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

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:

Success! Factors behind my new composting and health habits

Those that have witnessed one of my CBSM presentations (or read last week’s post) have heard my sustainable behavior change failure story (Failure stories are fun, right?  Read mine here.)

But this post isn’t about my failure…it’s about my recent SUCCESS!  

Four months ago, I started a new job.  This new job meant a longer commute (15-45 minutes longer each way), and longer hours (an extra hour 4 days a week to allow one day off every other week).  But it also meant I’d be surrounded by sustainably-minded colleagues again, and I was looking forward to the challenges and opportunities of the new position.  So, on one hand, I had greater limitations on my time and energy, but on the other hand, I could start with a clean slate and perhaps have the support of my new work environment.

What’s the result?  Two distinct changes that demonstrate the behaviors many of us strive for in our own lives, or to promote in others’.

  • IMG_2140

    The worm bin!

    I’ve been successfully maintaining a healthy and thriving vermiculture  compost for the last 4 months.  Barriers?  …See my failure story.

  • I’ve been exercising regularly and adopted other healthy habits for the last 4.5 months.  Barrier #1: I decided morning was the most fool-proof plan to integrate physical activity into my schedule.  But getting up at 6am is a whole 1.5 hours earlier than I typically was getting up…”Uff da”!  Barrier #2: I hated running…and really exercise in general.

If my story of failure demonstrated the challenge of behavior change, I hope my success story can begin to uncover the multiple and layered factors that make up a new behavior and habit.  (Hint: Note the theme of community and social support throughout these factors…)

Change #1: Composting with Worms!

  • Clean Slate (new job) Composting perhaps seemed like an appropriate way to celebrate the new job and commemorate a return to sustainability, plus summer was upon us in June – a good time to turn a new leaf
  • Cognitive Dissonance (aligning identities) I felt like I had abandoned my sustainable self back at CERTs where I felt the gentle and positive pressure to put forth a little bit more effort to be a bit more gentle on the earth.  Further, I was getting tired of telling my failure story over and over for the last several years.  In my new work place, the Dept of Environmental Protection, I felt it was time to invite my earth-friendly values to manifest.
  • Patio facing the woods (one plus to suburban life)

    Patio facing the woods (one plus to suburban life)

    Infrastructure (patio) We finally had a patio and we made plans to stay in this apartment for awhile.

  • Social Norm (descriptive) At my new job, I met a colleague whocomposts at home.  Iwas referred to her, she beingsomeone that “walks the talk” and Susanne gave me great composting advice and confirmed for me that this is something my new colleagues do and support.In July, my worms arrived and the rest is history.  I’m pretty sure I’ve doubled my worm population and am now looking for solutions to insulate them from the cold this winter!

IMG_1961    IMG_2137

Change #2: Exercising and other healthy stuff!
This one baffles me.  Why would I decide to add exercise to my routine when my commute time is doubling and I’m working longer days?  Plus, I had this aversion to sweating and running…

  • Social Diffusion (example of a colleague)  I thought of my friend and colleague who juggled a family, managed a rapidly growing nonprofit, and yet her morning run was (or seemed to be) one of the most consistent parts of her life.  I’ve looked to her as a mentor for many things, and her running routine wasn’t lost on me.
  • Clean Slate (new job and routine)  Despite the new time costs of the new job, at the beginning of the summer, I was excited, refreshed, and had the morning sun to my advantage.  I think I was also cognizant of the new responsibilities of the job and felt exercise would be an important part of me being able to handle it.  HBR talks about how exercise is an important part one’s mental and emotional (and of course, physical health)…and self-care is an important aspect of a leadership practice.
  • Post-run stretching spot

    Post-run stretching spot

    Self-Perception (changed by action) …since my work colleagues never knew the me-that-didn’t-exercise, all they know is me with my new habit.  This has done a number on my self-perception: my physical activity is a big part of who I consider myself to be now.

  • Convenience (trail out back, good weather) I’ve got a beautiful trail in my backyard for running (I can see it from my patio) – it skips over beautiful creeks, I witness fox and deer on a regular basis, and this summer wasn’t so painfully hot and humid as the previous ones. On that same token, my gym is near work, and when I go to the gym early, I beat traffic and save 15 minutes or so off my commute.
  • IMG_2221Prompts (reminders)  For my other health-oriented habits, like drinking more water, getting enough fruit, and heading to bed on time, I knew that these wouldn’t take much time at all, but I needed to do them throughout the day – not all at once.  I’m using an app called Balanced, which provides a nice reminder based on frequency (not time of day) to have that glass of water, get up and take a walk, be grateful, water my plants, and get 8+ hours of sleep most nights.

For both behaviors, ACCOUNTABILITY by COMMUNITY played a significant role.  My community – as an example, as a support, and as a positive reward – plays a central role.  At work, I have found a community that supports and congratulates a composting habit, among other sustainable practices.  My partner at home, trainer at the gym, and yoga instructors and fellow yogis provide a supportive community for my new healthy habits.  Community can be the tipping point: A friend, who has really picked up running, said that she had tried to “be a runner” for the last 10 years, and finally felt like she was one now that she was doing Team in Training and has a community to run with.

For all the research studies and linear processes of community-based social marketing, it is important to remember that behind the “social norms” and other tools, it is community that is truly still the most potent lever and key to persistent change.  Actions not supported by a community will not last.

Build a community that (at least looks like it) supports a certain behavior, and we can begin to unlock that composter, energy conservationist, garden grower, yogi or runner in each of us!

Social Capital and Social Diffusion: The importance of Trust

Tonight, I was given the very fun opportunity to make the remarks after the opening BECC Icebreaker.  By recommendation of my colleague, Chris Jones, I focused my talk on teams and social capital, which I see as the generator of social diffusion.  Just for fun, a few excerpts:


We hoped tonight’s icebreaker was a fun way to meet some new people and reconnect with old friends and colleagues, but we also hoped it would get you think about some elements of behavior change.

