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!

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!

Community-based social marketing: A simple summary

It occurred to me earlier today (thank you to one of my readers who pointed it out), that the post I have been referring back to, here, describes what I find most compelling about the community-based social marketing (CBSM) framework, but does not actually explain the framework itself.  

This post offers a very basic and succinct summary of the CBSM framework.

CBSM is a research proven approach to achieve sustainable outcomes in your community.   Continue reading

BECC Day 2: “Can I sit here?” Best networking ever + Keynote take-aways

Just wanted to share this interesting experience I’m having here at BECC.  There’s a lot of people here, over 650, and from all over the nation and world.  So, what are the chances that I unknowingly sit next to four people I know fairly well on my first night?  And two more today?

Apparently very high.  And don’t worry, I’m also meeting many new other people–program designers, social marketing consultants, computer programmers gone energy-geek, and even today’s keynote speaker David Gershon, Founder & CEO, Empowerment Institute and inventor(?) of the EcoTeams concept.

I had a special opportunity over lunch to end up sitting next to Mr. Gershon, where we shared more about each other’s work and he quizzed me (yes) on my take-aways from his keynote.   Continue reading