Crossing the chasm for low carbon innovations: a smart home case study

Emilie Vrain


When it comes to innovations which have the potential to reduce our carbon emissions, understanding how social influence and networks can be utilised to increase adoption is a crucial step towards a sustainable future. A wide-variety of consumer-facing low carbon innovations already exist, altering how we travel, what we eat, how we interact with our homes and where we get our energy. However, such innovations only exist in small market niches and their impact has been limited thus far. To help towards a sustainable energy transition and to meet international climate change targets, they need to be diffused rapidly and adopted extensively. Smart home technologies have vast potential to lower CO2 emissions directly through demand reduction (e.g. reducing standby consumption), as well as being a gateway technology for engaging consumers, challenging high energy consuming societal norms and enabling effective integrated energy system management i.e. energy being turned on and off, stored, scheduling tasks and shifting peak load. Additional features include automation e.g. in response to utility price signals, or adaptive learning e.g. in response to changes in the external environment or user routines. The theory and well-established body of literature on the diffusion of innovations (DOI) considers interpersonal communication among social networks as a vital mechanism for exchanging functional information on an innovation’s attributes and social information on group identity, status and social difference. Such communication can help reduce perceived uncertainties and risks and demonstrate an innovation’s value to end users. Using DOI theory and social network analysis, this paper investigates the role of early adopters and communication in the spread of smart home technology adoption. An online survey was administered to early adopter and non-adopter groups in the UK for three case study low carbon innovations - smart home lighting, heating and appliances. This survey examined whether or not interpersonal communication channels help narrow the gap between the niche and mass market adoption. Data was collected on over 700 participant’s ego networks and communication behaviour (whom they communicate with and what innovation attributes they discuss). Results provide a comprehensive account of interpersonal communication by early adopters and the relative importance of social network structure and adopter heterogeneity for the flow of information regarding smart home technologies. The results of this research not only provide insights into the characteristics of early adopters and their social networks, they also help identify marketing strategies and policy actions for using social influence to accelerate adoption of smart home technologies which help towards a low carbon transition.

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