Theoretical Blind Date makes a splash at Sustainable Water Symposium

A team of academics from the Science, Society and Sustainability (3S) Research Group at UEA made waves last week with a pioneering premiere performance of Theoretical Blind Date – the water edition.

The social science-based, water-themed dating game show was a standout contribution to the ‘Water for our People and Planet’ research symposium of the Anglian Centre for Water Studies (ACWS), a partnership between UEA and Anglian Water.

A major strand of the ACWS is ‘Engaging Society’ to help deliver a sustainable water future. Faced with twin pressures of climate change and population growth, domestic water-use needs to drop significantly, from about 130l per person per day, to just 80l.

Engaging the public in this huge reduction of daily water use is an enormous challenge, and that’s where 3S have been helping to set out and understand a range of different approaches to the problem. 3S are experts in engaging society with sustainability, and in conducting research with impact built in.

One way we engage people in these kinds of debates is through Theoretical Theatre, which was first developed as an innovative teaching tool at UEA. Here. we created a special performance to debate different social science approaches to achieving sustainable water-use, and showcased it in front of the 100 or so industry, policy, academic and community experts at the symposium.

The aim was to open up debate about how to address these issues beyond the ‘usual suspects’ of behavioural economics and psychology, and to show how sociology, anthropology, science and technology studies, and innovation studies can offer quite different ways of seeing the problem and potential solutions.

Meet Andy, the Anglian Water Executive

We were fortunate to have persuaded Andy Brown, Anglian Water’s Head of Sustainability, to be part of the performance. Andy told Cilla (the dating-show host) about his water problems, and explained he was looking for an approach to help him reduce domestic water consumption.

We presented three distinct social science approaches, each with their own way of seeing the problem, and how to solve it. Each approach had some experience of working with Anglian Water already, so we could draw on real-world actions to explain the ideas behind them.

The three delightful theories each summed themselves up in 3 words, and made their pun-filled pitch for his attention:

  • Behaviour change [nudge-nudge, touchy-feely, cool!] – she was focused on changing individual behaviours – this means encouraging (‘nudging’) customers to use less water. Examples include using targeted messaging and pricing incentives.
  • Social practice theory [a do-er, active, completely normal!] she was interested in changing shared social practices such as washing, gardening, showering; this means thinking beyond water and working with partners across society to shift the routines of our daily lives to involve lower water use. Examples include collaborating with clothing and detergent manufacturers to influence what we think of as ‘normal’ laundry practices.
  • Transitions theory [pipes & wires, radical alternatives, BIG SYSTEMS!] wasn’t interested in what the ’little people’ thought, he was focused on changing the systems (infrastructures and institutions) that shape our lives; this means nurturing radical innovations and experimenting with new systems, scaling up promising innovations and lobbying for regulation to drive up standards. Examples include using rainwater harvesting and greywater recycling infrastructures in new build housing.

After much flirtation and a deluge of water-related puns, Andy opted for Social Practice Theory because he was keen to collaborate with businesses and sustainability leaders beyond the water sector, in his quest for sustainable water.

Engaging society for sustainability

Theoretical Theatre is a multi-award-winning innovative approach to engaging audiences with important debates about sustainability. It brings academic debates to life and helps audiences reflect on the different approaches to sustainable development in an entertaining and informative way.

It is a key aspect of 3S’s pioneering approach to research engagement, and a great way to open up conversations about responding to sustainability challenges in classrooms, boardrooms, governments and communities.

We are researching the impact this performance had on its audience, and will be following up on our show with discussions, research and action, to put our ideas into practice.

 

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