Last year’s keynote speaker, David Gershon, shared with us the power of the EcoTeam model. For those that might have missed it or are unfamiliar with Gershon’s work, the EcoTeams Low Carbon Diet Program assists households in engaging in environmental actions. A household joins an EcoTeam with 5-6 others and they meet regularly over the course of a four-month period. Each team member chooses actions that match their larger goals, resources, and interests. And over the four months, neighbors get to know each other, they coach one another on completing their actions, and hold one another accountable.

The EcoTeams model has demonstrated outstanding success.  One representative case reduced energy use by 14%, vehicle miles traveled by 8%, waste by 40%, and water use by over 30%. In other words, the EcoTeams are highly effective units for supporting sustainable behavior change.

You see, when we work in teams, our behavior changes, and we get certain benefits:

  • We’re apt to practice leadership and team-building skills
  • We innovate, by trading and exchanging ideas
  • We’re more confident because we’re not alone
  • We’re building trust.  In teams, we make connections, we cooperate, and collaborate.  We earn the trust of one another.

And when we are building trust, we’re building another resource….

Social Capital.  Social capital is the collective value of all ‘social networks’ and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other.  Social capital is the ability to confidently ask your neighbor for that cup of sugar, or the confidence that if you to pull over to check on a stalled car, you won’t get taken advantage of, and that when you’re stuck on the side of the road, someone will help you out. It’s the confidence, as one professor once told me, that when I give into this community, I can reasonably expect to receive something back for no other reason than that we’re socially connected.

When we are in teams and working together, we are building social capital, a trust in one another. Research shows that in communities and groups with high social capital, there is more trust, more collective activity, they are often more effective, and more apt to adopt each others’ ideas, recommendations, and behaviors. The adoption of ideas through trusted peers, we known as….Social Diffusion

Unlike social norms, and the “herd effect,” social diffusion is about trust, not numbers. Think of the last time you took a chance on a movie or picked up a new book to read. Likely, it came by recommendation of a friend or colleague that knows you and who you trust.

Social diffusion is why we trust the recommendations of friends and colleagues over Yelp reviews, why farmers adopt no-till practices only after they’ve been proven by their neighbors, and why it might take a trusted neighbor or friend (or an obnoxious but trustworthy local hardware store guy) to convince folks to change their light bulbs.

Underlying all of this is social capital, and that sense of trust or sense of community. The better we get to know one another, the more we might trust each other, and more quickly we can exchange ideas and learn from one another.

We hope that tonight was a helpful start to expanding your trusted network and building a sense of community here at BECC, because we all want innovation, idea exchange, cooperation and learning!

We hope that within your team you met someone new, maybe found someone you would like to talk with further, or that the icebreaker increased your confidence that you’re going to learn something new this year at BECC.

BECC offers several days of opportunities to build our community, foster new connections, and facilitate collaborative learning. We hope that this year’s BECC and our social media (via Twitter, LinkedIn Group, and Facebook) continue to offer a rich exchange of ideas here and throughout the year.



Where’s my social diffusion?

Social diffusion refers to how we follow signals from our trusted peers.  Think of the last new restaurant you tried, or movie you went to see.  Likely you went by recommendation of a friend who’s taste you trust.  This is social diffusion, how we influence each other one-on-one. Since moving to DC I have learned how often I rely on social diffusion, simply to navigate my life.

I’ve mentioned about social diffusion when it comes to its use in community-based social marketing. It’s an important illustration of how we as individuals act in a social context, influenced by our peers, and rely on more than our math and knowledge to make decisions.  Since moving out here, here’s a short list of things I find I rely on a peer network for:

  • Finding a doctor
  • Finding a dentist
  • Good restaurants to go to
  • Establishing a bike route
  • Finding a good coffee shop
  • Finding good beer
  • Deciding which hiking trails to try

Part of my bike commute, recommendation by a biker in my office

The first ingredient to social diffusion is having peers. Now initially when I moved out here, I had a few friends that I knew, but we rely on multiple peer groups to help us make decisions. For example, I need friends who do a lot of biking to help me learn about bike trails. I need someone who also lives around Arlington to help me identify a good restaurant for different occasions. Over the last few months, I have now found my go-to people for biking, local restaurants, coffee houses, weather forecasts, beer, and biking trails.

The next ingredient is trust. Trust plays an important part in social diffusion. A couple of colleagues of mine and I were talking about restaurants one day and one suggested a French restaurant in her neighborhood, and he recommended a German restaurant in another neighborhood. I’m sure that they wouldn’t lie to me about the food and dining experience, but it occurred to me that I don’t know them well enough to just take their word. (I also happen to not get that excited about German or French food, except for the French fries.)

Java Shack, by recommendation of a long-time Arlingtonian

I noted that the bikers that I trust are both commuters and even more serious than I, I trust the coffee house recommendations from a woman who has lived in Arlington for decades, and found a good beer from a friend with whom I have similar tastes (hops, please). It’s about trusting someone’s taste and also trusting that they know your taste well enough too.

That’s why it’s one thing if your friends are raving about a new book or movie, but another when they say – “Hey, you like science fiction and time-travel types of books/movies. I think you would really like ______.”

And that’s precisely how this can be used to advance energy-efficient and sustainable behaviors. So, if you know something about positive sustainable actions, let your friends and colleagues know that you’re happy to answer questions or recommend easy first steps. Be the go-to person when it comes to your favorite sustainable action (I like to help people pick out the right light bulbs)! And if you’re interested in taking action, but don’t know where to start, ask one of your peers what they might be doing and see if that could make sense for you.

Happy diffusing!