Despite culture’s tendency to be relatively stable over time, change does occur. People’s adherence to ensembles of thinking, doing and having can alter as they go through life stages, develop new allegiances, take on different beliefs, understandings and aspirations or have new experiences. Membership of culture groups can swell or diminish. Cultural change can be a consequence of changing external influences, such as with the COVID-19 pandemic’s normalising of different work practices, or it can be the result of deliberate actions by actors, such as when businesses purposefully adopt more sustainability-oriented cultures. From a sustainability transitions perspective, it is critical to understand the dynamics of cultural change: how cultural transformations are triggered or can be hastened to achieve sustainable outcomes, and how more sustainable cultures can be maintained despite pressures to change.

The cultures framework invites a structured approach to investigating cultural change and cultural transformation. By cultural change, I mean an alteration to at least one aspect of an actor’s cultural ensemble that leads to a change in a sustainability outcome. Cultural change can also be considered in terms of fluctuations in the number of actors that share a similar cultural ensemble. By cultural transformation, I refer to more deep-seated change involving adjustments in all aspects of cultural ensembles—motivators, activities and materiality—that have widespread uptake and may also transform structures or cultures at broader scales. Because of the system-like qualities of culture, cultural transformation can involve multiple interconnected but lagged changes to a cultural ensemble.

In this chapter, I start by discussing some examples of cultural change. I then move on to illustrating the dynamics of change, looking first at internal change dynamics, and then at change that is stimulated by external influences. I discuss how and why change processes are not always straightforward and can have unintended consequences. The membership of culture groups can change, and I discuss processes by which this occurs. Although cultural actors are individually constrained by their agency, collective cultural change can have repercussions beyond the usual agency limitations. I finish with a discussion of cultural transformation.

Slow and Rapid Cultural Change

Some of the most damaging cultural transformations, when viewed through a sustainability lens, have occurred incrementally over decades or generations as a result of influences that have their roots in colonisation, industrialisation and modernity. In New Zealand, this is visible in the farming sector with the relatively recent normalisation of intensive, high-input agriculture that has been largely responsible for significant declines in water quality (Campbell, 2020). Globally, it can be seen in the way that personalised fossil-fuelled transport, which is a significant causal factor in the climate crisis, became the dominant form of mobility with increasing expectations for larger and more powerful vehicles (Urry, 2004; Vögele et al., 2021).

On the other hand, there are examples of gradual cultural change that has had positive sustainability implications. Many Indigenous cultures, for example, developed cultural knowledge, beliefs and practices to ensure that the natural systems they depended on remained healthy and abundant (Berkes, 1999). In at least some situations, these cultural systems are likely to have arisen from environmental learning, such as discovering the devastating impacts of unsustainable resource use and adapting accordingly, embedding new practices and knowledge within evolving cultural arrangements (Artelle et al., 2018; Wehi et al., 2018). Within the Western world, there are also many examples of the evolution of new beliefs and understandings aligned with sustainability that have gradually become actualised in new practices and products. Environmental movements, for example, which started to build strength from the 1970s as intellectual responses to environmental damage and limits to growth, have shaped new ways of thinking about human relationships with the earth. This has led to pockets and networks of actors who have developed consciously sustainable cultural ensembles, for example among households (Svensson, 2012), farmers (Gosnell et al., 2019) and businesses (Nosratabadi et al., 2019). Although inspiring, these examples are nowhere near the scale of cultural transformations that will be required to rectify global and local sustainability crises, which makes it critically important to understand processes of, and barriers to, wider cultural change.

Several studies using the cultures framework have looked at how culture changes over generations. I have already mentioned the work in Italy comparing the more frugal energy cultures of elderly people from the war generation with the more profligate energy cultures of the baby boomer generation (Bardazzi & Pazienza, 2020). The same researchers also compared the transport-related energy cultures of baby boomers and younger generations in Italy. While people generally use private transport less as they age, this study found that the older cohort had significantly higher private transport use and thus higher transport fuel expenditure than younger generations. The authors interpreted this as an evolving energy culture in younger generations towards more sustainable mobility (Bardazzi & Pazienza, 2018).

Cultures can alter over a period of years, a good example being a study of changing energy cultures in Norway. This work compared households in the 1991–1995 period, when climate change was given little public attention, with 2006–2009 after climate change became a major public concern (Aune et al., 2016). The main change in energy culture was found to be in householders’ perceptions of energy, with some evidence also of less consumptive energy practices. In the 1990s, household energy culture emphasised comfort and convenience in everyday life, but by the 2000s households were more concerned about their energy consumption, linking this to climate change. These concerns led to some changes (albeit not radical) in energy consumption, although the dominant expectation was still for a convenient and comfortable lifestyle. The most notable change in energy culture was that households now expressed guilt about their energy consumption because of its links to climate change, and spoke about the difficulties of change. The authors concluded that this may be an early stage in the transformation of household energy cultures, and that despite their resistance to change they may be further reshaped by climate change concerns in the future, especially if supported by targeted policies (Aune et al., 2016).

