XXII.3 May - June 2015
Page: 56
Digital Citation

Designing for transitions to sustainable lifestyles

Adrian Clear, Kirstie O'Neill, Adrian Friday

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Despite the significant risks for human and non-human life posed by the so-called Anthropocene, greenhouse-gas emissions are still rising. In such a context, how do we as citizen-consumers attempt to transition toward sustainability? The ways in which people currently practice activities such as cooking, eating, traveling, and keeping warm can all be changed to be more, or less, sustainable. To realistically have any chance at mitigating harmful climate-change effects, the changes required are significant, suggesting ways of living that might be difficult to comprehend within existing norms and expectations of consumption.

If we want to facilitate such "profound changes" [1], we need to think creatively about what these may be and how we might encourage their development. As Elizabeth Shove argues, it may be that existing sociotechnical contexts close down spaces for alternative approaches, thus making it more difficult to envisage and realize radically different spaces and practices [2]. Are there ways we can make profound shifts to more sustainable practices more conceivable, comfortable, and agreeable?

back to top  Insights


In our recent studies of food consumption and thermal comfort, we have identified points when daily practices go through significant transitions—sometimes to more sustainable forms. Over a number of projects, our inquiries have accrued convincing evidence in support of Frank Trentmann's observation that "disruption is normal" and reveals "the flexible side of habits and routines so often imagined as stable and stubborn" [3]. So we now ask the following questions: How can we support the development of more sustainable daily practices during life transitions? How might life-transition periods become opportunities for the intentional (re)design of practices? How might we focus our design work to make life transitions more supportive of sustainable practices? What are the implications of designing for (sustainable) life transitions?

back to top  Transitions in Everyday Life

Challenging mainstream practices and bringing about contextually appropriate, more sustainable ways of living requires changes much more significant than simply doing the things we currently do, but more efficiently. Across research projects we became intrigued by significant changes in practice that occurred during life transitions. In the following sections, we use examples drawn from recent research where we considered everyday life scenarios in which we already deal with reconfigurations of how we live our lives. By life transitions, we are referring to situations such as changing residences, having children, or retirement, where ways of doing things are developed a new, or broken down and rebuilt over time.

We discuss two recent case studies. In the first, we interviewed people to understand their food consumption practices and how these came to be. Our aim was to highlight opportunities for digital interventions to reshape food practices in more sustainable ways. What we found was that daily food consumption is often routine and unremarkable, but there appeared to be critical points in life that can influence our daily food practices, what we eat, and how we prepare it. In the second case study, we engaged university students negotiating the heating systems in their new housing.

back to top  Case Study: Food and Retirement

We spoke to a number of people about how their food practices had changed following retirement from work. The extra time that this transition allowed sometimes created space for practices that might be considered more sustainable. Many participants began to grow their own food in an allotment or their gardens:


My wife, she's very green-fingered and she really enjoys it... last year we had some fantastic produce. (Cyril)

Retirement provided the time for growing (perhaps in place of other, less sustainable practices), but also for developing the requisite skills and knowledge. Likewise, for trying new recipes and new ways of cooking. For one participant, the installation of solar panels instigated a new regime of household practices, in particular, shifting the performance of energy-intensive meal preparations to daylight hours:

It's nearly three years since the solar panels went on the roof. So since then we changed our eating habits...all the cooking is done during daylight hours... anything that takes up electricity is usually done within daylight hours, you know washing, ironing, drying clothes... (Rita)

However, the directions that food practices take in retirement can also be less environmentally sustainable. For some, food shopping had transformed from a weekly supermarket trip into a leisure activity, requiring more car journeys to nearby towns and villages:

Well I've nothing else to do... I haven't a job to do, I'm not trying to fit it in and so I devote what I want to devote to it. (Dorothy)

Bringing about more sustainable ways of living requires changes much more significant than simply doing the things we currently do, but more efficiently.

We've made our shopping a relaxing experience. We've gone away from the big shop... our aim is every day to get out somewhere nice if we can. (Steven)

Sometimes the significance of food diminished as a result of children leaving home or the loss of a partner. In practice, this led to less cooking, less fresh produce used, and more consumption of convenience and "ready meals," which often contain higher-impact ingredients:

I do quite enjoy cooking. But there is only the two of us, so there's no point getting too excited over it. It's just a meal, unfortunately. (Rita)

back to top  Case Study: Moving Home and Thermal Comfort Expectations

In other ongoing work, we wanted to influence how people keep themselves warm in their homes, introducing a system to reduce their reliance on the infrastructure provision of heat, in the spirit of adaptive thermal comfort [4]. We set out to understand the thermal comfort practices of students moving into shared accommodations at university. In our interviews we found that in spite of generally low expectations for heating in university accommodations, students quickly realized that heat was plentifully available. We saw radiators set to "max" and windows used to regulate the temperature instead of thermostatic radiator valves.

