Academic journal article Social Alternatives

From Pushing Atoms to Growing Networks: Cultural Innovation and Co-Evolution in Urban Water Conservation

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

From Pushing Atoms to Growing Networks: Cultural Innovation and Co-Evolution in Urban Water Conservation

Article excerpt

Conventional approaches to urban water conservation programs are limited by their conceptions of the water consumer as an autonomous individual: a social 'atom.' These approaches typically ignore how cultural norms (e.g. of cleanliness), 'Big Water' infrastructures, and existing domestic technologies set the baseline of water consumption. We promote instead a 'cultural innovation' approach to urban water conservation that understands water users as members of cultures and sociotechnical networks, whose habits and expectations of water use are embedded in 'co-evolving' (Shove 2003) relations with water technologies and large-scale water systems. We outline some strategic principles for changing water cultures, with a focus on 'meso-level' groups and networks (friends, neighbours, clubs, etc.). The goal is a redistribution of roles and responsibilities in the relationships between water users, technologies and water authorities, initiated through the process of 'growing networks of water-savers'.

Introduction

Social and cultural researchers in partnerships with water authorities or others with scientific and engineering backgrounds can rarely luxuriate in comprehensive descriptions and elaborated theories to convey our views as we might inter alia. Ideas often need to be packaged into digestible points and straightforward principles that people from very different disciplinary backgrounds can grasp and apply. In a recent project investigating the discourses and practices of urban water demand management, the authors learned that while water managers sought a better understanding of water users, they were somewhat impatient with accounts of cultural complexity, and not terribly interested in the nuances of our analyses and critiques. Their concerns were practical: what kinds of implementable water-savings strategies arose from these insights? Similarly, this article's concerns are limited and tactical: how can social and cultural perspectives be articulated to help water authorities better understand users, and develop more effective urban water conservation programs? Our imagined audience therefore indirectly includes the natural resource managers and others with whom readers of this Social Alternatives may be planning or conducting water research. We hope these distillations of basic concepts and principles will help others explain their own starting points and project ideas to research partners.

Over an eighteen-month period commencing late 2005, we conducted a team project at the Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney, in partnership with Sydney Water Corporation.1 The project Demand Management through Cultural Innovation: User Models undertook a comparative study of water authorities' and householders' perspectives on domestic water, the user-provider relationship, motivations for and barriers to water-saving. Methods included a review of reports and policy documents, interviews with relevant Sydney Water personnel, a householder questionnaire on water fittings and practices, and the 'Water Diary', a guided series of reflective journal exercises and worksheets adapted from an earlier project, Everyday Water (Sofoulis 2005, Allon & Sofoulis 2006, Allon 2006). We aimed to stimulate more diverse future water demand management initiatives than 'one-sizefits-air technological solutions for 'average' households, and we suggested initiatives involving community and neighbourhood groups, young people, and migrants. As the project reports remain confidential, we cannot present detailed findings here, and draw instead on starting points, principles and reflections.

We proposed that in addition to technological innovations, water saving could also be achieved through strategies of cultural innovation, that is, changes in cultural norms about what kinds of water is used for what purposes, shifts in habits and expectations around water services, and new relationships to water authorities and infrastructures. …

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