Re-introducing Common Spark*: New topics, new purpose

Michelle's Wordle

Words from my Bush Fellowship Plan (2011)

Today, I re-introduce Common Spark* as a blog that explores community as the place, world, people that feed us, that give us energy, or that “spark”.  This blog will still cover energy and behavior change, but will also explore energy, what drives us, motivates us, and inspires us and our community.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my little blog here – for your hardy readers out there, still sticking with me…  I’ve been wondering how to keep something that began in 2011 relevant today after so many changes, turns, and new adventures!

In looking forward, it is always helpful to look backward too, so here I share some of my reflections of this blog and where we’re going next!

Why “Common Spark*“?  The “commons” are a symbol of community, shared identities, resources, and values.  “Spark” is a nice reference to energy.

Why I started Common Spark*:  In 2011, I was honored by being named a Bush Fellow of the Bush Foundation’s Leadership Fellowship program.  Through this fellowship, I endeavored to dig deeper into issues that are vital to MN communities and that are deeply important to me: energy and community, hence the name, Common Spark*.

Through this fellowship, I researched, provided trainings, and developed skills to promote and expand the use of community-based social marketing, as a way to leverage existing local resources to produces broad and lasting change in communities.

This blog was originally created to cover topics such as community-based social marketing, community, leadership, energy issues, and professional development.

In 2012, I moved out to the DC area and continued my journey into behavior change and energy issues, and in 2014, I even began consulting more formally on these topics.  It has been a truly rich and adventurous journey, and I thank the Bush Foundation and my supportive community (namely, MN CERTs) for the opportunity to grow in so many ways!

What is Common Spark* today?  My journey has taken some new turns since I began this blog.  While I still work in energy, and I’m even a stronger believer in community-led action for a more sustainable future, my work is now a blend of behavior change, policy development and implementation, management, and new energy issues, such as financing.  I’ve also developed (per recommendation of my Bush Fellowship) a strong wellness habit with running, yoga, and nutrition, and I see this directly impacting my leadership practice.  Lastly, I’ve enjoyed several work and leadership opportunities in the DC area since 2015 and have been challenged in new ways and learned so much about myself and my work.

A new mix of words, meaning, and ideas!

A new mix of words, meaning, and ideas!

I’m proposing that Common Spark* is now a venue for a broader range of topics that reflect a new scope of interests, activities, learning, and experience.  It is and will continue to be about community and how I want to continue to live and work in that context.  And it will still be about energy, in terms of energy issues (policy, infrastructure, behavior change), but also the things that energize…that which motivates, moves, inspires, and sustains.  Thanks for sticking with me as I “let loose” and unfold this new chapter!

– Michelle Vigen, July 2015

Stories: The fibers that show our sustainability future is happening now

Storytelling is an important part of my work as a sustainability professional.  Stories inspire, move, connect, and engage.  And I think the reason why is that for all the talk about what we should or need to do for the future, stories illustrate that we’re already able to and are doing the right things for our future.

Telling the energy stories of Montgomery County

UntitledLast November, as part of an effort to illustrate all the good energy work I saw happening in Montgomery County, we started a storytelling effort.  Inspired by CERT’s Energy Stories, I made a goal of publishing a new energy case study each month.

To add a little pressure, I set up the Montgomery County Energy News, a monthly e-newsletter that provides important updates about the County’s energy policies and programs, and also includes the monthly energy case study.

With the help of a writer, we’ve covered a restaurant, a homeowner’s lighting and another’s solar project, a mall’s lighting project, and even work of our County.


Laytonsville home updates their lighting

fedrIn addition to the case studies, we’ve launched a series called “BENCHMARKED” which features an interview of a building owner/manager who’s benchmarked their building in ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager – which certain buildings are mandated to do starting next year.

Here we feature some companies that are leading in energy performance, our public schools and college, and (soon) our Early Bird Benchmarkers!

Storytelling is a way for us to recognize residents and businesses doing the right thing and demonstrating what our Department of Environmental Protection is trying to promote.

Storytelling also benefits these members of the Montgomery County community – especially businesses that are interested in garnering recognition for their hard work.  It’s one way in which we can and like to partner with our community organizations, friends, and businesses!

“The shortest distance between two people is a story.”
– Unknown

Using Storytelling to make an issue Our-Size

In the sustainability field, so many of us are still relying on the rational argument to make our case: how many pounds of carbon we can reduce from changing our lights, how many leaves to rake to reduce phosphorus, how many miles we should bike instead of drive to improve air quality.  But climate change, no matter what the numbers, is possibly too big for our brains to actually capture and comprehend (Gilbert).

