The role of technology in driving engagement & behaviour change

October 03, 2014

Technology has the potential to shake up the way we engage people on sustainability issues, says Georgina Shiplee – but only if it is used in the right way.


Engaging people and changing behaviour is challenging. But it is often an essential part of addressing sustainability issues for a company – what’s the point of creating sustainable products or services if nobody wants to use them? In the sustainability world we hear a lot about the use of technology to tackle challenges such as creating alternative energy sources or improving efficiency. However, whilst this is an important area, it often overshadows the role of technology in engagement and transformation of behaviour.

Technology has the potential to shake up the way we approach behaviour change and help overcome limitations, bridge the intention and action gap and open up new ways to engage with our audiences. A few examples of how companies have used technology to create change and engage their audiences are explored below.

With increased pressure on companies to consider the impact of their full supply chain, many are finding it necessary to create change a long way from home. In 2012, Hershey announced a commitment to fair trade certification for their entire cocoa supply. The deadline of 2020 to achieve this ambitious goal is fast approaching and their biggest challenge is turning traditional farms into fair trade farms. To do this Hershey must have the buy-in from farmers. So they have turned to technology to help create the desired behaviour change. In partnership with the Ghana Cocoa Research Institute and the Ghana Cocoa Board, Hershey has initiated CocoaLink. This programme uses low cost, mobile technology to provide the farmers with social and agricultural information, supporting them to become fair trade. With 90% of people in Ghana owning a mobile phone it provides a simple interaction through the use of text or audible messages and has enrolled 18,000 farmers across 550 rural communities in the last two years.

Companies are also looking to use technology and multi-channel platforms to engage their consumers. Increasing pressure of fish stocks has meant companies such as John West have come under scrutiny for their fishing practices. In an effort to increase transparency John West launched the campaign ‘Discover the Story Behind Your Can’. Consumers can visit the John West website and, by filling in information found on their can of fish, find out exactly where and how the fish they are eating was caught.

Car companies are also using this approach to encourage sustainable driving and sales of their electric and hybrid vehicles. Companies such as Toyota, Ford and Nissan use dashboards to ‘gamify’ driving; incentivising people to drive more efficiently and safely. Cars are connected to mobile apps such as Nissan’s Carwings or Ford’s MyFord which allow drivers to compete with each other for badges such as Braking Expert or Gas Sniper.

Whilst technology has an obvious role to play in engaging and changing behaviour it has to be the right sort of technology, targeting the right the right sort of behaviour. Specifically, is the technology insight-led and human-centred? And is the behaviour change sustainable and empowering? If the answer to these questions is no, then it is unlikely to create the desired outcome.

One potential drawback in using technology is that the technology itself requires a behaviour change, making users do something new or in a new way. This can often be detrimental to the change you are trying to make and disengage your audience. It may even be that technology is not the answer. When approaching engagement and behaviour change you have to be problem-driven and not solution-led. An app may be the ‘on trend’ solution but if your audience doesn’t know how to work a smartphone it will never create the engagement or change you are looking for.  Hershey has got this balance right, using simple technology that is already being used by their audience to create change that is both sustainable and empowering for the farmers.

As technology and the issue of sustainability both become more prevalent in our world it is inevitable that they will collide. The use of technology is seen as being forward thinking and innovative, however when it comes to the complexities of human behaviour, the most exciting answer is not always the most effective answer.

Companies looking to engage their supply chain, employees and customers on the topic of sustainability have a real opportunity to use technology to create sustainable and empowering behaviour change but it has to be used in the right way – problem-driven – and for the right reasons – to create sustainable and empowering change.


Georgina Shiplee is a Consultant at Corporate Citizenship.