Neil Horrocks, CitySmart

According to CitySmart chief executive Neil Horrocks gamification is the way to go if you want to change behaviour patterns and break bad habits.

Take energy consumption. In today’s world of fast-rising energy prices, saving electricity is a new habit that’s well worth the trouble to assimilate.

Horrocks reckons a digital game his agency developed in association with its corporate and university partners hit the nail on the head –  it broke all expectations.

“It was wildly successful,” Horrocks told The Fifth Estate during our recent visit to his Brisbane office.

The game, Reduce Your Juice, uses many of the triggers we have been taught to enjoy from early childhood, such as competition, scoreboard and interactions with others.

At least part of the game was getting players used to the idea that they can change some behaviour without any big negative impact on their quality of life – such as closing doors to rooms when entering or leaving, filling the washing machine before starting it and keeping temperatures to 24°C. If you don’t do some of these things you can’t progress to the next level of the game.

“By playing a game you can subconsciously learn the things you want to do,” Horrocks says.

The other big advantage of gamification is you create a community of like-minded people that gives “triangulations, so you start to believe [others] and it builds trust”.

Horrocks says another big winner of the game was that it segmented people into grouping of like characteristics.

This recognises that we all respond to different triggers; it’s not one size fits all.

The social researchers at Queensland University of Technology anticipated players would stick out playing the game for 10 minutes each, which would be considered successful, but they played for 30 minutes, Horrocks says.

“Seventy-eight per cent of people who started the game finished it.”

And the outcome? The game helped each player save an average $219 for the year on energy.

Not bad in this day and age.

Horrocks is now on a program to scale up the program and make it available to other government agencies and potentially corporates.

CitySmart has been designed as a delivery authority for the sustainability programs designed by Brisbane City Council, which pays for half the agency’s costs – the rest coming from the private sector – but it is also able to help other government agencies and even corporates if the demand is there.

It’s clear that Horrocks, after taking the reins in August 2015 following a background in the energy sector, is relishing the challenge.

He says there is interest in the gamification program from the ACT government and possibly Victoria.

And there could be more judging by some conversations at AIRAH’s Future of HVAC conference in Sydney this week, where the game was a topic of conversation in between the sessions.

But there is more on the agenda than energy savings, crucial as it is for the growing number of “vulnerable people” who are struggling to pay energy bills.

Update on district cooling

Horrocks is also keen to finally get Brisbane’s district cooling system to work.

It’s taken longer than anticipated.

The reason is pretty simple, Horrocks explains. When government agencies deliver infrastructure they also have pretty good control of the management of that infrastructure – access to roads and so on.

But when the infrastructure is privately owned and embedded in public spaces the company needs to be pretty sure its hundreds of millions of dollars of investment is well-protected. And that’s not a straightforward thing.

Still, Horrocks says the legal agreements are nearly complete and the operator, Engie, expects to sign up its first customers soon. When this happens, the evidence from other cities around the world is that others will follow suit, Horrocks says.

Cutting food waste

Another big program CitySmart is gearing up for is to help Brisbane City Council in its goal of reducing food waste, which is a big component of greenhouse gas emissions in landfill, and which for some reason, has shot up in recent times.

The early indications are that food waste in the city has risen from around 55kg a person a year to around 70kg, perhaps as a result of more people living in apartments, but that’s still undocumented and something for the researchers to investigate.

There could be yet more council programs in the wings; it depends where the agency chooses to dip into. Not all programs are suitable for the team’s skillset and there is no particular imperative on which programs the agency decides to pick up.

It’s also free to help corporates if the demand is there, and why not?

As Horrocks points out there are plenty of sustainability programs sitting on websites, pretty much gathering dust since they were enthusiastically embraced years ago – evidence that great ambition isn’t always matched by capacity.

If the strategies’ owners want some help to dust them off, they’ll know where to come.

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  1. Watching a 5yo kid yesterday at a computer keen to ‘race’ to answer a series of simple maths questions correctly and ‘beat’ their neighbours, I can see the benefit of gamification.

    I’ve read that people don’t care about numbers – until they hear that their neighbour has a better number, when keeping up with their neighbours suddenly becomes very important.

    Peer pressure – humans are social animals – interaction can feel good – seven times to replace an old bad habit with a new good habit – rewards can be a simple as recognition – ‘good job!’ – and a casino ‘bing!’ noise … ‘keep going !’ – ‘yay!’

  2. Temperatures aside (that wasn’t the main part of the article) this is showing how we have to move to new ways of providing information. I’d like to see this type of activity aimed at the construction industry. A game where you have to understand why homes and environments need to be accessible to all would be a great way to educate the industry that is dragging its heels on this one.

  3. The recommendation that Brisbane houses need to heated or cooled to a constant temperature of 24 degrees throughout the year is the dumbest aspect of this smart city proposal.

    A smart house designed according to passive design principles is capable of providing adequate winter warmth through solar gain and maintaining comfort for most of the summer, supported at times by electric fans. It is smarter to adapt our behaviour by spending more time in the natural environment, by changing our clothing to suit the weather and by occupying sunlit places in winter and shady and breezy placers in summer. The smartest strategy is to allow our physiology to adapt to broad natural seasonal variation as it has for the whole of human history.

    It is madness to close our doors on one of the world’s most salubrious natural environments and to requireus to expend energy 365 days a year to maintain a completely artificial temperature set point.

    1. Agree with your ideas, but I suspect SmartCity was more interested in getting us used to the fact we don’t have to have a temp of 18 degrees in summer to be comfortable and 27 in winter to be warm…. and speaking for myself I will never be comfortable in 45 degree heat inside or out or whatever else is coming our way with global warming so this fight for the climate is very personal indeed!

      1. when I lived in sub-tropical Brisbane I would feel totally enervated like I was dying of heat prostration on summer mornings/middays at 26C with high humidity and still air (before the afternoon thunderstorm and cooling breeze) – I added ceiling insulation which helped – my research suggested the next most cost-effective cooling might be a huge in-ceiling updraft fan to suck/create a breeze in through the open windows – never got around to that – I moved to Sydney.

        In Sydney’s more temperate climate we live in an ideal high-thermal mass double-brick and concrete mid-floor unit (neighbours above/below/both sides) with ideal north-facing living/kitchen activity areas and ideal south-facing cooler sleeping areas, and cross-ventilation for any breezes and fresh air. We rarely use heating or cooling except for the hottest or coldest days when we set our small reverse-cycle inverter air-con thermostat to 26C for cooling or 19C for heating.

        Our additional cost of this air-conditioning heating or cooling averages around $1 a day in our winter or summer electricity bills. My worst problem with the thermal mass keeping us comfortable is walking out to the street wearing the wrong clothes for the inclement weather because I felt fine inside and have to go back inside to change clothes. A nice problem to have.

    2. Dear Peter, it is a lovely point about the often delightful SEQ climate. Allowing our bodies to experience and enjoy the different seasons and acclimatize through the year.

      However I can do this because I live in a queenslander which is cross breeze friendly on a hillside overlooking the brisbane river that catches coastal breezes. The more difficult issue is the inner western house with a black tiled roof, west facing living areas at the bottom of a gully with no trees.

      Until we see water and energy performance targets on all new buildings too much of the population have few options to live sustainably. The argument for government intervention is that the current market operates inefficiently, building developers dont pay the costs of living in the house and therefore dont invest in water and energy efficient options. In this case government regulation clearly improves the efficiency of the market.

      Cheers to living in Brisbane.