PEOPLE Team Member: Sandra Bell, Durham University

  • Sandra Bell, Durham University, Durham Energy Institute, PEOPLE project, Erasmus+, Knowledge Alliances, people-centred design

Sandra Bell, Professor at the Department of Anthropology of Durham University and member of the Durham Energy Institute Advisory Board, is working on energy related issues and biodiversity conservation. She has previously published on religion and conducted research on the development of Buddhism in Britain for her PhD. Sandra is interested in interdisciplinary research and has devised a workshop and associated publication to facilitate research across disciplines.

For the PEOPLE Newsletter No. 3, we asked Sandra Bell to share her thoughts on the application of social sciences and the use of people-centred design and development approaches in the field of sustainable living and energy.

»Products and services that are designed in isolation have less chance of seeing a return on investment. If commercial operators, and even third sector organisations designing public services, bring consumers into the design process from the start they will avoid problems later and produce something people are more likely to adopt. To make the most of this process they need social scientists to plan and undertake work with potential consumers. Asking people directly what they want is not enough and time needs to be spent with them in the environments and contexts where they are intended to make use of a new product or service.

In that regard, I find current work on driverless vehicles at Nissan very inspiring because there are so many intrinsically complex issues to unpack whereby solving one problem can simply disinter another. This has been proved recently by the accident that occurred in Uber’s driverless vehicle trials. There is a lot to get to know about how people relate to traffic before road trials on open roads can proceed. Within PEOPLE we contribute to the application of social sciences in industry by training students to work in teams on real world problems. Our students have learnt a great deal about how to organise research in terms of allocating tasks and drawing on existing skills and experience. They have also learnt a lot about the amount of effort and time that is taken up in research projects through identifying third parties whose input is essential to conducting the research and managing relationships with them. For example, in our project with Kemuri students have had to deal with a second tier of service providers in the form of two housing associations and their staff and also finding groups of elderly people currently living independently to form focus groups to discuss what sort of telecare products they envisage might help them to continue to be independent.

PEOPLE is just a start – even though an important one – but it will be a long time before the aims it represents become routine. It is also true that the ideas being developed in PEOPLE could be applied to the development and marketing of any product or service, including ones that are not ecologically sustainable in the long run. The techniques we are refining and advocating are neutral, but of course one hopes that they will be deployed to sound environmental ends – no guarantee though!«

Read more articles in the 3rd issue of the PEOPLE Newsletter here (PDF), where PEOPLE students present their case studies and research experiences, you can find out more about the industry perspective of our PEOPLE project team member Gerriëtte Mollink, consultant at Alliander, in discussion with Giulia Sinatti, assistant professor at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and an interview with engineer Peter Op’t Veld, senior consultant at Huygen Installatie Adviseurs and coordinator of the Horizon 2020 MOBISTYLE Project. All issues of the PEOPLE Newsletter are available here.