Skip to main content

Spotlight on Sustainability: Brian Southwell

Using behavioral science to improve energy efficiency in the Triangle

Brian Southwell, PhD

Brian Southwell, PhD, a senior research scientist at the Center for Communication Science at RTI, is currently an adjunct professor at Duke University.Jennifer Ross (JR): Can you describe the current project your class is working on through the Bass Connections program?Brian Southwell (BS): Currently, we are working through the Bass Connections in energy project to bring together students, faculty and non-profit leaders in the area to think about the tricky question of how to get low-income residents in Durham to improve their energy conservation behavior. It has been an opportunity to not only try and look at an audience that may have been over looked, but also to try and figure out how best to coordinate students, faculty and non-profits who aren't necessarily used to working with either of those two groups. It's been an interesting endeavor, we are just in the beginning stages, but it does seem to be where the future of sustainability efforts really need to lie - at this intersection of different groups rather than assuming you can get everything done in one organization.JR: How did you come to be involved with the Bass Connections program?BS: For a number of years it has been important to me to do the type of work where I can connect students to real world exercises, particularly in the non-profit sector. I've been in North Carolina now since 2011. I was a regular full time faculty member at the University of Minnesota prior to that, but since I've come here really the theme of my time has been connections. I've been knitting together connections between local universities and also RTI International, where I work. One of the things that over the years I've developed are some strategies for working with students and connecting them with non-profits to evaluate some of the communication campaign work that they do. I had a conversation about that work with Richard Newell, who leads the Energy Initiative here at Duke, and he and others at the initiative saw some real promise in applying some of those ideas to thinking about energy. This was appealing to me because I've historically done a lot of work in terms of thinking about public health and science - I've done some working in thinking about the environment, water conservation and areas like that - and I'm quite keen on delving further in the arena of energy because I think it's an area that we haven't really looked at applying behavioral sciences as much as we could. So the timing was right for all of that to come together and now I'm here appointed at Duke and really happy to be working on this project.JR: What are your biggest goals for the semester? Where do you see the project going?BS: I'm hopeful that we can help the non-profit that we're working with, Clean Energy Durham, to transform the work that they're doing. So I'd be happy if some of the recommendations that we ultimately come up with, are implemented going forward in some of their energy education workshops for local area residents. Underneath that, personally one of the more important goals is to connect students to opportunities. So I'd love to see the cohort of students we have now off a year from now working in areas related to sustainability in interesting ways. What I really view this as is the first step in building a network of folks that might be able to leverage each other's experiences moving forward. Beyond that, I'm continuing in a pleasant role in learning about a literature and an area that I haven't as much historically. I'm hoping to get up to speed in terms of thinking about the technology side and what really is recommended in terms of conservation behavior. It's an opportunity for all of those groups to get something out of it, which I think the best coalitions try to provide.JR: Do you foresee any major roadblocks to implementation?BS: First, we're talking about low income audiences that, frankly, have more important things on their plate than worry about utility bills. That's something that's going to be a challenge. We've talked about some ways to start to address that. Also, some of the challenges are really logistical. We're starting teamwork here with a group, but students are incredibly busy. We've got undergrads who are wrapping up their undergraduate careers, students who are trying to do graduate school programs here and faculty are running in lots of different directions. In addition, we have a non-profit group that isn't necessarily used to coming on campus and meeting with students regularly. Part of it is getting a sense of the rhythm of everyday life for people, what resources we have that are going to be available and how we can best marry that all together. Another issue is really scope and time. I've tried to be very respectful of the fact that we have the chance to work together for a few months, but in the real world, in most of my experience, things take much longer than that to percolate and get permissions and approvals for things to come together. Ideally we would have a little bit longer of a time frame. So that can be one of the challenges that often happens when you've got people who are in a certain place and time for a limited period of time - what can they do under those circumstances? That said, I do think some of what we're doing in terms of providing additional resources for the local nonprofit is particularly helpful especially in terms of the budgetary environment for them and I'm hopeful that students are going to walk away from this with at least an idea or two that might help them in job talks later on or that they might be able to invest in from an entrepreneurial side. It's really sort of an intersection. If I were hoping that we'd solve all of the world's problems in a couple of months I think we'd really be failing miserably in that regard.JR: Do you have any recommendations for students who are interested in getting involved in this kind of work?BS: I think that something that seems to be increasingly important - it might sound cliché – but a lot of this work is going to be interdisciplinary. Students may be passionate about this privately and not necessarily have done course work in this area. Or they might be living and breathing this from and engineering perspective for example, but that doesn't necessarily tell you everything that you need to know in terms of developing a persuasive message for somebody from a behavior science or communication science perspective. Similarly, folks might have ideas but not understand implementation logistics for projects, and that may be something that folks at Fuqua or other places might be able to help with. One of the things I'd argue people should do is to think about what its going to take to solve some of the problems that you are interested in and think about the range of disciplines that might contribute [to their interests]. Even if you didn't think you were interested in social psychology, more broadly, how is it that that might turn out to be useful to accomplish a behavior change goal amongst a population for example. Also, you can start to think about your undergraduate careers in different ways, where you're trying to pick up tool kits to help you solve phenomenal problems rather than thinking about a single major as delivering everything that you might need to enter a particular arena. I actually think that undergrads ought to be trying to study as broadly as possible but with an eye towards what specific intellectual tools they might need or disciplinary areas they might need to put together because that's often how it happens in the real world.This interview is part of the Spotlight on Sustainability series put on by Students for Sustainable Living. For more information about sustainability at Duke, please visit