Behaviour Change to Fight Climate Change: Mapping the behavioural journey of material decarbonisation

From risk-aversion to navigating well-worn habits, the Project Manager for our North Campus, Lauren SeBlonka, shares findings from behavioural research to define the End-User Requirements for the Centre of Excellence for Decarbonising Roads Knowledge Bank.

The North Campus of the Centre of Excellence for Decarbonising Roads, North Lanarkshire Council and Amey, have been working closely alongside Thinks Insight, a leading behavioural science consultancy with experience working with governmental organisations to encourage positive behavioural change. With their support, the Centre has undertaken qualitative research to improve our understanding of the behavioural journey that local authorities take when selecting materials, what will be required to influence them to choose low-carbon materials, and the barriers they face in adopting low-carbon materials.

In December, the North Campus commenced its workstream with Thinks Insight to inform the development of our online knowledge bank. The Knowledge Bank is a digital platform for local authorities to identify and share innovative and sustainable materials, which will be launched at the end of 2024. As we know that this platform will sit in a complex environment of often conflicting priorities, we identified a distinct need to approach the online knowledge bank from a behavioural change perspective. We need to design the knowledge bank with a keen understanding of the challenging context local authorities must traverse when constructing and maintaining roads, and the entrenched habits that may need breaking.

The project with Thinks Insight therefore aimed to understand the needs of end users for this platform through qualitative research, and to specify the End User Requirements (EURs) based on research insights and behavioural science best practice. This is with an overall ambition for behavioural change to act as a central tenet of our approach to decarbonising roads.

The research took place from December 2023 to January 2024 and involved 10 potential Knowledge Bank End Users from across Scotland and England. This included engaging with engineers, designers, management and senior leaders in local authorities. The interviews were conducted online and lasted approximately 60 minutes each. A semi-structured discussion guide was used to guide the conversation, and findings were analysed via the ISM Framework, identifying individual, social and material influences on local authority behaviour.


The individual, social and material influences on LA behaviour

From an individual-level, highways and local roads staff in local authorities have strong habits and established knowledge that influence their decision making, developed and handed down from years of experience. They also reported a perception of a lack of agency due to guidelines being set at a national level in regards to achieving net-zero. This underlines the importance of the Centre’s ambitions to enable Local Authorities to feel empowered to select, trial and evaluate low-carbon materials, which can be strengthened by the curious attitudes and openness to decarbonisation described by participants.

At a social level, as most of those working in Local Authorities will be aware, there is a culture of risk aversion and a spectrum of innovation appetite. This can often result in local authorities avoiding newer approaches and materials, as the ‘safe’ option is doing what has always been done. With budget cuts and the need to justify spend to the taxpayer, local authorities often choose the ‘current state-of-play’ to avoid failure, loss or reputational damage. Although understandable in a sector with such an emphasis on durability and safety, we must begin to act differently and embrace change if we are to make a difference to the rising threats of climate change.

Some participants also described a tension of competition versus collaboration between local authorities and the need to justify decisions to multiple stakeholders, representing a significant challenge in our journey to establishing a cross-sector Centre of Excellence that overcomes siloed working. Whether from the private, public or academic sector, we need to work together on decarbonisation as we would with any other moral commitment, such as health and safety.

At a material level, guidelines often dictate Local Authority decisions, with budget unsurprisingly representing the biggest constraint, as budget cuts directly conflict with rising demands to decarbonise through often upfront investments. Time pressures and data needs also play a role, compounded by the need to justify decisions to others and ensure compliance.


What does this mean for the knowledge bank?

The Knowledge Bank aims to shift Local Authorities from a prevention to a promotion mindset, characterised by a drive towards innovation, progress and pursuing opportunities to decarbonise rather than focusing on avoiding loss or failure. Decarbonisation will mean change, which will sometimes mean materials that are not successful, but we need to begin to build and maintain roads differently if we are to mitigate the effects of climate change. The knowledge bank will be designed to help in this process, by instilling trust in materials, catering to specificity of the unique contexts each local authority operates in, creating consistency in material trials and carbon evaluation, and allowing for flexibility in how local authorities can engage with the platform.

Through our research with local authorities, Thinks Insight has specified end user requirements for the knowledge bank, including informational, feature, operational, and organisational requirements. The informational requirements include the information and content that needs to be included for each case study or material, such as longevity, geographic location, commercial availability, operational guidelines, whole-life cost and, of course, carbon savings. Local Authorities also cited a number of feature requirements, or tools that will underpin the information requirements, such as an interactive map and an ability to personalise and/or save materials and previous case studies.

Operationally, the knowledge bank must be simple, efficient to use and supported by a standardised process to ensure data consistency. At the same time, organisationally, the platform will need to be continually maintained and supported by a dedicated team drawing connections between local authorities. You can find a summary of the key features we will consider for the knowledge bank design below:


What’s next?

With the wealth of insights gained from our behavioural research with Thinks Insight and our Local Authority participants, we are ready to embark on the development journey of our knowledge bank. After a full IT options appraisal in March, the team will be testing prototypes, gathering feedback and iteratively developing the platform through continued sector engagement.

Most importantly, we will also be sharing the knowledge we have gained with our stakeholders and influencers, in the hopes of positively influencing the individual, social and material circumstances to enable local authorities to identify, trial, adopt and share best practice and innovation in material decarbonisation.

Read the full report here: Live Labs 2 Centre of Excellence for Decarbonising Roads EUR Report

ADEPT Live Labs 2: Decarbonising Local Roads in the UK is a three-year, UK-wide £30 million programme funded by the Department for Transport that aims to decarbonise the local highway network. The Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning & Transport (ADEPT) represents local authority county, unitary and metropolitan directors across England. Live Labs 2 includes seven projects, grouped by four interconnected themes, led by local authorities working alongside commercial and academic partners. Each project is testing new solutions to decarbonise construction and maintenance across the whole life cycle of the local highway network. The programme is overseen by an independent Commissioning Board, which includes the Department for Transport and other experts from across the public and private sectors. To find out more about Live Labs 2, please visit:

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