off the energy consumer radar because in that space it’s one adult consumer, the bill payer, and occasionally families who are considered in various scenarios but certainly not animals. So it was another way of broadening out what the household is and who’s in it and who also performs practices.
The danger is you don’t get taken seriously. In an academic context it’s quite legitimate to talk about technology scenarios and just make them up, but it’s not legitimate to talk about pet scenarios. I have to stand up and justify my focus.
With a design audience, it’s a design opportunity: if you want address energy demand, figure out how you’re going to keep the pets comfortable. Which is a very different question to, figure out how are you going to convince people that they need to care about energy and the environment, which tends to be the direction a lot of the work is taking. In Australia there are extremes of temperature and animals do die, so it’s a reasonable question to ask; it’s not just people going crazy and over-compensating for their pets. I’ve been looking at stuff that already exists – like evaporative cooling mats and vest that the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty against Animals) recommends – but also how you design access to cool spaces for animals or even access into the cellar or another space in the home that is naturally cold, because animals are very good at finding those. It creates a different opportunity and focuses attention in a different place to where it is commonly focused.
The debate, theoretically, is whether pet care is performed by people, or is there some role the animal itself plays in performing practices involving staying cool or warm that is important in this scenario? I’m leaning towards the latter because people are responding to what their pets are doing. Whether or not you could also have a field of ‘animal practices’ I’m not so sure but it’s an interesting question. Because pets are also social, animals are social, and you could argue they also have social practices. There’s a debate about this – whether practices can only be performed by humans. So this is what we’re entering into with this issue.
We had another energy project with Larissa Nicholls on time-of-use pricing and how it disrupts the routines of family households or not. That study was really about the activities of households and how they are timed throughout the day. We got into an area of confusion about heating and cooling for babies, where we found a clear split between the people who thought it was healthy to heat a room for a baby and those who thought it was unhealthy to heat a room for a baby. From a practice perspective that’s also an opportunity, because it shows there’s some dynamics or some flux in terms of what the meanings of the practice are, what the competencies are, the materials that are involved. We were quite negative about time-of-use pricing, which was going to have a strong, negative impact on families. But we also tried to open up other opportunities for intervention. One of them related to our finding that there’s no consistent health advice anywhere about how you should heat or cool a room for babies. So a recommendation was the energy sector engages more with helping to shape the meanings of what is considered healthy for babies and young children, working with a range of health institutions obviously, to work towards some forms of low energy comfort for babies. Because we know as well from other literature that having a baby or young child is a time when a lot of new appliances come into the home, particularly heaters and air conditioners – or in practice terms it’s when a lot of households are recruited into different practices of heating and cooling.
Another project we’ve been working on relates to memories people carry about their practices. Air conditioning is a relatively new thing in Australia; it’s really taken off in the last two to three decades, and most people my generation or older have lived at some point of their lives without air conditioning. So [Cecily Maller and I] were thinking, Well, there’s all this practice memory out there. Not a lot has changed temperature-wise in the last twenty years and yet suddenly we all think we need air conditioning. And yet we all have all these ways of knowing and past memories of how to keep cool without, so surely that’s an opportunity for disrupting some of this dominant trajectory which seems to be towards mechanic cooling. I think there the same thinking could be applied across a number of areas particularly where there’s been rapid change and where there are still generations alive which know to live without some of these things we now assume are necessary or normal. The only thing about looking to the past to the future is it can be critiqued for romanticising the past. But it’s more about drawing inspiration from the past rather than making some case that we all need to return to the way it was fifty years ago. And it’s not very attractive either to pitch to industry or policy makers so it’s a tricky line to balance.