Cultural change can be even more rapid. National restrictions and rules that were quickly established to combat the spread of COVID-19 had almost immediate repercussions for many aspects of everyday life. A study of impacts on organisational cultures recorded material changes such as closing off open-plan offices with Perspex screens, and the ubiquitous wearing of masks. Water-cooler chat and other social meeting rituals were replaced by Zoom calls. Working from home became normalised. Values and assumptions shifted from creativity and exploration to a focus on safety and resilience (Spicer, 2020). Some of these changes, such as the increased use of videoconferencing and working from home, are likely to continue even after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted and have generally positive implications for sustainability.

For the sustainability transition, cultural change needs to be rapid—we do not have the luxury of slow intergenerational shifts. In order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change and other consequences of living beyond local and planetary limits, we have two to three decades to radically change dominant systems of production and consumption and the cultures that drive these. If the response lags, then chaotic cultural change will likely be forced upon us by unravelling environmental, economic and social systems.

External Influences and Cultural Change

In this section, I discuss how cultural change may be stimulated by a change in external influences, drawing from examples that have used the cultures framework. Most studies have identified at least one external influence that has had a role in impelling change to an element of culture. These external influences may be purposeful (e.g. new policies to support uptake of energy-efficient lightbulbs) or circumstantial (e.g. experiences of climate change impacts leading to new beliefs and expectations about climate change).

Changes to Car-Dependent Cultures

Achieving lower-carbon, more sustainable mobility is a complex quest, as transport involves diverse modes and technologies and operates at multiple scales, with local transport cultures shaped by national and global systems, resource flows, infrastructures and powerful actors. As I have already discussed in Chapter 5, the dominant mobility culture of car dependence is both strongly self-reinforcing (with aligned motivators, activities and materiality) and also locked in with external influences. However, changes to external influences are starting to drive shifts in this dominant transport culture.

In Chapter 5, I discussed a study in New Zealand that compared car-dependent young people with those who had adopted a ‘multi-mobility’ culture (Hopkins & Stephenson, 2016). The study showed that the culture of the multi-mobility group was supported by number of social, political, physical and financial influences. These included changes to driver licensing, increasing availability of safe cycle lanes and public transport, fewer incentives for car ownership, health messaging about the benefits of active mobility, and concerns about congestion and poor air quality. More general influences included the broadly accepted ideological imperative for action on climate change and the widely shared expectation that young people would travel overseas as a rite of passage (thus prioritising savings over car purchase) (Fig. 6.1).

Fig. 6.1
A circular diagram presents the interdependence between material culture, practices, and norms. A dashed circle around the diagram enlists the aspects of these components. The external influences are physical, financial, social, and political elements.

Cultural ensembles of young people with multi-mobility cultures, and external influences that supported these ensembles (Reproduction of Fig. 3 from Hopkins and Stephenson [2016])

This changing context is not confined to New Zealand. In many nations, policy and investment changes have led to new forms of urban design (e.g. the 15-minute neighbourhood), infrastructure (e.g. cycleways) and public transport (e.g. high-speed rail), which make public and shared transport more attractive. Developments in information and communications technologies have enabled a flourishing of new transport types (e.g. mobility as a service) and eased the use of public and shared transport (e.g. real-time arrival times). Technological developments and policy initiatives (such as the increasing cost competitiveness of electric vehicles, targeted subsidies and signalled future bans on imports of fossil fuel cars) are making internal combustion vehicles less attractive. Together, these external influences are resetting the environment that has traditionally reinforced the dominant car culture (Stephenson et al., 2015).

Impacts of Smart Grids on Energy Culture in Canada

Purposeful interventions can change cultures, but not always in predictable ways. One example is a study of changes to energy culture during a three-year smart grid trial with households in Toronto, Canada (Lazowski, 2019; Lazowski et al., 2018). The project encouraged residents to reduce or shift the timing of their electricity consumption through the use of various interventions. These included a smart panel with circuit-level feedback on a web portal, individualised energy-use data, goal setting, reminder emails, a webinar, incentivised control programmes, behavioural suggestions and feedback. Through surveys at the start and finish of the trial, the researchers identified that changes in energy culture had occurred which they could relate to these interventions. Notable shifts included changes in awareness towards energy management (73% of participants), improved attitudes towards energy management (53%), active use of energy conservation and peak shifting practices (53%) and changes in material culture (100% of participants, including new smart devices and automation technologies, solar panels and smart appliances). Some participants had changes in all three elements of their cultural ensembles—motivators, activities and materiality—while others only changed one or two features.

