Smart kettles and social practices: can we design our way to sustainability or do we need to understand the meaning of what we do?

November 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

In a recent post on the Green Alliance blog Chris Sherwin argued that better design was the route to more sustainable behaviour. A more psycho-social approach suggests that understanding the meaning of what we do may be just as important.

Sherwin’s example was the kettle. It may be responsible for 4% of UK household emissions, so reducing that figure would be useful. Sherwin’s answers are better water-level indicators, bringing back the old-fashioned whistle and convincing people that water at 90ºc is still fine for making tea. (George Orwell, author of the classic essay ‘A nice cup of tea’ would not agree about that!)

Social practice

Like many ordinary household behaviours boiling the kettle and making the tea is what social scientists call a ‘social practice’. It is heavy with meaning. People feel that the way they do it matters. It expresses relationships and values. It symbolises and expresses people’s sense of identity. It’s done slightly differently in different families. It may be part of a negotiation around leisure and work time or symbolise willingness to share troubles. It connects people into wider systems of trade and power. In the home context tea-making is strongly linked to people’s sense of themselves as home-makers, generous, maternal or caring. In the workplace the tea break and how long it takes is a key element in employer-employee relations.

The meaning of small acts

A while ago, I asked a number of people to reflect a little more deeply on why they overfilled their kettles. These are some of the answers they gave:

“It means I get a longer break – it makes staring out of the window and day-dreaming legitimate. If I put in the right amount I’d be in and out of the kitchen in seconds.”  Joe used the kettle to ‘steal’ a few more minutes from his employer. He didn’t have the status or perhaps the courage to take the break he wanted. Putting in just the right amount of water would remove his daydreaming time or leave him hanging around in the kitchen feeling anxious that he would be challenged.

“What if there isn’t enough for everyone? I’d feel awful if someone had to wait while I started again. It feels like meanness, being ungenerous.” For Sheila, the behaviour was deeply connected to her sense of herself as a generous, loving person. She also kept the heating and lights on throughout the house in order to make it feel welcoming should anyone drop in. Putting in just the right amount of water would make her feel she was being selfish and lacking in her role as home-maker.

“It gives me time to lay out the tea-tray.” Doris was in her 80s. She followed a familiar ritual of putting milk in a jug, arranging cups and saucers, adding a slice of cake or two biscuits on a favourite plate, warming the pot and making a small pot of tea. This all went on a trolley ready to be wheeled through to the sitting room. The time it took to boil a full kettle of water was perfect for these preparations. A whistle part way through or even the click of a half-empty kettle turning itself off would have made her jump and interrupted the calm of this comfortable process. She saw the suggestion of boiling a small amount of water as an intrusion into her life by busybodies who didn’t understand what it meant to be old.

Would a smarter kettle have helped? Maybe. Design may make the shift to a new social practice easier but if it robs people of customary satisfactions, frustrates valued relationships and identity or blocks symbolic meanings it is likely to be resisted.



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