So how do we take the big problem and make it real at our level?  I would argue that storytelling does that.  Storytelling can simultaneously convey a message, connect others to another, and also establish norms that can compel action.


Poolesville home goes solar with electric vehicles

Sole & Wilson (2002) identify the role of storytelling as follows:

  • Share norms and values: Stories act as a medium for passing on values and creating vision.
  • Develop trust and commitment: Personal stories can communicate one’s own ability and commitment, as well as conveying openness by sharing something personal. Organizational stories influence the perceived trustworthiness of the firm and its management (either positively or negatively).
  • Share tacit knowledge: Enables the users to articulate tacit knowledge and communicate with feeling, which helps them convey more than they realize that they know (Weaver 2005 in Bali et al 2009).
  • Facilitate unlearning: Unlearning often requires more than rational arguments. It needs an intuitive and emotional anchor, which stories can provide.
  • Generate emotional connection: We connect with stories emotionally and a story that has had an impact on us will be easily recalled long into the future.


We’ll continue to collect our stories, slowly but surely building our library of stories to showcase all the different ways in which Montgomery County is living up to its name as a progressive, green, and sustainable County!

Energy efficiency and behavior change struggle on…

For several years, I’ve been writing about, working in, or incorporating behavior change methods to encourage energy conserving behavior.

And I guess this post is to say: Don’t let up.  We haven’t gotten there yet…perhaps not by a long shot.

In our bag of goodies, we have new arsenal: thermostats that beg us to interact (such as Google’s Nest), smart meter interval data available at our finger tips (see Pepco’s My Account), home displays that happen on our phone (see the latest example in the news), and games among games to play with our family and community to encourage reducing energy.

A survey from KSVC, a marketing firm that appreciates the challenge of this task, has revealed that we’re not too far from where we were back in 2012.  Essentially they found:

“…higher utility bill is easier to cope with than the price of a solution.”

In other words, we haven’t made it harder to cope with a higher utility bill than implementing a solution (whether technological or behavioral).  “Energy efficiency” in the home is still a technology, not a state or category of behavior.

Still need time to turn this ship around... (by james_wheeler via flickr)

Still need time to turn this ship around… (by james_wheeler via flickr)

What energy efficiency means to us is:

  • 53% – Energy Efficiency means efficient products and/or technology.
  • 20% – Energy Efficiency means an expensive investment.
  • 16% – Energy Efficiency means conservation.
  • 10% – Energy Efficiency means not measurable savings.

Maybe it’s still about the words we use (as I noted from Dougherty’s work several years ago).  KSVC tried using the term “energy saving solution” and apparently we found that to mean something different:

  • 35% – Energy Savings Solutions means easy-to-implement, DIY tips.
  • 32% – Energy Savings Solutions means financial savings.
  • 23% – Energy Savings Solutions means conservation.
  • 8% – Energy Savings Solutions means immediate savings.

What does this mean for those trying to nudge greater energy savings out of our community?  We need to continue to find the most salient ways to approach the concept of conservation, find ways to ingrain behavior into habits, and continue to build the social norm by making the invisible visible and sharing stories about one another.  In other words, it’s back to the basics of community based social marketing.

Keep on, keeping on….

Read more about KSVC’s survey and their work at:

Saving Energy is Good for the Soul

Reposted from where you can learn about green living in Montgomery County and read stories of local resident doing more to use less and protect our community’s environment!

Hello! It’s your friendly County energy adviser, Michelle, here to help ring in the New Year with a blog post.

Let me start by saying: I promise I’m not going to challenge you to turn off lights or get an energy audit. I’m not even going to offer you tips on making your resolutions SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused, and time-bound). You can read about energy goals, SMART goals, and other behavior-changing tips elsewhere.

Instead, I offer this resolution: Do more healthful and meaningful activities this year.

Making 2015 meaningful and healthful

To prove I’m serious, here are some examples of what I mean:

  • Get a good night’s sleep as many nights a week as you can. Re-discover what 8 hours of sleep can do for you, even if it’s just on the weekend.

Sleeping kitten. Photo courtesy of Moyan Breen, via Flickr

  • Invite friends and family over for dinner, hang out, and socialize. Cook and watch a movie, play games, visit and catch-up over a cup of cocoa.
  • Go for a walk in your neighborhood and stop to smell the, err…native and stormwater-friendly species in yours and your neighbors’ yards. Maybe, even say “hello”!
  • Plant something, like a pot of flowers or a tree.

Child playing in a garden. Photo courtesy of Jessica Lucia, via Flickr

  • Volunteer at your favorite local charity, or better yet, help out a neighbor with a project that could use an extra pair of hands. Have you gotten to know your local Greens (Bethesda, Poolesville, Silver Spring, Wheaton)?