Despite these changes, the overall impact on consumption patterns was relatively minor. The researchers concluded that the adoption of a smarter and more sustainable energy culture within these households was inhibited by a combination of contextual factors (e.g. technical issues, family members with differing energy cultures) and normative lifestyle expectations (e.g. giving priority to comfort and convenience). This indicates how other aspects of cultural ensembles, and other cultural members, can constrain more extensive cultural change and the sustainability benefits that might flow from this. One benefit of this form of analysis was the ability to identify where further adjustments to external influences (e.g. personally tailored information) could help achieve more substantial and lasting changes in culture and thereby in energy consumption.

Interventions for Household Energy Efficiency

The role of purposeful interventions in culture change was also analysed in a study of the effectiveness of two different programmes to encourage households to take actions to improve their energy efficiency (Scott et al., 2016). As already mentioned, much of New Zealand’s housing stock is of low thermal quality and this can adversely affect the health and wellbeing of occupants as well as costing more than necessary to heat. This study trialled different types of energy interventions with householders in three different suburbs in Dunedin, New Zealand. In two suburbs, houses were surveyed by an energy auditor and the occupants were given personalised advice about physical and practice changes to improve efficiency and warmth. In the third suburb, householders were invited to three community energy events that included general advice and practical workshops for greater energy efficiency, including recommendations on simple material changes such as efficient lightbulbs and practice changes such as drawing curtains at night.

The interventions had different effects on the energy culture of the households. Home energy audits were successful in encouraging both behavioural and material changes at an individual level. The energy events, although mainly delivered by professionals, included community members taking part in hands-on activities such as changing lightbulbs, sharing their own stories and tips, and collective discussions on how to save energy based on personal experiences. These built aspirations for change even if some people could not afford to do much due to constraints on personal agency. However, most households undertook at least some changes, and the community events were successful in developing community-wide discussions and awareness of energy efficiency. The study concluded that the most effective form of intervention may be to offer both programmes: starting with energy education events targeted to the characteristics of the community, and subsequently offering home energy audits. This would enable people to share their thoughts and concerns within the support of their social networks and engender trust in the process, before offering personalised audits, especially where there are cultural barriers to having strangers in one’s home.

Loss of Cultural Knowledge in New Zealand

These examples have shown how alterations to external influences, at small and broad scales, may result in changes to cultural ensembles that have improved sustainability outcomes. However, external influences can also erode sustainability-oriented cultural ensembles. As already noted, many Indigenous societies have established effective ways of living within the capacity of their local ecosystems, having developed extensive knowledge over generations about a particular environment and its ecological limits, as well as principles and practices of conduct that will safeguard its health (Berkes & Turner, 2006; Turner & Berkes, 2006). These ‘coupled human–environment systems’ (Adger et al., 2010) rely on the passing on and enactment of culture knowledge from generation to generation.

A study based on interviews with Māori Kaitiaki (customary environmental guardians) in different regions of New Zealand looked at how cultural knowledge and practices are being lost as a result of environmental degradation (Dick et al., 2012). Modern-day commercial and recreational fishing, along with water pollution from upstream activities had severely affected the abundance and biodiversity of food species in many coastal marine areas. Kaitiaki were distressed by the ecological degradation and equally by the cultural consequences of being unable to catch traditional species. The breakdown in the links between people and their traditional foods had direct implications for the exercise of food gathering, the passing on of cultural knowledge and practices, and ultimately for health, wellbeing and mana. Direct impacts on culture included the severance of the transmission of knowledge and practices specific to species and place; the loss of knowledge of traditional methods of ensuring sustainable harvesting; a reduction in collective events relating to food harvesting, preparation and eating; the erosion of ways in which kinship is maintained (e.g. sharing food with elders, passing on skills to young people); and the inability to access local foods that would usually be given to elderly and infirm community members as a priority. The combined degradation of ecology and culture, and the inability to pass on locally specific knowledge and management practices, undermined the ability of these Indigenous communities to fulfil their culturally defined responsibilities to each other and future generations.

These examples have shown how cultural change can be triggered by influences beyond the control of cultural actors. At a broad scale, these influences may include changes in generally held beliefs or ideologies, changes to environmental conditions, the introduction of new laws and policies, changes in infrastructure and technological developments. Many such influences can be interpreted as alterations in broad-scale structures or cultures. Cultural change can also result from intentional interventions. Examples of successful interventions included sharing new ideas and information, learning skills through hands-on experiences, goal setting, actors feeling that they were part of a community of change, and the provision of new technologies or other material items. As we saw with the Kaitiaki example, changes to external influences can have both direct and indirect implications for culture due to the interdependencies between cultural elements.

Internal Change Dynamics

In Chapter 5, I discussed the linkages between cultural elements within a cultural ensemble, and how these play an important role in cultural stability. If cultural elements change, these same dynamics mean that there can be consequential changes to other features of the cultural ensemble. Using two examples—one relating to businesses and another relating to households in the Pacific—I illustrate the repercussions of change to a single cultural element.

