Archive | March 2012

Disruption Project Tackles Key Government Research Needs

The Disruption project ( is a 3 year project funded under the Research Council UK’s Energy Programme seeking to identify new ways to develop and implement lower carbon and more energy efficient travel. The project suggests that businesses and individuals are more adaptable to new situations than is typically assumed and that this could open new opportunities to change patterns of living such that they are less dependent on carbon intensive travel. The project will explore, through a series of practical studies, the extent to which travel practices that are assumed to be routine are frequently disrupted as part of unplanned (life) events.

A review of research commissioned by DEFRA has examined a similar proposition – considering whether “moments of change” can be used to stimulate pro-environmental behaviour change, particularly drawing on psychological theories of behaviour change. The report (Thompson et al., 2011) concludes:

 “From a theoretical perspective, there are good reasons to believe that significant life events provide a promising opportunity for breaking existing habits…There is some promising empirical evidence in the academic literature, but this is relatively scarce and also very largely confined to transport behaviour. Anecdotally, almost all of the limited number of people we spoke to – academics, practitioners and campaigners alike – found the moments of change hypothesis plausible prima facie. However, on the whole they were not aware of, or had not themselves collected, data that could demonstrate changes in habitual behaviour actually occurring at moments of change” (p157).

Our research suggests that one of the reasons why evidence on change is limited is because we have not specifically looked for it. Much of our data is cross sectional in nature and therefore of limited use in answering such questions. The report makes a series of recommendations for future research which the Disruption project is already beginning to address in two key areas:

New research methods:

DEFRA Research Recommendations

  • “Conducting qualitative research with people who have already changed their behaviours in order to understand the motivating factors, especially in relation to the timing of behaviour changes.
  • Developing action-research projects based on real-world situations and interventions.
  • “Mapping” the life course in terms of people’s contact with service and organisations that could potentially deliver a behaviour change intervention.” (p14)

The Disruption project is conducting a series of longitudinal ethnographic studies with families in Brighton and Lancaster which will provide in-depth understanding of the before, during and after implications of moments of change that typically occur. We are also conducting a longitudinal study of the impacts of the Olympics disruption on journeys to work. The research project examines the issues from a range of theoretical perspectives (including the psychological approaches on which the DEFRA study draws and mobilities). By taking a broader socio-technical systems approach we also bring research into the broader system, organisational and governance context, which informs and shapes our mobility patterns, to the fore. One of our contentions is that moments of change or disruptions are interesting because of what they reveal about our travel practices – not because they are of themselves necessarily the right tools for change.

Deliberative Policy Design:

DEFRA Research Recommendations

  • “Exploring the relationship between people’s receptivity to interventions at different “moments” and the message content and framing.
  • Exploring whether the source of the intervention impacts on its acceptability and efficacy.
  • Exploring whether upstream or downstream interventions are most effective at moments of change.”

Our research design includes a series of policy design workshops with expert groups and the general public. Each of these groups will be invited to consider, in the light of the evidence, what types of changes to the broader system, the specifics of particular policies or the framing of policy will be effective in promoting a transition to lower energy consumption for mobility. The project will conclude by bringing the solutions and the groups together to genuinely co-design a set of acceptable and effective measures which may be implemented by governments, business, regulated industries or individuals.

Further information on the project is available at or through contacting the Project Director, Dr Greg Marsden (

DEFRA report Thompson, S., Michaelson, J., Abdallah, S., Johnson, V., Morris, D., Riley, K., & Simms, A. (2011). „Moments of change‟ as opportunities for influencing behaviour: A report to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. nef (the new economics foundation). Defra, London.


Bridging the Digital Divide

On my travels today I was invited to connect my linked-in network to my flight so I could see who else it might be interesting to talk to on the plane. Ignoring the value I might place on travelling as a bit of space and time for me, it is a reminder of how far and fast mobile computing is moving. However, even in this age of apparently ubiquitous mobile communication and enhanced personal computing in the UK 10 million people do not have access to the internet and of these, 4 million are the most socially and economically disadvantaged in the country. 1 in 4 adults have never used the internet. 39% of people over 65 do not have internet access and 70% of people who live in social housing aren’t on-line (data from the Royal Geographical Society).

The BRIDGE (Building Relationships with the Invisible in the Digital Global Economy) has been a three year collaborative EPSRC research project between the Institute for Transport Studies and partners in the Product Design and Engineering Department, Middlesex University and the Engineering Design Centre, University of Cambridge. It started with the premise that over time, non-participation will lead the excluded to become invisible. They will have little influence on the design of new services and will therefore not be able to become part of the potential future market. Reflecting back on the statistics once more, 80% of government transactions are with the 25% of the population that are worst off and least engaged with the internet. It will be difficult to transition to fully automated systems unless the demand and supply side is planned in an integrated manner.

The research at ITS looked at the acceptance and potential for three different types of technology. The first, more automated driving assistance, was used to establish some basic contentions about technology acceptance amongst users of computers versus non-users. Sometimes the obvious result is a relief! Whilst both groups were sceptical this was far more so with the non-computer users. The next two tests were more practical applications. The first of these looked at the role of in-car information systems which gave warnings about speed limits, accidents ahead, congestion and facilities such as pubs and rest areas. This appeared to add to the driving experience even for non-users of computers although less critical information such as rest area location was deemed to be distracting.

The final experiment looked at the role of technological aids for walking such as digital maps, information about buildings, shops and buses, and video contact with friends. Participants walked local areas whilst using tablet computers. The study has found that the social organisation and specialisation of roles within the home have a significant impact on learning to use these technologies; that usefulness is informed by the penetration of social media and technology within their social networks; and that there are indications of positive impacts on physical connectivity in both familiar and unfamiliar surroundings. Participants who are currently not using digital technologies expressed both their desire to learn how to become a user, as well as the obstacles preventing them to do so. Further work has been looking at the interface design issues and how it maps to people’s expectations.

So, some new technology appears to have the potential to add to the travel experience of those that are currently digitally marginalised. It is not the case that they don’t use these technologies because they don’t want to. Different design concerns do emerge for these users although it is not possible from this study to separate out fully the effects of age or income and experience. This is one of many strands of technology acceptance research on-going at the Institute and it looks set to be a growth area. Innovations will continue to be pushed out into the market place and research has an important role to play in anticipating those, shaping them and ensuring they are as compatible as possible with a sustainable and equitable transport system for the future.

The BRIDGE project is led at the Institute for Transport Studies by Yvonne Barnard.

This is part of a monthly blog on research projects at the Institute for Transport Studies by the Director, Dr Greg Marsden (