What do these things all have in common?

Well, first of all, they are good and healthy fun. These activities make us smile, and feel better about yourself, your family, your friends, and your community. These activities make us happy, grateful, and appreciative of what’s around us.

Secondly, they also have a low energy impact. A recent study featured in the Washington Post by Joseph Kantenbacher, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California-Berkeley, showed us “The surprising link between things that make us happy and things that save energy”.  Kantenbacher found:

“A number of the least energy intensive activities that I found — sleeping, socializing, hobbies, and so forth — are enriching personally.  So they make people happy to do them, but they also are relatively low consuming activities.”

Make this year one of good, healthy fun, and maybe you’ll find that your energy bill drops a bit – or maybe a bit more if you turn off the lights or get that audit – but regardless of how much energy you save this year, you’ll be a happier, healthier person.

A family cooking together. Photo courtesy of Nestle, via Flickr.

Original post by the friendly folks at Montgomery County DEP:


DO think of an elephant: How to move ALL of us toward climate and energy solutions (Day 1 reflections at BECC)

May I offer a suggestion?

Yesterday, I attended a series of incredibly thoughtful and valuable presentations here at BECC.  To start, Andrew Hoffman from the University of Michigan, and a public intellectual (by way of the NYTimes article in 2010 on cultural barriers to action on climate change) spoke about how to understand and address the climate change issue in the United States as a cultural issue.  His sociological perspective offered concrete and research proven insights into how the general public reacts to climate change science.

Hoffman talked about the worldviews that each of us hold and how the issue of climate change either jives with or threatens that world view.  Climate change and the proposed necessary solutions are framed as needing greater government oversight, distrusting the market, and overestimating risk.  What Hoffman proposed is that these solutions are difficult for conservatives to accept, and therefore accepting the problem and this assumed solution creates impossible contradictions culturally, emotionally, and intellectually.  His solution is that we move beyond the data and model and use broker frames or alternative viewpoints and overlapping interests to engage people.  It means using appropriate language, not politicized language; and it means using the right messengers.

Our lesson in how to talk about climate issues continued with a Spotlight panel on Conservative Thinking on Energy and Climate Change.  Moderated by Stanford University professor Jim Sweeney, the Spotlight included presentations by Drexel Kleber on conservative values that allow conservatives to really own the energy issue; Connie Roser-Renouf from George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication on survey and polling data on attitudes and perceptions of conservatives; and Alex Bozmoski from the Energy and Enterprise Initiative on ways to engage today’s evolving Republican party.

Ah-hem. I have something to say, here.

The larger lessons I drew from these presentations on engaging the “elephant in the room” (pun very much intended), is that instead of indirect engagement, we must engage directly with those that have not been included in the solution-making for our climate change.  Imagine: If someone proposed a solution to a problem that flew in the face of everything you held dear and worked for, and everyone else started applauding.  If one had time and resources, one could come up with a counter solution.  But left with only a reaction without the opportunity to dialogue, we, in the public, are more apt to interpret the response as a sweeping denial of the problem or its importance.  As more of the general public comes to question the forces behind our droughts, disasters, and fluctuating temperatures, we need to let them play a role in framing the discussion.

One of the common themes throughout yesterday’s talks was about community.  Community is the common value among both sides of the aisle and beyond.  Yesterday’s proposals stressed the importance of community-based, community-led solutions that focused not on stopping global climate change, but focused on resilient and strong communities.

We can dance if we want to.

Now, I always knew that the CERTs (MN Clean Energy Resource Teams) model was special and unique, but yesterday brought it home even further.  The community-based and -focused approach by CERTs is precisely what engages our communities as a whole to act in accordance with our collective values.  I spoke with Drexel afterwards and described some of this work, and I told him…but it takes a long time.  It’s taken years and years.  His response was that it does seem like a long time, but he also said that it’s very short in the grand scheme of things.

What I enjoy about BECC is that it’s a convening where the technical, the community-based, the sociological, and the psychological approaches all get to sit together.  It’s about getting in the same room, Drexel (or Alex) said, and that we needed more opportunities like this one.  For many BECCers, the Conservative Thinking panel was eye-opening and really mind-altering.  I began to see the deep commonalities that lie hidden beneath today’s perception of a deep divide.

And maybe that’s the bigger work and movement of BECC.  It’s, in some ways, an unconventional convening.  (People are usually impressed with how fun it is…)  It’s really about bringing new folks and fields to the table, new perspectives and ideas.  It’s about building a better future by having more people at the table.

[Note: This is my personal blog and reflects only my personal views.]