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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.

Winter Weather Disruption

Britain and much of Europe has been under a blanket of freezing weather, bringing snow and ice across much of the country for an extended period. The severity of the weather has not reached those seen in late 2010 but it was still significant enough to see Heathrow airport drastically cut capacity earlier in the week and to witness renewed levels of public anger at the inability of the UK transport system to perform well in extreme weather. One estimate of the costs of the disruption on just one day was £280m.

Simon Calder, writing in the Independent, earlier this week suggested several easy remedies. These included more rights for train travelers affected by delays, penalizing transport companies that do not get their staff in place in anticipation of the bad weather, lower speed limits and construct extra capacity. These are all things that can be done at a system level.  Reports by Begg and Quarmby following the events of last year provide a few more. Many of these suggestions will have merit and be taken forward – but there is not the space here to discuss them further. Instead, should we ask a more fundamental question about our own travel patterns, the expectations we have and the expectations that are put on us?

The Disruption project ( is studying the extent to which travel patterns are actually more adaptable than we currently anticipate. We change job, home and the types of activities over time and we make much more frequent re-evaluations of where and at what time we do things. Our choices are often influenced by the actions of other household members. One example would be the knock on impacts of a school age child being ill or a school closing for training or bad weather if there are no full-time carer roles in the household.

We make assumptions about the availability and quality of transport services when we make our location decisions and it is here that the problem may lie. Over time, as transport networks have expanded, then the ability to commute longer distances have increased. Distance though brings vulnerability to adverse events such as accidents on the network or weather. Typically, the further out from cities we are the less choice of alternative ways of travelling we have.

This brings us back to thinking about the winter weather problem. The current default policy position is to attempt to keep transport networks operating as fully as possible for as long as possible. As Heathrow have found, where the network is built around operating at or near capacity, this can quickly break down. On the roads, even when roads can be kept clear, conditions can be treacherous and accidents are commonplace, leading to additional jams in conditions which are difficult to tackle. There are very significant costs in the machinery, manpower and chemicals required just to maintain the operation of the core network. There is however, little guidance as to how we should use this precious resource. People struggle in to work because they think they should. For some jobs this is unavoidable but for others it is possible to reschedule and restructure. Could we embrace this further and have both a plan for the use as well as operation of the network in extreme conditions? If, for example, a reduced size and frequency public transport network could be guaranteed to operate who should use it? Could there be differential pricing or some sort of “priority card”? Should it be made clear to people that if you live within walking distance of these priority routes that you will not be penalized for failing to reach work on time? Would it be more cost-effective to have winter weather travel planning? One of Norman Baker’s remits in the Department for Transport is to consider alternatives to travel – this seems like an opportunity to put this into practice.

This article might lead to a sustained period of the warmest winters on record. However, all of the policy prognoses are for climate change to bring more extremes of weather and, therefore, one might expect more weather related disruptions. For now, it is back to looking out of the window, checking the websites and hoping that the gritters have done their stuff. Maybe in future we will have learnt some different lessons and also be reacting to the potential disruption by working smarter. That might have financial gains and safety benefits as well as distressing the winter disruption experience.

If you are interested in further findings on the Disruption project please contact Dr Greg Marsden ( The research is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and involved partners at the University of Aberdeen, Brighton University, Lancaster University, University of West of England, University of Glasgow and the Open University.