Persuasive technology, the environment and kettles that answer back – Birmingham Café Scientifique, 6 November 2012
David Chapman 
The Café Scientifique  movement has grown immensely in recent years and its popularity has never been greater. Cities around the world play host to discussions about anything from nanotechnology to astroseismology, Birmingham  being no exception.
In the most recent of their lively and well-attended talks the attention of the West Midlands’ audience was centred on Dr Ben Cowan, a researcher from the Human-Computer Interface Centre  at the University of Birmingham, who was in attendance to present a talk on persuasive technology. The evening included discussions on topics as mundane as the Coalition Government to as bizarre as the misfortune of being plunged into darkness whilst on the lavatory. One thing you can guarantee from a Café Scientifique, if not cutting-edge science, is variety.
So, on the third birthday of the Birmingham Café Scientifique – and sausage week at the Jekyll & Hyde – it was down to Dr Cowan to tame the masses and cut right to the crux of the matter at hand: persuasive technology.
Persuasive technology is any kind of technology that is specifically designed to influence human behaviour, often using means of persuasion to point people in the direction of an intended, or predetermined, path. This could be encouraging you to pay your tax bill early, letting you know your car is due for a service or simply stopping you from overfilling your kettle. Dr Cowan’s research is concerned with how these technologies can be applied to energy reduction in the home, or more specifically how the technology can persuade you to be more energy efficient when at home. Dr Cowan explained that the discipline is split into two main strands. Firstly, user-censored design, a process whereby a product is designed to be pleasing to the user and enables them to complete the intended task or action with ease and efficiency; and secondly, how technology influences us psychologically, for example, why are certain types of programme or interface prone to producing frustrating and sometimes aggressive behaviours ? It’s this ‘emotional response’ that is at the centre of all persuasive technology research and what, if controlled and manipulated correctly, has the potential to make gains in not only energy conservation, but also countless related disciplines.
Although Dr Cowan’s talk was short - just 20 minutes - the discussion went on for over four times as long and led to critical questions about the subject at hand; can persuasive technology provide us with practicable solutions to excessive energy consumption? Is it likely to be able to truly shape human behaviour in a way that alters habitual traits in the long term? Is persuasive technology a real concept, or a corporate façade that the energy companies use to keep up their pseudo-environmental identity? The depth and breadth of content covered was remarkable and Dr Cowan’s knowledge had to be stretched to its limit when dealing with the diversity of questions.
So how do you go about influencing human behaviour with technology? Much of the talk around Dr Cowan’s research concentrated on the idea of habit. That if you can change people’s natural habits to a desired action, then you can start to persuade people to do what you want them to. The talk’s organiser, Kenny Webster, used the surreal example of a clever kettle that quips about you drinking too much tea. A real life example of this is energy companies giving households energy meters that are split into green, amber and red zones, signifying low-, medium- and high-energy consumption respectively. This kind of technology allows for the intervention and replacement of learned or habitual traits with desired actions. But do they work? Would they work on you?
Ben’s research, and that of his peers, has found that changing people’s habits in the short term is relatively easy: give them a nice shiny meter that goes down when they switch off their television and they’ll switch off appliances to their heart’s content… for a week or two. Changing habitual behaviour in the long term is the real challenge and it’s something that, it seems, is only just being fully explored. Ben couldn’t provide examples of technologies that have been successful on a long-term basis; there were always barriers to success. Whether that is the novelty of a new technology wearing off on the individual, the person not being engaged with the technology from the start or the absence of a viable reward structure, they all cause the human-computer interface to break down. These barriers all apply when a conscious decision is being made in relation to saving energy. If we can use technology to change people’s behaviours subconsciously – to make the ‘right choice’ the habitual choice, that’s where real progress can be made.
This is where persuasive technology leaves the realms of computer science and becomes a fully-fledged psychological debate. Questions of ethics, the subconscious and human behaviour are at the forefront of the science and everyone wants a piece of it. Our own Coalition Government has a ‘nudge unit ’: a dedicated advisory board designed to encourage people to pay fines and late tax payments. Persuasive technology is obviously a powerful tool and before long could become not only persuasive, but pervasive too.
As the discussion progressed, more and more people felt compelled to question the intention of such technologies. Why would a company that makes money from people using energy circulate a product that persuades people to use less of it? It turns out that it comes down to the issue at the heart of many modern science debates: funding. As long as the companies are being subsidised for the initial expenditures by government initiatives and, as we’ve already discovered, the technology isn’t that effective anyway, then the energy companies get the best of both worlds. Some energy companies do fund persuasive technology research, but many of them employ a top-down approach that looks at systems and collective behaviours, as opposed to Dr Cowan’s research, which is designed to concentrate on individuals.
It seems that this is where the problem lies, though. Modelling individual behaviour is a tricky business. A household becomes a complex network of individual interactions analogous to weather systems in a climate model. Dr Cowan admitted that human-computer interface technologies find it hard to act on collectives and may be reliant on infrastructure that isn’t necessarily in place. It’s hard to persuade someone to recycle if they have to walk three miles to their local bottle bank, for example. The key question seemed to be “what would make you change your behaviour?” Although there were mixed attitudes among the audience, the main factor seemed to be financial gain, or at least a curtailing of financial loss. The threat of a shortened lifespan was also a popular choice.
As the evening drew to a close the questions became ever more intriguing and personalised. The audience – which admittedly was pretty science-savvy – were asking the right questions and on many occasions caused us to embark on whacky and untraceable tangents, often causing a bemused look to appear on Dr Cowan’s face. However, the audience included interested non-scientists and they asked some of the very best questions. The group facilitates all levels of audience member and even offer a ‘tweet your question’ service for the less assured in attendance.
The style of talk allows researchers to discuss their findings, results and future plans with people who have a fresh outlook and truly unbiased insight, as opposed to co-workers or researchers in their respective fields, who already have opinions, biases, and predispositions about much of what they might discuss.
Café Scientifique presents a unique setting for science. It allows subjects to be discussed in a true two-way conversation – something that is often attempted through public engagement but is rarely successful, or meaningful to the research. This felt different; each question or point raised was dealt with in considerable detail and often led to counter-points, rebuttals and on some occasions to new hypotheses: new science. A rarity on any occasion, never mind on a monthly basis at a café, pub or restaurant near you.
If the public wants to discover how science is modified, adapted, revised and refined and how it is truly self-perpetuating, then Café Scientifique is the place to be.