This is the second Bridging Waters event for 2018.

The full series can be found here, along with past events.

19 April

Creating a water resilient culture

The psychology of water related behaviour change, including enjoyment (Conserve, Value, Enjoy.)

Conversation leaders:


Civil Engineering Teaching Lab 
New Engineering Building (NEB) Level 1 (Block B4 on the upper campus map)
Upper Campus, University of Cape Town (directions)
Rondebosch, Cape Town

Conversation write up

The earlier part of the conversation focused on the need to focus on re-prioritising values towards a more connected, ecological world. Robert’s talk included leverage points in a system (Donella Meadows) and causal layered analysis. These work reasonably well for simple interventions like saving water or recycling and can assist in analyzing and tackling large complex problems. Complex changes as in attempting to make a diverse and divided city more resilient, or liveable overall are harder to address through these tools. While it was mentioned that we need to look at and perhaps change the myths, the worldviews that people believe in, it took a long time to really interrogate what this means.

Someone mentioned that to get people to accept an idea they must accept it as their own; in other words, that the idea needs to be planted, like a seed, in their heads. But this tactic was challenged; why do we feel that our ideas are better than those of others, and why do we believe our ideas should be planted in other people's heads when surely they already have their own seeds? This discussion started to touch on the dangers of what may be a feeling of moral superiority among those who are fighting for the environment.  Importantly in our present context, it is precisely that kind of sense of superiority that decolonial thinkers are concerned to address and question.

The idea of “intersectionality” was introduced. People's realities have different issues, as illustrated by a comment supporting the validity of the township experience in the water crisis narrative (which has been a crisis for them for much longer) - which was important in terms of listening to a broad cross-section of stories and whose voices are heard and taken seriously. How do people get to understand other people's values? We need to find commonalities and also to expose ourselves to the inconvenience of other people's views. We need to display the curiosity to understand beyond what we're comfortable with. This was illustrated through two examples, Theo E.J Wilson’s experiment going undercover on alt-right directed social media (Facebook video), and the men’s rights documentary ‘The Red Pill’, filmed by a feminist .

A common understanding through both these examples was that people don't want to be judged for something they can't (or feel they can’t) change. It was also acknowledged that while top-down structures (like ‘the City of Cape Town’) have an important role to play, they are fundamentally unable to create or contribute to this fundamental change. That is because it is not their mandate.

Our stories - as the 'pro-social', or 'pro-environment' - are important, but they are not the only important stories. How can we expect people to listen to us if we are not willing to listen to them? Telling stories without listening to other people's stories, without listening to what they are not saying, is its own sort of violence.

"Collaboration is not about gluing together existing egos. It's about the ideas that never existed until after everyone entered the room."

This does not mean that all opinions are equally valid but is more about understanding how to communicate – which is not a one-way thing. It means that we can shape our message, what we believe is important to increase the chances of it being accepted. More importantly, listening to other stories, other views, changes us, how we see the problem. It makes our view of the challenge, and the suite of potential solutions, or actions towards a better situation, more nuanced than if we wish to address these challenges in our silo's. It allows ‘seeds’ to emerge, rather than being forcibly planted. This more empathic approach will do much to get more people to contribute to the conversation.

Someone commented that the environmental movement worldwide lacks vision, that less of a bad thing is not a vision. But after looking at some examples of initiatives that aim to provide this vision, for example the Seeds of a Good Anthropocene, the vision can’t work if it excludes other people’s stories or speaks in a language that doesn’t make sense to the everyday person.

How to share stories for change, ‘intersectionally’?

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete" - R Buckminster Fuller

Social media was an obvious example noted to share stories. ‘Clicktivism’ was noted, where responding to e.g. a Facebook story gives us a dopamine hit but doesn't translate into action. Others felt that this was not the whole story. Many of the stories, and most in Jemima’s presentation were real life things that were happening in the world already. They are about action happening and letting people know that's it's happening, the conversations that develop around them do often turn into connections and actions offline. People do what to do things, they just don't always know how and will tend to more often if there's a crowd, and it's local, and relatively easy.

We have to work very carefully with the words we send into the world. There was a general appreciation that science on its own is not good enough. Jemima Spring has a background in both media and science, and her assertion that the relationship between art and science will lead us to a spiritual and cultural transformation was well accepted. She noted that explaining what is going on doesn't lead to behaviour change, and asked, can we use the techniques we use in television to create behaviour change? To support this argument, she noted that we have more people voting in TV shows than we have in government elections. It is about telling compelling stories in a format that people find engaging and empowering.

