Perceptions of motivation – encouragement to sustainable behavior

Managing with scarce resources used to be the traditional way and a necessity to live in Finnish agrarian society. As a heritage, we have preserved a close connection and a care-based relationship with lakes, sea, archipelago and forests. There have been dark times, though, from 1950s, up to 1980s when our industries and agriculture had no economic motivation to care about the environment. This has changed and today we, and especially the young generation of Finnish engineers and designers, search for modern ways to promote global sustainability.

As a Finnish example of promising future solutions, take a look at what is going on at Aalto University in Espoo, Southern Finland where programs range from Creative Sustainability to Innovative Energy Solutions and where design, modern technology and innovations have found each other and will prosper in the Future Finland.

Surprising enough, while these fascinating programs cover a number of relevant and active fields and organizations, from academic research, collaborative and research institutes, urban development programs, arts and design, it is still not fashionable to consider and discuss how to motivate people and individuals to more sustainable behavior in everyday life.

Living shortly in Palo Alto California in 2010, close to the Tesla factory and an electric car lab, I was struck by the sudden public interest in electric cars. The first news from Tesla was not so much about the environment-friendly electric motor itself than about what the first prototypes and the commercial versions looked like and their acceleration performance.

The first prototype reminded us of a poor-man’s Ferrari, and it was fast, too! Despite its modest looks it was going to be high-priced at first, but suddenly people with money found a new love in contributing to the well-being of the environment while enjoying the driving. What a great transformation!

We have learned – and this tone dominates today’s public discourse and even the most advanced sustainability programs – that we need innovations, education, learning, funding, responsibility, the climate change imperative and even advanced propaganda and pressure. Observing the reactions to Tesla made me think about alternative ways of motivating people, on a wide scale, to sustainable behaviors.

It is surprising to see how many design-friendly countries, Finland included, still offer sustainable products that are simply ugly or non-inviting. Solar panels have not changed much in this respect and heat pumps in high-rise buildings can be terribly ugly, spoiling the house facades and can destroy the internal room aesthetics. We still don’t know what the future large-scale infrastructures serving electric cars or sustainable housing and living will look like. The design principles underlying this development have not reached public forums as of yet.  Why is this so?

Perhaps it is expected that people should be ready to sacrifice anything in order to protect nature and to save the planet, and that simply a good enough design is only needed. While it may be a well-founded rational imperative that we must learn new, healthy ways of living and producing, neglecting individual motivation is questionable if we want to promote a large-scale transformation in individual and social behavior – and to be fast in making it happen.

The automobile industry is an educational – some may see it as an unholy one – exception; its history has taught that people love style, curious designs and even extravagance when affordable.  It is surprising how often simple human motivation is forgotten – our love for beauty, comfort, style, novelty and originality. Instead many seem to believe that it is enough to convince people of the responsibility, necessity, learning, and the importance of better habits and so on.  Public voices do not believe in motivating people to sustainable acts. Perhaps those behind these public voices are not very good at doing this and ‘motivation’ to them can appear as a vague concept.

I got puzzled by this ‘black hole’ of individual motivation in the discourse when trying to inspire people to act in a sustainable way in their choices in everyday life.

I wrote a blog on these thoughts in 2010 and have now noticed how these ideas are still valid today. I listed a couple of statement examples I trust in supporting human motivation:

– Creative ways of offering knowledge on sustainability that can motivate wise action.

– We are energized by the joy of sharing the experiences of contributing with our close ones.

– We are empowered by the sight of a real change happening.

– Being in personal contact and control of the acts motivates us to be active.

– A sense of beauty makes us perceptive and sensitive.

– Fresh solutions give us faith in the possible.

– Incorporating positive acts into our daily routines makes them a natural part of everyday life

  • Professor of Psychology, University of Helsinki, Finland
  • Columnist for FinnishNews;
  • His blog:
  • His latest book  Perceptions of a Camino available from  Amazon & as Kindle) is a Readers’ Favorite -review, USA: 5 stars.

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