Method in the Spotlight: Change Points

10th November 2020

Funded Project:
Methods for Change

Methods for Change highlights the value of social sciences methodologies to non-academic sectors. Our spotlight series aims to showcase a broad range of innovative social science research methods in practice and how they can bring benefits across a range of sectors.

In this Q&A Dr Alison Browne talks about the Change Points toolkit (designed with colleagues from Universities of Manchester, Sheffield, Bristol and Keele) that blends practice theories with design methods to help stakeholders reformulate problem framings, actions and interventions to influence resource use in more sustainable directions.

What types of research methods do you use in your project team?

The Change Points toolkit is a robust workshop process that enables participants to generate creative and innovative social science analysis of complex social and environmental challenges, without prior training in the social sciences. Rather than focussing on the individual (‘the customer’, ‘the user’, ‘the consumer’), education campaigns or technological innovations in isolation, this toolkit aids users to explore ambitious, innovative forms of intervention that engage in the complexities of the social and material fabrics of everyday life (see Hoolohan & Browne, 2020; Hoolohan et al., 2018; Watson et al., 2020). 

The process draws on ideas from social practices research, design thinking and related environmental humanities approaches that offer exciting new insights to the challenge of what is most often framed as ‘behaviour change’. There is now a large body of research that understands consumption and social change through reference to the dynamics of social practices. In the UK, government agencies and other stakeholders are aware of the potential of social practices to reframe sustainability challenges. Some of these stakeholders identified to our project team that while they recognise the theoretical and analytical importance of social practices research, they were often left wondering ‘ok, I get it, but what do we do next?’. The Change Points toolkit presents a series of workshop tools designed to translate and apply these insights into usable applications for policy makers and practitioners.

The Change Points approach, and resultant workshop methodology, was developed in collaboration with a range of government, NGO and business stakeholders in order to assist them in bringing social practice theory thinking to their analysis of sustainability challenges and to reimagine the potentials and possibilities of the framing of sustainability challenges and intervention. The workshop process is deliberately provocative, working through a transdisciplinary co-design process, to get participants to think outside of their underlying research and policy agendas. By invoking conversations that enable participants to ‘think like social scientists’, the workshop process generates diverse ideas about how to frame and implement policy research, policy design, intervention, infrastructural change or experimental approaches.

Which partner organisations have you worked with using these methods?

In the past few years we have run Change Points workshops on a variety of environmental topics with Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA); Food Standards Agency (FSA); Natural England; Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) and the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP); World Wildlife Fund (WWF-UK); Anglian Water; Possible and more.

For example, throughout 2019 and early 2020 we had a consultancy project called ‘Unflushables 2030’ with Anglian Water (extending research in the EPSRC funded Plastic Hygiene workpackage of the RE3 project at Manchester). In ‘Unflushables’ we explored ways of eradicating hygiene and other products disposed of via the toilet reaching sewers and waterways in the next decade. Unflushables are a substantial challenge in a world focussed on reducing plastic pollution, improving water quality, reducing water demand and ensuring resilient water supplies. Yet they’re taboo. ‘Unflushables’ cause problems in sewers and waterways as products poorly designed for the lives we live are disposed of in problematic ways in bathroom spaces.

Following a conceptual review, in January 2020 we ran an Unflushables 2030 Change Points workshop which brought together a large array of businesses and organisations with concerns in this field. The workshop process encouraged participants to think creatively and collaboratively about different ways to create processes for change that is essential if we are to reduce the environmental and economic impacts of unflushables (if interested here are the workshop outputs). Participants considered how to shift hygiene cultures away from disposable and single use products; and how to move beyond behaviour change (education, awareness, labelling as education) campaigns on flushing products to interventions that address social, cultural and infrastructural dynamics.

We had representatives from Absorbent Hygiene Product Manufacturers Association (AHPMA); Anglian Water; Anglian Centre for Water Studies; Business in the Community (BITC); Consumer Council for Water (CC Water); Cosmetic Toiletry & Perfumery Association;  DEFRA; EDANA; Environment Agency; Friends of the Earth; Jacobs; Kimberly Clark; National Federation Women’s Institutes; Natracare; Nicepak; Northumbrian Water; Optical Express; Rockline;  Sainsburys; Suez; Tesco; United Utilities; University of Manchester; University of Sheffield, Walgreens Boots Alliance; and Water UK.

In which other contexts would this approach be useful?

This approach is useful for any organisation that deals with complex social and environmental challenges, particularly those that engage with complex everyday practices and behaviours. The workshops work best when they include participants from diverse disciplinary backgrounds and sectors, including government departments, NGOs, activist groups, citizen organisations, schools and the general public. We recommend starting small as groups of 5 to 10 participants give participants the opportunities to think deeply and creatively.

How will being part of the Aspect network/Methods for Change project support your future work? 

Dr Alison Browne is one of the lead investigators on the ‘Methods for Change’ project led by Manchester (alongside Dr Sarah Hall). She is the Associate Director for Research in Business Engagement for the School of Environment Education and Development (SEED) at Manchester, and mobilised with Dr Sarah Hall to put together the application for Aspect Network funding. The Methods for Change project is a great opportunity to bring together a network of academics committed to mobilising social, environmental and economic change and justice through their partnerships with non-higher education collaborators. There is so much opportunity and appetite for using innovative social science methodologies to generate understandings of environmental and social challenges in non-HE sectors.

For the Change Points team being involved in the Methods for Change project is an opportunity to begin communicating with other networks outside of our areas of expertise in water, energy, food and waste about the possibilities and potentials for the Change Points approach. With Manchester, Sheffield and Bristol all partners in the Aspect Network it also seemed like a great opportunity to bring our ‘dream team’ back together! We love working together, and are interested to explore opportunities to take the ‘Change Points’ approach forward to create policy and praxis change.

The Change Points team includes: Dr Alison Browne (Manchester), Prof David Evans (Bristol), Dr Claire Hoolohan (Manchester), Dr Mike Foden (Keele), Dr Sam Outhwaite (Sheffield), Dr Liz Sharp (Sheffield), Dr Matt Watson (Sheffield).

Find out more about Methods for Change.

Further reading  

Change Points Website:

Toolkit: Hoolohan, C. et al. (2018) Change Points: A toolkit for designing interventions that unlock unsustainable practices. The University of Manchester, Manchester, UK.    

Example of Change Points Workshop proceedings: Browne, A., Danino, V., Dyson, R., Hoolohan, C., & Pillinger, C. (2020). ‘Unflushables 2030? Mapping Change Points for Intervention for Sewer Blockages’: Workshop Proceedings 27th & 28th January 2020, Manchester, UK

Academic Papers:

Foden, M., Browne, A.L., Evans, D.,M., Watson, M., Sharp, L. (2019). The water-energy-food nexus at home: New opportunities for policy interventions in household sustainability. The Geographical Journal, 185, 406-418.

Hoolohan, C., & Browne, A.L. (2020). Design thinking for practice-based intervention: Co-producing the change points toolkit to unlock (un)sustainable practices. Design Studies, 67, 102-132,

Watson, M., Browne, A.L., Evans, D., Foden, M., Hoolohan, C., & Sharp, L. (2020). Challenges and opportunities for re-framing resource use policy with practice theories: The Change Points approach. Global Environmental Change, 62, 102072

Please note that Aspect is not responsible for the content of external websites. The inclusion of a link to a third party website, from Aspect’s Resource pages, should not be understood as an endorsement.

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