The next year, we recruited participants in the same accommodations to live with a system that, among other things, didn't allow the radiator to be switched on continuously. We were interested in learning how they coped with this attempt to shift their comfort practices.

We saw various ways in which the system was appropriated, and everyday life renegotiated. Some felt their thermal comfort had improved, whereas others felt our system was frustrating and required extra effort to use as they tried to fit it into their existing practices, such as wearing light clothes indoors and keeping the radiator on as much as possible: just want to come home in a cozy home. If I've been in the library for quite a few hours it can be a bit of a pain in the butt if it's not warm-warm. (Stephanie)

For another participant who did not really engage with the system initially, the impact of having no direct heating for several days was that she found a lower temperature was perfectly acceptable and discovered other alternative ways to keep comfortable indoors:

I think it's sort of made me realize how it doesn't actually bother me as much when it's colder... I don't need to have it that warm.

Our case studies suggest that life transitions provide ready opportunities for changes to one's expectations and practices.

Our case studies suggest that life transitions (retirements, moving house, and so on) provide ready opportunities for changes to one's expectations and practices. The key question here is, how can we design to ensure such changes are both comfortable and sustainable?

back to top  Sustainable Transitions

What does it mean to make sustainability transitions in practice? We propose that it's not about driving to work in higher gears to reduce the emissions of our commute, but rather leaving the car at home, cycling, or even reconsidering the need to be physically present at the workplace. We must make a metaphorical U-turn: We must throw our lives out of kilter, renegotiate and explore more sustainable ways of being. Purposefully designing to support or even instigate breakthroughs and tipping points may result in (sustainable) niche innovations being mainstreamed.

Our case studies point to the opportunities and limitations of taking a material-centric approach, leading us toward considering design in terms of shifting practices: While we provided a new tool for keeping warm, existing norms and expectations (e.g., of what a "cozy" room is, and notions of appropriate indoor clothing) and competencies and materials (e.g., using means other than the radiator to keep warm) shaped how thermal comfort was ultimately done. Additionally, our retirees point to the importance of developing skills and knowledge not only for doing food differently (e.g., growing, cooking) but also for accounting for people's images of what a fulfilling life of retirement is (e.g., getting out and doing something fun, relaxing and slowing down).

A promising route for design, then, is to support transitions as longer-term and more fundamental processes of change. This involves designing interactions that support the development of necessary elements of practice—related to materials, competencies, and meanings [2]—that help guide or even instigate transitions in practice in a sustainable direction. Doing so opens up interesting questions for HCI in terms of realizing systems and interfaces that evolve with users as they engage in a course of practice and life transitions, and how an "ecology" of interactions might work together to support change in a number of interrelated areas of everyday life.

back to top  References

1. Tomlinson, B., Six Silberman, M., Patterson, D., Pan, Y., and Blevis, E. Collapse informatics: Augmenting the sustainability & ICT4D discourse in HCI. Proc. of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2012, 655–664.

2. Shove, E., Pantzar, M., and Watson, M. The Dynamics of Social Practice: Everyday Life and How It Changes. SAGE, 2012.

3. Trentmann, F. Disruption is normal: Blackouts, breakdowns and the elasticity of everyday life. In Time, Consumption and Everyday Life: Practice, Materiality and Culture. E. Shove, F. Trentmann, and R.R. Wilk, eds. Berg, Oxford, 2009, 67–84.

4. Clear, A., Friday, A., Hazas, M., and Lord, C. Catch my drift? Achieving comfort more sustainably in conventionally heated buildings. Proc. of the 2014 Conference on Designing Interactive Systems. ACM, New York, 2014, 1015–1024.

back to top  Authors

Adrian K. Clear is a senior research associate in the School of Computing and Communications at Lancaster University. He is interested HCI and sustainability in everyday life, and interaction design for more sustainable ways of living.

Kirstie O'Neill is a human geographer with an interest in sustainability, specifically relating to food and building. Following her Ph.D. on sustainable local food networks and post-doctoral research on green entrepreneurship, both at the University of Hull, she has worked at Lancaster University for the past year.

Adrian Friday is a reader in ubiquitous computing and sustainability at the School of Computing and Communications at Lancaster University. His work focuses on ubicomp systems as a platform for the empirical study of the energy and carbon impacts of everyday life, and promoting more sustainable living mediated by technology.

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