In January 2021, our team was tasked by the ACT Government to pilot a social and behaviour change program. The pilot program was commissioned to understand the capacity for a behaviour change approach like social marketing, to assist in enhancing water quality.

Social marketing is a voluntary approach to behaviour change that draws on commercial marketing strategy and techniques. Social marketing is a social science recently being recognised in Australia as a specific field of research. Previous social marketing initiatives have shown that when used to its full potential positive behavioural change outcomes that benefit individuals, their communities or the environment can be achieved.

Leaves are one source of matter that are going down drains and into ACT waterways contributing to blue-green algal blooms. The algal blooms are a significant water quality issue that have led to lake closures for lengthy periods in Canberra. These closures limit recreational activities at the lakes particularly for primary contact activities. We can stop this through co-ordinated and collaborative action

Significant leaf fall happens during the Autumn months. Our team, which included Vanessa Salamone, Renata Anibaldi and Aarti Sewak, got straight to work with me planning the roll-out of a campaign for Autumn 2021. With the on-ground support from our project partners who got out into community surveying residents, we conducted a rapid literature review, stakeholder interviews and community co-design sessions. These research methods help us understand which approaches community support so that we can design a program that is focused on preventing leaves from going down drains. Co-creating programs using these approaches is a common practice for our team. We have previously applied co-creation to food waste and koala protection.

A rapid literature review identified approaches that have been used overseas in response to similar issues. Our team learned about campaigns conducted in North America like the Leave Leaves Alone, Leaves and Grass: Love Them and Leave Them, Bag Them and Adopt a Drain. We are passionate believers that many lessons can be learned by examining approaches that have been applied successfully elsewhere. Many of our projects feature systematic evidence reviews, but in this case, we just didn’t have enough time to use this time-consuming method. When time is short, some is better than none! So, for this project, we combed government sites, peer-reviewed papers and more to locate evidence as fast as we could. We learned a lot and found many creative approaches that have been applied to encourage households to pick up leaves or change how they handle leaf litter.

We took a range of different ideas forward into our co-design process. In co-design, participants are taken through a clear step-wise process. The review and interview work found that community clean up events, apps (e.g. Recycle Coach), art competitions, signage, stewards and education approaches had been applied previously. Ten idea cards were developed for our co-design sessions, and at the beginning of the workshop, people told us what they liked and disliked about each idea presented.

Adopt a drain

Leaf cage

Yard signage

Exposing co-design participants to a range of different ideas is our way of getting people warmed up. From there, we free people up to imagine what a program should look like. Small teams of 3-4 people are formed. Each team is challenged to design a program concept.

Figure 4: One co-design idea generated by an online team

In co-design, we give complete freedom to people encouraging them to design a program that would work for them and other people like them. Going back to the idea cards, each group can choose the presented ideas (e.g. a sign, clean up event and more), or they may decide none of the ideas provided to them will work. It is all part of our learning. Just because an approach has been used somewhere else, delivering successful outcomes, doesn’t mean it will work in another place. By granting teams the freedom to create their program, preferences for program components are revealed. Sessions are recorded, and we get a deep understanding of what people want to see. The benefit of utilising this participatory design method of inquiry is that the pilot initiative is co-created with those we seek to serve and not for them. Other participatory approaches can be considered such as the Living Lab or Design Thinking.

In co-design, there is no wrong idea, and by looking for areas of consensus, it becomes clear what ideas will have the greatest appeal to the most people. Nine program ideas were generated by the thirty people who joined our co-design sessions. Within those nine ideas, more than forty different program ideas were established.

An example of co-design data analysis:

Preferences revealed that ACT residents wanted:

  1. To learn how to compost.
  2. Be educated that leaves are doing harm to Canberra lakes.
  3. Be encouraged to adopt a drain or tree.
  4. Be incentivised.
  5. Be offered easy options
  6. To connect and further build community.

There was a strong desire to involve schools. These were only some of the many fabulous ideas tabled in co-design.

Survey insights added to our knowledge, telling us more about what people do and don’t like, delivering quantified insights and valuable comments. One person told us:

I am all for joining in a community-based effort to tidy up our nature strips, curbs and footpaths. I would already do it if it didn’t make me look strange. We could have nature-strip care groups. You just need a worthy cause to motivate volunteerism and protect us from looking weird. Put it in the context of the bigger public good we would be contributing to. Caring for my street = caring for our lakes and waterways = good for all Canberrans and the environment. I really wish Canberrans had more street pride. It’s so untidy here compared to in Australian country towns. People just don’t seem to care. But some of us do, and we could tidy up for the whole street between us.”

Finally, interviews were conducted with stakeholders delivering further support and key learnings to help guide the development of the pilot program. Stakeholders shared their expertise and knowledge explaining the role of leaves in lowering water quality in Canberra waterways. Stakeholders also explained a range of factors that would enable and prevent people from engaging with a pilot program and more. The nine stakeholders who generously gave their time helped us learn more about what would and would not work in the pilot program.

Having completed our learning journey, our team quickly got to work building the pilot program. We knew what we had to do. Since completing the co-creation phase, we have been delighted to receive support from Capital Scrap Composting, Compost Revolution, Canberra Sand and Gravel Landscape Centres, Scouts ACT, Lake Burley Griffin Sea Scouts, Ginninderra Catchment Group, Southern ACT Catchment Group and Molonglo Conservation Group.

Our creative team assisted in delivering the website and a Facebook page to bring the Leaf Collective together, ready for community engagement. It was the fastest pilot program build ever delivered by Social Marketing @ Griffith. I want to take this moment to congratulate the highly talented team that have got together to bring you The Leaf Collective. You can read more about how marketing is applied in a 3 step process (Co-create, Build, Engage) to deliver environmental change here.

We worked for six weeks with partners and community members to make autumn leaves a resource and not a nuisance.  More than 200,000 litres of leaves were diverted from ACT waterways.

Join us on Facebook, get involved, link us to additional partners and watch how the Summer pilot program unfolds.

Stay in touch to find out how many leaves we can pile up this summer!

Author: Prof. Sharyn Rundle-Thiele