Behavior Change
How a Towel Rail Changed a Village

I was asked recently about my favourite behaviour change stories in the energy space. I didn’t have to think long: my favourite is the one about the £200-a-year towel rail. Yep, you heard that right: a towel rail.

A couple of years back, Forum for the Future got involved in evaluating the National Trust’s ‘Low Carbon Village’ project. The project aimed to develop positive and practical solutions that could help inhabitants of specific British villages on a journey to low-carbon living. We worked to get under the skin of the project, speaking to individuals about why they got involved, what inspired them to take action (or not!) and how they found the experience. Lots of great stories emerged.

There was the one about the importance of the seasons in dictating how people engage with each other. Though it seems obvious with hindsight — that people are much more likely to be out and about, talking to each other in the street or in their gardens in spring and summer — it provides a critical insight if you’re launching a programme that relies on, or might benefit from, word-of-mouth. Don’t start in mid-winter, when people are indoors and less likely to ‘mingle.’

And then there was the one about the benefits of holding meetings in public places — think ‘the pub,’ rather than ‘the church hall.’ Meeting in the pub, or in a cafe, increases the likelihood of locals overhearing what you’re up to — and then maybe joining in.

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But my favourite remains the one about the £200-a-year heated towel rail.

The story isn’t just about a towel rail. It’s also about smart meters (those brilliant devices that help people monitor, engage with, and hopefully change their energy usage).

I like smart meters. And I’d like them to be rolled out as quickly as possible (I’d also like energy utilities to view this roll-out as a business opportunity — as a means of re-engaging their disillusioned customers — rather than an obligation, but that’s a topic for another time …).

I don’t think that the roll-out of smart meters will immediately spawn a revolution in attitudes towards energy (it’s their potential to trigger further change that excites me). But I’ve always assumed that getting as many installed as soon as possible is the right way to start the journey.

The £200-a-year towel rail actually has me questioning that last statement. Here’s why: As part of the Low Carbon Village project, there weren’t enough smart meters for everybody. There were only a couple. They got passed around, from neighbour to neighbour, and as they were passed around, they accumulated stories.

And that’s where the £200-a-year towel rail proved so powerful.

There was an element of serendipity to it all. Who knew that, early on, such an engaging and powerful story would emerge from this pass-the-parcel approach? But emerge it did: in short, Tom’s heated towel rail was costing him £200 a year. He’d never thought about it before, but using a smart meter laid bare the truth. While Tom was at work, he was paying a fairly substantial sum of money to keep his towels nice and warm.

The story spread like wildfire. Interest grew. Other people decided to have a go — in the hope of finding their own ‘towel rail.' Energy efficiency got personal, and people wanted to have their own story.

I still want to see smart meters rolled out across the UK (and more widely) as soon as possible. But the £200-a-year towel rail sticks in my mind as a reminder of the importance of context, of engagement, and, above all, of stories in helping people change their behaviour.

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