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Social Influence and Disruptive Low Carbon Innovations

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How word of mouth can contribute to limiting global warming

Social influence plays a big part in many of our decisions. But is it also true when it comes to climate change? The SILCI project investigated and its findings are clear. Word of mouth indeed has a strong influence on people’s decision to adopt a range of different behaviours and habits to reduce carbon emissions.

Climate Change and Environment icon Climate Change and Environment
Society icon Society

“All of us have a part to play.” In September 2020, the 108 United Kingdom citizens who formed the country’s first Climate Assembly released the conclusions of their 6-month deliberations on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. Beyond the proposals they made, one aspect stands out. Whilst clear government leadership is required, consumer-led change is equally important. One of the phenomena driving such change is called social influence. “We’ve known that social influence is important for spreading new ideas since the 1950s,” says Charlie Wilson, professor at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. “It has been confirmed by thousands of studies and synthesised in a book called ‘Diffusion of Innovations’ by Everett Rogers. The book sets out the four key ingredients to understanding how and why new ideas spread: adopter heterogeneity (differences between people’s motivations), information transmission (how the word spreads), social networks, and innovation attributes (inherent qualities of the product).” What is still unknown, however, is whether these mechanisms apply to the spread of potentially disruptive, low-carbon innovations in many different contexts. What role does social influence play then? To find out, Wilson kick-started the ERC-supported SILCI (Social Influence and Disruptive Low Carbon Innovations) project in 2016. “I wanted to focus on the potential contributions we could all make as consumers of goods and services. Over three quarters of global carbon emissions can be attributed to how we live, how we move around, how we eat, and how we interact with energy systems,” he explains.

Applying social influence to climate change

SILCI’s approach can be broken down into three steps. First, the team investigate potentially disruptive innovations in mobility, food, homes and energy. Then, they supplement this analysis with deep-dive case studies on specific innovations in each of these fields. Finally, they incorporate some of their new empirical insights into complex simulation models of the global energy and land-use systems to work out climate impacts. “The objective is to explore what the near- and longer-term climate impacts of consumer innovations might be. This was particularly exciting. We were able to show that – under certain assumptions – rapid uptake of digital consumer innovations could help the world limit warming to 1.5 °C, without having to rely on extremely costly and risky negative emission technologies,” Wilson adds. The SILCI team have also confirmed the importance of word of mouth and social norms to spread awareness and experiences of low-carbon innovations (information transmission). Furthermore, SILCI analysis has identified the characteristics of successful low-carbon innovations, such as bicycle sharing. These include convenience, flexibility of choice, customisation, and pay-per-use cost structures (innovation attributes). On adopter heterogeneity, the team found that early adopters can be separated into three groups: novelty-seekers, technophiles and environmentally minded adopters. Social networks are also important: “We have found that people with less cliquey and more varied social networks, with larger numbers of both strong and weak social connections, are more likely to adopt low-carbon innovations,” Wilson notes. The team have already surveyed 3 000 people in the United Kingdom and 3 000 people in Canada to differentiate adopters and non-adopters of 16 different low-carbon innovations related to mobility, food, homes and energy. A repeat survey is due to launch soon, tracking change over 2020. Efforts will then be focused on translating scientific insights into a comprehensive set of recommendations for policymakers, service providers and other stakeholders. “Social influence is a potentially self-reinforcing mechanism: the more we hear about a low-carbon innovation, the more likely we are to try it out. The more we try it out, the more we’re likely to tell others about it. Then, the more we tell others about it, the more likely they are to try it,” Wilson concludes. Thanks to SILCI, we now understand much more clearly how to successfully trigger these snowball effects for low-carbon innovations.


SILCI, word of mouth, climate change, low-carbon, innovation, social influence

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