Changing Business Energy Cultures

The first study examined changes that had been made by 142 small businesses in Aotearoa New Zealand to improve their energy efficiency (Walton et al., 2020). Some had been influenced by external factors (e.g. government support schemes) but the important common factor is that these were purposeful changes initiated by the firms themselves. For some, the initial change they made was to material aspects of the firm’s energy culture (e.g. the purchase of new energy‐related technologies); for others, the initial change was operational (e.g. adopting more efficient routines); and for yet others, the initial change was to the firm’s goals and values, often as part of a strategic initiative to reposition the company. In other words, the firms’ journeys of cultural change had started with a purposeful alteration to either their motivators, their activities or their materiality.

In many cases, this initial change then had a domino effect on other elements of the firm’s energy culture. For example, firms that started with more energy-efficient operational procedures went on to develop other efficiency practices. These changes were often associated with alterations in company expectations such as key performance indicators relating to energy efficiency, and incentives and rewards for efficient staff. Many also undertook subsequent changes to other processes or technologies to continue their efficiency journey. The initial ‘trigger point’ and consequential changes are illustrated in Fig. 6.2. Costs were a relevant factor in all cases, but cultural characteristics also influenced their choices and change journeys.

Fig. 6.2
A cyclic diagram of costs depicts the interconnection between have-material culture, think-enterprise norms or expectations, and do-energy in operations. These revolve around the costs component. The trigger point is the examination of practices at all levels.

A change to energy culture triggered by a change in practices, with consequential effects on materiality and motivators (Reproduction of Fig. 3 from Walton et al. [2020])

For firms that had started with a change to their materiality, the replacement of old technologies with modern ones had sparked them to consider payback periods and cost reductions from energy efficiency. Some subsequently introduced energy monitoring and feedback systems. These changes led to altered norms, knowledge and aspirations about energy. Where a firm’s first step had been to revise their values and aspirations (often to build competitive advantage), this led to consequential changes to at least some of the firm’s practices and technologies, and in a few cases led to a more sustainable direction for the firm as a whole as it worked to align its operations with its strategic goals (Walton et al., 2020).

As this example shows, the interlinkages between cultural elements means that when there is a change to one element, it can lead to consequential change to other elements. The result can be a domino effect with multiple consequential adjustments to other cultural attributes. Walton et al. (2020) called these ‘trigger points’ for change.

Lighting in Vanuatu

Another illustration of the trigger and domino effect comes from a study in Vanuatu (Walton et al., 2014). Here, a group of researchers had been asked to evaluate the success of an aid initiative to make portable solar-powered lamps more affordable for communities that had no electricity services. Until then, households had largely been reliant on kerosene lamps, which were expensive, messy, dangerous and caused indoor particulate pollution. Usually households had only one kerosene lamp because of the expense, and it was generally managed by males.

A scheme funded through Australian Aid sought to reduce the price of imported solar lamps at the household level by providing a subsidy to two NGO suppliers to improve their bulk purchasing power. The effect was that good-quality portable solar lamps, which could be recharged for free in the sun every day, were suddenly cheaper and more widely available. The adoption rate was remarkably rapid as households purchased solar lamps, experienced them and spoke with others about the benefits. From a sustainability perspective, they were cheap, safe and easy to operate, and healthier as they eliminated indoor pollution. Within a couple of years, the islands had almost completely transformed from kerosene to solar lighting.

One of the more interesting findings of the evaluation was about the consequential cultural changes from the adoption of solar lamps. Unlike with kerosene lamps, households often acquired more than one solar lamp. These were safe and easy to use, and women and children could now have control of lighting as well as men. Because lighting was available in more than one space, they could undertake activities such as homework and weaving in the evenings. The lamps supported more socialising after dark and were also used for night fishing. Families had less need to work for cash as they no longer had to buy kerosene, so the local economy was more self-sufficient. Alongside these practice changes, people developed new norms and beliefs, such as lighting being for everyone, not just males; an overt aversion to kerosene; and sunlight being more trustworthy as it is made by God. The growing understanding of how to harness sunlight led to new aspirations for other solar appliances, such as small solar panels. These consequential changes to activities, motivators and materiality are illustrated in Fig. 6.3.

Fig. 6.3
A cyclic diagram of consequential changes to culture by solar lamps has a cycle between material changes, norm changes, and practice changes, and their corresponding facts and uses are around.

Illustration of consequential changes to cultural ensemble following adoption of solar lamps. Concepts sourced from Walton et al. (2014)

This example also illustrates how change to energy culture can have implications for other aspects of everyday life such as food gathering, social processes, livelihoods and education. This considerable cultural shift had important sustainability gains for health, livelihoods, equity, education and the environment—although it is not a completely positive story because there will of course be issues with plastic waste as the lamps have a limited life. What it illustrates well, though, is how there can be cascading changes to culture from what seems a small and subtle alteration to a single cultural component.

