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Faced with increased pressure due to the earthquakes in Groningen and global warming, the Netherlands government has decided to discontinue the production of and completely transition away from natural gas by 2050. This requires the transformation of the 95% of houses that are currently heated using natural gas into ones that are heated using greener energy alternatives- such as solar power, wind, residual heat etc. To affect the requisite change, the government’s top-down, policy-driven efforts need to be complemented with bottom-up, socially-driven interventions that lead to the institutionalisation and large-scale adoption of the greener energy alternatives. This project aims to stimulate this bottom-up institutionalisation and activate residents towards the energy transition using the phenomena of social influence and social contagion. This focus on social influence and social contagion follows from the extensive literature that highlights the significant role of social norms, social proof, social context and social networks on an individual’s decision-making and attitude formation; as well as in changing behaviours.

Since gas discontinuation is costly and currently entails high uncertainty and risks, it requires reinforcement from multiple others to trigger behaviour change amongst residents – a complex contagion. Thus, this project draws on complex contagion theory to activate residents. 3 elements (the What, How and Strategy) and a 6-step process (relating to the How element) of visualising how the contagion can unfold are derived from examples in literature; to give the theory on contagions a practical form. These act as a guideline for the project.

Reyeroord (a pilot neighbourhood in Rotterdam) is used as a case study to understand the municipality’s efforts and residents’ motivations & apprehensions towards the energy transition; as well as to understand people’s social identities and networks – the building blocks of social influence. The insights derived are used to define the What and How of the contagion in Reyeroord. Analysis reveals the prevalence of different barriers under the key themes of trust, loss/ risk perceptions, understanding & awareness which lead to procrastination of decision-making. Thus, overcoming procrastination by mitigating the underlying barriers of these themes forms the key goal for Reyeroord. A specific design question is formulated based on these underlying factors to guide the ideation process – to see how social contagion and social influence can be used to overcome these barriers. While this design question is specific to the Reyeroord context and this project, the overall design direction is to design a toolkit that can help the municipality (officials) in designing interventions to overcome any other barriers or apprehensions through social contagion.


Upon brainstorming ideas towards the specific design question and analyzing these ideas, the (generalized) anatomy of an intervention aimed at using social contagion as a means to activate residents towards gas discontinuation, is identified. This consists of 2 design criteria, 4 design principles and 4 design components that an intervention should fulfill, follow and consist of, respectively. This anatomy of an intervention, and the different persuasive strategies derived from the brainstorm are translated into the ‘Design for social contagion’ toolkit.
The toolkit consists of a deck of inspiration cards (that capture the anatomy and persuasive strategies), a set of canvases (that guide the design process- from problem definition, brainstorming ideas, generating concept lines, evaluation & selection, and detailing) and a handbook (which outlines how to use to the toolkit); to be used through a creative session. Validation of the toolkit with municipality officials after 3 rounds of iterations, shows that the toolkit meets both its aims – to help the municipality in designing interventions, as well as to inspire a new thought process by familiarizing municipality officials with behavioural and social constructs of decision-making.

In order to motivate future use and research, the 3 elements of contagion and the 6-step process for contagion identified (and used as a guideline) through the project, are translated into a consolidated framework – the ‘Design for social contagion’ framework. Having actionable components and steps, the framework is aimed at bridging the gap between academia and practice. The ‘Design for social contagion’ toolkit complements this framework and both should be used together to devise persuasive and tactical ways of inducing social contagion of the target behaviour.

The project, its outcomes and the underlying principle of social contagion provide a new perspective and leverage point to untangle (loosen) the complex knot between the interconnected social, technical, financial and political lock-ins and steer systemic change- a new means to transitions.