Jemima’s background in biology led her to an approach of using biology to construct stories. She says that stories are creative creatures. They are alive. They take on a life of their own. This appealed to me, as a biologist myself, and I was reminded of the success of biomimicry in exciting people. Related to this she shared her observation of the power of gardening to get people excited. Permaculture in particular was lauded as an incredibly diverse movement with supporters across the continent.

There is a battle of stories going on in the world right now. And we HAVE to go into it. The challenge is that we don't have the same visions, or agenda. There is a “perception gap" - we think others are more selfish than we are, and to address this gap we need to engage in actual, in-person interactions. Initiatives like OpenStreets provide safe spaces with a common vision , allowing people to remember that much of our compassionate values are mutual.

Desired outcomes for what this conversation can start... 

  1. A better understanding of how to talk about moving to a better place
  2. Gather interest to help with rewording the Water Wise concept / principles put forward by the IWA to make resilient cities / water sensitive cities more accessible to the everyday person
  3. Gather interest to help with considering how the AquaSavvy campaign can help, and how it needs to be reworked to do so better
  4. Understanding what initiatives are out there and how they interrelate and complement each other.

In the preparation for this conversation, Robert shared the following:

These mostly come from the Common Cause work, but also from cognitive linguists like George Lakoff and Anat Shenker-Osorio.

Things to avoid when encouraging behaviour change:

  • Don’t lead with bad news and problems: Most people have enough problems in their lives (earning a basic living and making ends meet, getting the kids to school, dealing with difficult social situations, etc.) and they will do their best to avoid having to deal with more problems. Also, bad or threatening news shuts people down. Studies show that it reduces creativity and problem-solving ability and activates cognitive dissonance. Of course bad news does need to be communicated, but it should ideally be sandwiched between good news.
  • Don’t expect communicated facts to lead to behaviour change: While there fortunately are exceptions, most people don’t change behaviour when told the facts — otherwise we would by now have solved climate change, poverty and income inequality, gender inequality, the Cape Town water crisis, global indebtedness, etc. We are emotional creatures and mostly make decisions based on emotional reasoning (reasons that support our mental frames and the views of our in-groups). We often look for facts that support our particular frames and emotional opinions (confirmation bias).
  • Don’t frame your arguments in financial and status terms: “Save water and save money." “Save electricity and save money." “Be cool by saving water.” These generally don’t work as well as using intrinsic or moral framing and they entrench what are called extrinsic (self-centred or materialistic) values and frames, and thus behaviours. Numerous studies demonstrate that this leads to people showing reduced levels of care for and engagement in social and  environmental issues.

Things to do to encourage positive behaviour change:

  • Lead with shared intrinsic (compassionate or self-transcendence) values. Most people, it seems, prioritise these values anyway and these values unite. They are something that people can easily identify with. Support these values with good news stories — people identify with stories. E.g. Capetonians are collaborating. Together we are solving this problem. We've made mistakes, but together we are learning by doing.
  • Carefully describe the problem in more detail: This puts the call-for-action into context and it should offer clear reasons for the problem and what is holding us back from solving the problem — this requires extremely careful framing, so as to minimise activating contrary frames / knee-jerk reactions / the blame game / cognitive dissonance.
  • Highlight key objectives and a vision for the future: E.g. people are uniting to solve the city’s water crisis. Many people are leading by example and have changed their behaviour to help us avoid day zero. The objective is to cover the Cape Town map with green dots.
  • Offer suggestions for how to reduce water usage. Ideally through stories and examples, and across many social groups.
  • Actions speak louder than words. Where possible, develop approaches or ideas that allow others to observe the change of behaviour. This activates mirror neutrons and other powerful psychological processes that stimulate adopting a new behaviour. E.g. Encourage communities to get more involved in working together to reduce consumption within an area, a suburb block or street. So this is about neighbours working together to turn the block or street green.

Then there are also three human behavioural traits that Niki Harre highlights in her book ‘Psychology for a better world — Strategies to inspire sustainability’ that are useful. 

  • Humans are happiness seekers: happiness stimulates creativity, cooperation and commitment / openness to change. We need to ask ourselves how water saving initiatives can framed or structured to create positive emotions?
  • People are social: As social beings, we imitate each other, respond to social norms (what we think is normal behaviour), react to societal stories. How then do we reduce talking about undesirable behaviour, do and demonstrate the behaviour we advocate, leave behavioural traces, emphasise that the advocated behaviour is normal, tell stories of joy and success, and produce more vivid images / stories of a sustainable future?
  • People want to be good: And moral behaviour is held in place by the powerful emotions of shame or guilt (if you break a moral code) and anger (if someone else breaks moral code). How can we better work with this reality? By framing things in moral terms and appealing to people’s empathy.
  • Her video summarises these ideas.