Another dynamic of change that this example illustrates is serial adoption—how experience with one material change can make another more likely. It is well established in literature on pro-environmental behaviour that prior low-carbon choices are one of the strongest predictors of future low-carbon choices, such that, for example, adopters of solar panels are more likely to consider adopting electric vehicles (Cohen et al., 2019). With the Swiss households discussed in Chapter 5, we saw how the adoption of solar PV was often part of a serial uptake of other more sustainable technologies (heat pumps, thermal solar panels, efficient appliances, etc.), although some non-adopters also possessed these (Bach et al., 2020).

Together, these examples highlight some of the dynamics of cultural change. In the right circumstances, an alteration to one cultural feature can trigger a reset of cultural characteristics, each responding to the other and ultimately resulting in new or differently expressed motivators, activities and materiality. Through the cultures framework, we can envision this process as a series of consequential shifts in actors’ cultural characteristics whereby each adjustment is triggered by other changes. The examples also illustrate how the membership of a cultural group can expand through ongoing socialisation and normalisation of those changes across a population.

Cultural change is thus sequential rather than occurring all at once, but this does not necessarily mean that it must be slow. The trick is to identify what is needed to first trigger change and then continue to impel cultural shifts in a more sustainable direction, to avoid reaching a stalling point. This will be greatly dependent on the specific characteristics of any given culture, actors’ agency limitations, and the nature and power of external influences.

Culture and the Complexities of Change

Interventions to improve sustainability outcomes rarely take culture into account, and the next three examples show why that can be a mistake. The first example shows why the intended outcomes of a rural electrification project did not eventuate. In the second example, the benefits of electrification were unequally shared across the community, with women least likely to benefit. The third example shows how cultural analysis prior to the introduction of new technologies can help identify what barriers might be faced, and help in the design of actor-relevant socio-technical systems. Together, the examples show how the interplay between cultural ensembles and external influences can reduce the effectiveness of an intervention and even lead to unintended consequences.

Electrification in Kenya

Studies of electricity use in households are usually concerned about high energy demand and are looking to explain it or seeks ways to reduce consumption. The opposite was the case in a Kenyan study, which sought to find out why rural Kenyan households were consuming so little electricity (Tesfamichael et al., 2020). The backstory is that a combined effort by the Kenyan government and industry had led to a large increase in households connected to the grid over the previous 10 years, from 20% to 70%. However, many households were using so little power that the industry was not getting a sufficient return on its investment, and the government was concerned that households were missing out on the welfare benefits of access to clean energy. The difference was most marked in rural settlements, where the average monthly household consumption was 5 kWh compared to 200 kWh in the city of Nairobi. This research examined what was motivating and constraining household electricity consumption in workers’ housing in a commercial tea estate. The cultures framework was used because it enabled the researchers to look beyond financial motivations and brought to the fore the multiple influences on energy use, both within the actors’ transactional sphere and the wider context.

The householders liked the fact that grid-based electricity enabled them to carry out some desired activities, but they were very cautious about electricity consumption. For the most part, they already had access to other energy sources (kerosene, charcoal, solar and battery-operated appliances) for lighting, cooking and entertainment. Electricity added to their energy options rather than reflecting a wholesale transition from one energy source to another. Where electricity was used, it was predominantly to carry out socially advantageous activities such as night-time study (through better lighting), communication (smartphones), entertainment (music, television) and strengthening social ties (e.g. inviting friends to charge their phones). The arrival of electricity did not radically change the dominant household energy culture, but rather enabled families to enact and reproduce their cultural ensembles in some new ways.

Electricity was useful only to the extent that it assisted with aspirations such as enabling better futures for their children, maintaining ties with their friends and kinship groups, and investing in their longer-term future outside the tea estate. Although cost was a consideration for families, it was not the only influence on their fuel choices. As a result, electricity consumption was very low and other energy-using activities were supported by other fuel types. Their cultural ensembles employed diverse fuels, appliances and practices to reproduce and sustain ways of life that aligned with their aspirations (Tesfamichael et al., 2020).

Culture Change and Gender in Zambia

When a new solar mini-grid was established in rural northern Zambia, it enabled families to partake in modern energy services such as lighting, powering appliances and charging mobile phones. This provided broad benefits for the community, but these were found to be unevenly distributed between men and women (Johnson et al., 2019). Prior to the mini-grid, most households cooked outside or under an open-sided shelter close to the house using firewood burned in traditional cookstoves or three-stone fires. Lighting was typically from burning paraffin, kerosene and candles, with torches used for specific activities. Community economic activity revolved around the use of metabolic energy for fishing, agriculture and harvesting firewood for cooking. The solar mini-grid ushered in the potential for households to use power for household activities and livelihoods. Among the interviewed households, the decision to connect was rarely made by women, apart from two who were widows.

