Social Design in Sustainability: A Conversation with Organizational Psychologist David DuBois

While RMI may focus more heavily on, say, the shape of pipes than behavior of building occupants, our recent work bridging the split incentives for saving energy between tenants and landlords keeps coming back to questions of corporate culture and individual choices as essential factors in achieving deeper energy savings.

Split incentive refers to tension between tenants and landlords around who pays for energy savings measures in leased spaces and who reaps the benefits.

"When we start talking about really aggressive energy goals, the technical solutions can only get you so far, then it really is the occupants of the building and how engaged and active they are in the energy they use that can make or break meeting those goals," says RMI consultant Stephanie Hodgin, who led a recent workshop on the topic in partnership with Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) International.

Workshop participant and behavioral psychologist David DuBois agrees with Hodgin. “We really need to look beyond technology and economics to the culture or psychology of the company,” he says. “It’s not really economic or technical constraints that keep organizations from achieving their sustainability potential; it’s really the people constraints."

Representatives from such places as Jones Lang LaSalle, Johnson Controls, the Institute for Market Transformation, the Natural Resources Defense Council and YR&G Sustainability Consultants who attended the workshop suggested green leases, which may stipulate that tenants pay for the energy they use, can help resolve split incentives. They recommend tenants and occupants create coordinated efficiency arrangements and sustainability working groups to share data on energy use, and create simple building checklists and clearly articulated sustainability objectives.

DuBois, director of R&D for True Market Solutions, is pleased that incentives are resolving some of the roadblocks to engaging people in energy efficiency. But, he adds, energy costs are small compared to rent, healthcare and salaries. Financial incentives help, he says, but the real issue is embedding sustainability in the culture and mission of that organization "so it is part of the DNA."

"Once the organization gets the idea that sustainability is a way to accomplish the organizational mission and sees the mission and sustainability as one rather than 500 other things they should be doing one by one… once they see how the process fits together, they go from resistance to innovation.” So what is organizational psychology and how can we use it to change corporate culture to embrace sustainability?

Organizational psychology, DuBois explains, focuses on strengths: talents and abilities, leadership and teams, and the organizational culture.

"Usually when we think of sustainability, we think environment and energy, but there are all these other things to really connect with the environment that are part of that ecosystem," DuBois says. "Is work life-giving or life-dispersing? Connecting with others at work should be healthful rather than exhausting."

DuBois believes to transform culture to that healthful place, organizations have to put as much thought into their social design plans as their technical design plans.

"There is a lot to be gained from marrying the architectural/energy designs with the social design. So, we must put a lot of design effort in the social landscape to have cultures that really grow and support sustainability."

True Market Solutions uses the "sustainability circle," where two representatives from eight companies meet one day a month for six months to create a detailed sustainability action plan for each company.

Of the RMI/BOMA split incentives workshop, DuBois comments, "There was lot of expertise in the room and a lot of great ideas. Sustainability is coming out of the small pockets of innovators and getting into the mainstream."

At RMI, we are obsessed with integrated design and whole systems thinking. When it comes down to it, maybe a crucial leg on the integrated design stool is really changing organizational behavior.

"All this requires collaboration between ownership and tenants, which has historically been superficial at best,” says RMI Analyst Roy Torbert. "A new model, one involving careful social and organizational design, can support deep energy efficiency programs—making them more likely to succeed and attain greater levels of savings."

Look for the BOMA/RMI guidebook with tenant and landlord recommendations in early 2012.