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Social contagion as a means to transitions

Activating residents towards the energy transition through

 social influence.


Individual project

Year, Duration, Course: 
2020, 20 weeks, Graduation thesis, 

TU Delft


Rebecca Price, Jotte de Koning, 

Jacco Kwakman

Primary and secondary research and analysis, Systems mapping, Literature review, Ideation, Concept development and detailing, 
Prototyping, Validation, Creative facilitation, Building the storyline, Presentation and report writing, Illustration.

Project category / tags: 
Transition design, Systemic design, Systems thinking, Design for behavior change, Persuasive strategies, Bottom-up institutionalization, Sustainable futures, Energy transition

The project is carried out under the ENRGISED (Engaging Residents in green energy investments through social networks, complexity and design) Consortium in association with Gemeente Rotterdam, wherein Reyeroord (a pilot neighborhood) is used as a case study.  


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 an energy transition in the built environment.


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 institutionalization and large-scale adoption of the greener energy alternatives. This project aims to stimulate this bottom-up institutionalization 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 behaviors. 

Design / research question

How can the municipality use social contagion / social influence processes to activate residents

(in Reyerood) to switch to green energy alternatives (district heating for Reyeroord)?


Sub research questions


What are the motivations & / or apprehensions of the
residents towards gas


What do the social  networks of the residents look like?


How can the social networks of residents be used to influence their decision-making, such that they actively adopt greener energy alternatives?

Project Outcome

Upon carrying out in-depth research and analysis of the residents' motivations and apprehensions, the context of Reyeroord & energy transition in general as well as complex contagion theory (see design process below), the chosen design direction included developing a toolkit / framework for the municipality. The toolkit helps the municipality in designing interventions that stimulate social contagion of favorable attitudes and opt-in towards gas discontinuation amongst residents', overcoming their apprehensions and other barriers. Additionally, it familiarizes municipal officials with behavioral & social constructs of decision-making and persuasive behavior change strategies, which can inspire them to incorporate bottom-up, socially-driven interventions and processes in their approach. The framework and toolkit are explained in brief below. For detailed explanation refer to the thesis (link provided below) or contact me. 

Design for social contagion framework

To ensure positive outcomes and a far reach, the social influence and social contagion process needs to be well-curated and designed for. The ‘Design for social contagion framework’ outlines actionable steps to design the contagion process. It includes 3 key elements that need to be thought off while shaping the contagion, and a 6-step process that helps to visualize (and design) how the contagion will unfold in a particular context. The framework builds on complex contagion theory (specifically the work of Centola (2018). For explanation of each component, click here.

Design for social contagion toolkit

Illustration by Wei lun chen

This ‘Design for social contagion’ toolkit provides inspiration to devise persuasive and tactical ways of inducing the target behavior. It consists of 3 items:
1) A deck of inspiration cards
2) A set of 5 design canvases (that guide the design process); and
3) A handbook (which outlines how to use the inspiration cards and canvases to design the interventions).

The toolkit is based on the 'Anatomy of an intervention' aimed at social contagion. This anatomy outlines the logic of designing an intervention which is captured in the form of design criteria, design principles and components that an intervention must fulfill, follow and constitute respectively. This anatomy is derived through the analysis of the outcomes of several ideation sessions. For detailed explanation of each of the elements of the anatomy, click here.

Illustration by Wei lun chen, Puck Veelenturf and Jesal Shah (me)

The anatomy of an intervention is captured in the deck of inspiration cards. Each of the design principle, design criteria and design component is explained in detail in the cards. Additionally, for each design component (Action, Spread Mechanism, Incentive, Touchpoints) a set of persuasive strategies are included in the cards. These are based on psychologically driven behavioral traits of individuals and the decision-making shortcuts that they follow. These strategies provide inspiration to design each of these components more effectively. 

The inspiration cards are to be used to design interventions during a creative workshop. In order to guide the creative session, the toolkit includes a set of design canvases, which take the team through the design process. These are specifically designed to be used by municipal officials who are not familiar with the design process. The handbook outlines how to use the cards and canvases during a creative session. 

Click on each canvas to enlarge the image. 

To receive the digital / physical copy of the toolkit, leave me a message. 

Examples of interventions 

Click on each thumbnail to enlarge and see in detail.

examples - social contagion

Design Process

The project approach was inspired by the Double-diamond design process. It involved divergent phases wherein the context or issue at hand are explored in depth, as well as convergent phases which include focused actions and narrowing down to the essentials. Additionally, the project spanned across generalization (discourse) and specific solutions (specific to Reyeroord). 

Discover + Define 

This phase involved exploring the context of energy transition in the Netherlands from a policy perspective as well as understanding the theoretical underpinnings of social contagion processes which form the underlying principle for this thesis. This generic research was complemented by Reyeroord specific research to understand the neighborhood, community and residents' motivations and apprehensions towards the energy transition. Data collection methods included desk research, literature review, and 13 interviews along with sensitizing booklets. This data was analyzed using thematic analysis, SWOT analysis. relationship mapping and system mapping techniques. 

A glimpse of the different aspects analyzed/ considered through the discover phase. Click on the images to enlarge. 

The define phase concluded with an overall design direction and specific design questions for the Reyeroord context (based on the residents' apprehensions and the context). These informed the Develop phase. 

Develop + Deliver

The specific design questions for the Reyeroord context were used to guide the ideation sessions carried out with peers and experts. The outcomes of these sessions (brainstorms, concrete examples and concepts) were then analyzed to understand the overall logic of designing an intervention for social contagion (the design principles, criteria, components and strategies mentioned above). These insights were generalized and translated into the toolkit (inspiration cards + canvases). The toolkit went through 5 rounds of iterations, wherein each version was validated (through creative sessions) with designers, experts and municipality officials. Physical copies of the toolkit are handed to the municipality and ENRGISED team. The toolkit is being used by the design agency hired by the municipality to take this project forward currently for designing interventions. 

To know more details or access the complete thesis report,
scan the QR code or click here.
QR code social contagion
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