By the time of the research, three years after the establishment of the mini-grid, nearly half the households had disconnected. Of those that were still connected, the most ubiquitous use of electricity was for lighting, and in some instances for televisions or radios. When it came to cooking processes, very little had changed as the smart grid did not supply enough electricity for electric cookers, so most households were still reliant on traditional cooking methods. The only fridge in the community was in a medical clinic. Subsistence practices (fishing, agriculture, harvesting firewood, cooking) remained almost unaltered, and there was little disruption to the prevailing norms around roles and responsibilities of men and women. Where difference was identified, it was between connected and disconnected community members, with wealthier business-owning families able to take more advantage of the power compared to poorer subsistence-dependent families.

The energy cultures analysis showed why a material change in energy circumstances does not necessarily empower all members of that community equally. In this case, it mostly advantaged wealthier families. Women in particular missed out on benefits as they already tended to be in a position of less economic and political influence, and their gendered roles in households did not gain from the electrification. The authors concluded that the introduction of new energy systems should be undertaken in parallel with targeted interventions in gender equity and women’s empowerment (Johnson et al., 2019).

Adoption of Batteries in the United Kingdom

Where households have PV, battery storage can play an important role in helping reduce the temporal mismatch between electricity generation (when the sun is shining) and highest household need (often in the mornings and evenings when the sun is low or below the horizon). Compared with the relative ubiquity of PV, batteries are not yet widely used at either a household or a community scale, and their future acceptance and use will at least partly hinge on how they fit with public perceptions. This study used the cultures framework to analyse the results of focus groups in Leeds (United Kingdom) with lay members of the public about their views on household and community-scale battery storage. Two of the groups had experience with PV and two did not (Ambrosio-Albalá et al., 2019).

The research sought to identify characteristics of the prevailing energy cultures within which battery technologies might be adopted and used in the future. The researchers were particularly interested in understanding any issues for acceptance and implementation of battery storage. The cultures framework helped the researchers to describe and make links between what participants thought, did and had in energy contexts, and their interests and concerns about future battery technologies, as well as related external influences (Fig. 6.4).

Fig. 6.4
A circle diagram of energy cultures and external influences has a cycle between material culture, norms, and practices, with battery uptake at the center. The external factors like information about technology, previous experiences, power relations within society, values and emotions, energy shortage, and agency of family members are around.

Energy cultures and external influences related to potential adoption of distributed energy storage technologies (Reproduction of Fig. 4 from Ambrosio-Albalá et al. [2019])

The findings showed that the likelihood of acceptance and adoption of batteries would be shaped by multiple cultural factors including current forms of energy consumption; family expectations; previous experiences; household perceptions of government and the municipal authority; and expectations about the technologies. Battery storage was described as part of an emerging energy culture comprising the material and social fabric of distributed energy systems. While attitudes to domestic-scale battery storage were generally positive, the idea of community-scale battery storage was less favoured, especially if it would involve sharing. On the basis of the study, the authors were able to identify commonly held perspectives (e.g. desires for autonomy, fairness and equity) that would need to be addressed in the design and promulgation of future battery storage schemes (Ambrosio-Albalá et al., 2019).

Cultural Learning

In Chapter 4, I introduced the idea of cultural vectors to draw attention to the many ways in which culture is learned. Cultural change involves the absorption of new ideas, understandings, norms, practices and other cultural features through vectors such as observations, conversations and hands-on experiences. Part of the dynamic of change is the role of others, especially those we respect and socialise with, in transferring awareness, experiences and aspirations. As we saw with the Vanuatu example, cultural change can become amplified through cultural vectors from a few families to multiple communities, from a singular occurrence to the adoption of similar new cultural features by many actors.

Research in New Zealand by the Energy Cultures research team looked at the role of people’s cultural peers—families and friends—in energy-efficient material changes that they had recently made in their homes (Barton et al., 2013). The research drew from focus groups with householders that had recently installed a heat pump—a highly energy-efficient form of home heating. The research found that this material change typically involved a three-stage process (aspire, choose, install) each of which was influenced by other people. The desire stage involved the emergence of an aspiration to change, and this could be shaped by various external influences (e.g. advertising, observations) but was particularly influenced by family and friends. People’s choice of which type or brand of item to install was similarly supported by advice from people who they trusted. Installation of the chosen item was supported by financial and practical assistance, advice and trustworthy tradespeople. Significantly, family and friends who had made similar changes played a crucial role in relation to all three stages. Independent advice was also important in both the choosing and implementing stages. The stages were enabled by cultural vectors which included normative guidance, new somatic knowledge, and observations and experience of heat pumps in others’ homes, all of which were facilitated by social interactions. These cultural vectors were effective in growing the membership of households with a more efficient energy culture.

This evidence of the importance of peers in cultural change was reinforced by a separate study by the Energy Cultures team, which surveyed householders in a median-income suburb on what had influenced them to make recent energy-related changes. Friends and family members were overwhelmingly reported as the strongest influences. Personal social networks were found to be 2.9 times more influential than all media together (TV adverts, newspapers, Consumer magazine, internet), 3.6 times more influential than all local community groups and 4.4 times more influential than all organisations listed (including the government energy efficiency agency, power companies, council, tradespeople and companies supplying energy-related goods). Approximately, 25% reported that their family and friends were the only influence on their energy-related change.

The power of social processes in encouraging cultural change is critically important for sustainability aspirations. We can see this more widely in many fields where change is driven by forms of collective activity and peer alignment. Examples include the expansion in the number of businesses committing to sustainable practices (a fringe activity only a decade ago), the recent growth in individuals committing to veganism or low-meat diets, and the rise in activism on climate-related issues. If we want to hasten cultural shifts towards sustainability, it will be important to pay attention to how people adopt new motivators, activities and materiality through the influence of their peers, and the role of cultural vectors.

Transformational Change

Possibly, the most transformative cultural dynamic is where cultural actors reshape the broader context within which they operate. In the examples so far, cultural actors have been presented as being largely constrained by their agency boundary, with cultural ensembles at least partly shaped by external influences but unable to reciprocally influence those external influences. However, in some instances, the massing of cultural change can enable actors’ own influences to extend beyond the agency barrier, to reshape the exogenous forces or structures that usually constrain them. This dynamic is particularly promising for achieving sustainability transitions.

My first example is from New Zealand. Unlike policies in many countries, the New Zealand government has never offered feed-in tariffs or other subsidies to encourage the uptake of solar generation (PV). Indeed, during the second decade of the twenty-first century, almost every influential organisation in the government and the energy sector were aligned against PV, creating a highly unsupportive environment for household adoption of solar generation. As well as the absence of subsidies, electricity retailers effectively penalised households for feeding surplus generation into the grid by only paying them a third of what those households would pay for purchasing power when they were not generating. Electricity sector businesses (generators, retailers and distribution companies) publicly expressed the view that PV had no part to play in New Zealand’s future electricity system.

Media messaging from government and sector organisations was also distinctly anti-solar. The government-established Smart Grid Forum argued against solar on the basis that the marginal cost of PV was greater than for wind generation, and that it would cause variability in power supply which would be problematic for the electricity grid. The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment argued that PV does not reduce greenhouse gas emissions because it would not help with the most emissions-intensive periods of electricity supply. The Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority argued that if people had money to invest, it would make more sense to put it into an electric vehicle than PV. The Electricity Authority argued that investing in PV was regressive as ultimately it meant that poorer people would pay more for their electricity. Distribution companies saw it as a problem in that it had the potential to affect power quality and would require them to alter their management systems. The overriding message from these powerful actors was that PV conferred no environmental benefits and (for most households) it would be a lot cheaper to buy power from the electricity grid. This undermined the usual reasons that people give for adopting solar generation—cost savings and environmental benefits.

But despite this unencouraging context, households kept steadily adopting PV, enabled by a several small firms in the solar supply business. Seeking to understand this surprising behaviour, our research found that many households were motivated not by money or environmental concern, but by a lack of trust in electricity companies and a desire to break their dependence on these companies (or to achieve at least partial independence) (Ford et al., 2017). Environmental motivations played a part, but given that New Zealand’s electricity was already over 80% renewable this was not a major factor. Households were aware of the costs of installing PV, but savings were not their overriding driver. Even where net present value calculations indicated that their power was more expensive than grid power for some households, they rarely expressed a concern about this.

Through the lens of the cultures framework, PV had a good fit with household aspirations, beliefs and expectations, resulting in adoption rates that would be seen as ‘irrational’ through a neoclassical economics lens. Over less than a decade, the inexorable increase in solar households eroded the dominant view in the electricity sector that this was a temporary blip of enthusiasts. It shifted to a grudging admittance that uptake was likely to continue, and then to acceptance that PV would play an important role in New Zealand’s future electricity systems. In recent years, there have been consequential changes in all parts of the sector: ongoing PV growth is now factored into national energy models and forecasts; large electricity retailers have developed packages specifically for PV owners; and distribution companies have largely accepted that PV will drive unprecedented change in the way lines infrastructure will be managed. The government is now establishing PV on social housing, and large solar farms are starting to become a reality. A flurry of new niche businesses and social enterprises have emerged that offer different models for households to own, lease, share or otherwise benefit from solar generation.

Through a cultural lens, the government and electricity sector’s beliefs and expectations were overturned by the widespread shift in energy culture among households. The sector’s preference for business-as-usual was derailed by the inexplicable (to them) uptake in new technologies and the implications that this would have for their current business models. As a result, dominant beliefs and norms in the energy sector had to change, with consequential shifts in sector knowledge, practices and materiality, as well as new entities and business models entering the sector. While any individual household would have had no chance of altering the change-averse culture of the dominant regime, it could not resist the collective effect of energy culture change across tens of thousands of households (Ford et al., 2017).

The analysis in Ford et al.'s paper used the cultures framework alongside the multi-level perspective (MLP) on socio-technical transitions (Geels, 2012). It complemented the MLP by providing a way to account for the role of cultural change in transitions, mapping the dynamics of transition from a small group of actors to mainstream, ultimately leading to disruption and transformational culture change among more powerful actors. The role of cultural change in regime shifts can be envisaged as moving from a niche status to destabilising the incumbent regime.

Another example of systemic change from the expansion of a seemingly insignificant cultural shift is the rapid normalisation of divestment from fossil fuels. Divestment was initially an apparently symbolic action that was started by a handful of NGOs and universities from the early 2010s and has now become a core feature of the rapidly growing responsible investment sector. Over 40 trillion dollars had been shifted from the fossil fuel industry at the time of writing, and much of this is now driven by major banks and fund managers. This can be seen as a cultural shift within the finance industry, as it first involved alterations in beliefs about the relevance of investment choice for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, new aspirations by organisations and businesses to change investments, adjustments to internal practices and policies (with concomitant persuasion of key decision-makers that this was important and necessary) and then putting in motion the shifting of large sums of money into (usually) low-carbon alternatives. As more organisations and businesses made the change, more were persuaded to join the divestment movement, thus creating a snowballing culture change with disruptive implications for the fossil fuel sector and positive implications for the renewables sector.

These are just two examples of how cultural shifts that start among traditionally less powerful actors can reshape wider regimes towards more sustainable outcomes. A further example is the effect of new consumer food choices, such as the increase in veganism and vegetarianism. This is leading to changes in food production, in products available in supermarkets and grocery stores, and in food offerings at cafés and restaurants (Boström et al., 2019).

What is notable about all of these examples is how the collectivisation of cultural change among less powerful actors can destabilise more powerful actors (or seen another way, can alter structures and systems that are usually considered beyond their influence). This kind of action would often be analysed through the lens of social movement theory (Gillan, 2020) but this would suggest that the destabilising effects are always intentional. In the New Zealand PV example, adopters of PV were (in the main) simply following their aspirations rather than actively seeking to destabilise the sector, and this may also be the case with many who adopt veganism or vegetarianism. This indicates that while transformative change of regimes can result from purposeful ‘movements’, it can equally result from the combined effect of cultural shifts by less powerful actors who are just seeking to fulfil their own motivations—a form of social tipping process (Winkelmann et al., 2022). If these motivations happen to align with more sustainable outcomes, then this may force more sustainable adjustments at a regime level. These kinds of changes give me the most hope for a sustainability transition: where isolated cultural shifts that are at odds with the dominant regime mass up and break through the agency barrier to reshape the culture of entire sectors.

For the most part, the examples I have used in this chapter have been about relatively minor cultural changes rather than deep transformations away from unsustainable paradigms, mostly because the latter are not yet well studied through a cultural lens. More research is needed to better understand processes of cultural change, particularly where they lead to fundamental shifts in unsustainable ideologies and paradigms. I am inspired by small nations that have deliberately adjusted away from growth models to other measures of success, such as ‘sufficiency thinking’ in Thailand (Avery, 2020) and ‘gross national happiness’ in Bhutan (Munro, 2016). I am also inspired by groups of people within dominant unsustainable cultures who are demonstrating completely different ways of thinking, doing and having, such as regenerative and community-enhancing forms of agriculture (Bisht & Rana, 2020; IPES-Food, 2018; Sumner et al., 2011) and community energy projects that deliver renewable and affordable energy (Fuller, 2017; Parag & Ainspan, 2019; Watts, 2018). To achieve the sustainability transition, more needs to be known about the conditions under which cultural actors, at any scale, are willing and able to make fundamental changes to their motivations, activities and materialities.


Cultural change is often a slow, incremental process, but faced with the sustainability crisis it is imperative that it occurs rapidly and infectiously. Research, some of it using the cultures framework, is starting to reveal processes of cultural change as they relate to sustainability issues. The examples I have described show how cultural change may be initiated, and the subsequent dynamics of change. Starting points include one or multiple external influences, and/or internal (actor-driven) adjustments of a feature of their cultural ensemble. Vectors such as observations, bodily experiences and social interactions can support the adoption of new cultural features. Once cultural change is initiated, there may be consequential changes to other cultural elements, which in the right circumstances can lead to cultural transformation. Where cultural change becomes widespread among a population, it may destabilise unsustainable regimes that would usually be beyond the power of cultural actors to influence.

However, cultural change is not always a straightforward process. As the examples show, there is potential for cultural resistance, unintended consequences and inequitable impacts. Attempts to purposefully change cultures for more sustainable outcomes may have more benefits than intended (as with the Vanuatu example), fewer benefits than intended (as with the Kenya example) or highly unequal benefits (as with the Zambia example). In designing interventions for change, it is therefore important to understand the relevant cultural characteristics of the subject population. The next chapter outlines how to use the cultures framework to support the development of culturally relevant policies and other interventions for change.