Who are the early adopters for retrofit, and why does it matter?

A key challenge we face is how to scale the retrofit industry to tackle the housing and energy issues ahead. Meeting future ambitions involves recognising the present state of the sector, which is generally small and limited to early adopter clients, and understanding the role these people will, can and should play in the retrofit landscape.

In the run up to People Powered Retrofit’s ‘Who are the Early Adopters?’ event, co-founder Jonathan Atkinson asks who are the early adopters, why we should care about them, and how they are relevant to achieving scale.

How things grow and why they stop

Let’s say we have discovered a new innovation, idea or way of doing things and we are convinced that this is what the world has been waiting for, so we release it on an unsuspecting public. What happens next? In many cases the world shrugs, carries on and the innovation dies. But for innovations, ideas and behaviours that stick, that meet a need or a desire, the way they spread within a given group of people can be remarkably well described - it’s known as the ‘adoption curve’.

At first the idea (or it could be a behaviour, technology, product or service) takes hold with the ‘innovators’: people who are literally ‘ahead of the curve’, looking for a new solution to a problem they experience and eager to try out new solutions. Then the early adopters join as the idea spreads, before the early and then late majority arrive. Growth slows, and as we move to the laggards and is at a snail's pace until the population is saturated.

This progression has been demonstrated with remarkable consistency across a range of scenarios, from the adoption of mobile phones, to religious ideas to social media memes and even in novel viruses (for an accessible introduction to this, and the mathematics behind it, check out The Rules of Contagion by Adam Kurcharski https://kucharski.io/books coincidently published in February 2020).

In the context of a new service (like a retrofit service), early adopters are regarded as ‘lighthouse customers’. They are not the absolute innovators (the first 2.5% of the market) but the following 13.5% who are on the lookout for a new solution and prepared to try it, despite any bugs, deficiencies and flaws there might be in the service. They are not the people willing to pay a fortune for a brick sized 1980s mobile phone or to build their own homemade solar panel, but they are consciously prepared to try something ‘new’. Early Adopters will try things that are ‘not normal’, that their friends and family may have never heard of, in many cases they may be proud of this, of being different and early to the party. They are eager to speak to others about their experiences and advocate for the product in general.

Early adopters are a huge asset, they allow service providers to develop new products and services and to test them out, to gain feedback, to learn what works for people and to amend or improve accordingly. Operations may be slowly scaled, early glitches ironed out. In doing so, costs are reduced allowing products to become more suitable for the majority and grow further still. How big the ‘susceptible’ population is (note the relevance to viral dynamics!) can be influenced by a number of things, but ultimately it's a mix of the people who want or need something (whether they at present know that or not) and can feasibly be serviced.

What’s this got to do with retrofit?

The refurbishment of a home to high energy performance standards or ‘retrofit’, can be conceptualised as ‘a service’ and one for which there are a number of drivers (health, climate, comfort, value etc). But it is one unarguably at the lower end of the innovation curve: a retrofit isn’t ‘normal’, few people on the average street have had one and it’s (mostly) not possible to pick up the phone and order one. It’s relatively expensive and there’s a lack of standardisation in the services that offer retrofit.

Recent research from Citizens Advice is illuminating indicating the vast majority of the population don’t understand why retrofit is relevant to them. They don’t understand the technologies (50% of people have NEVER heard of a heat pump, let alone understand how it works) or the perceived benefits. The report is particularly good at highlighting that more finance options won't on their own result in more retrofit (why would someone want finance for something they don’t understand and don’t think is for them?). Citizens Advice recommend tailored and user centred advice and support. Given the low numbers of people interested it’s perhaps more accurate to call retrofitters innovators rather than the early adopters!

Many observers have sought to use consumer market research tools to generalise retrofit customers, giving them catchy names like ‘Empty Nester renovators’ etc. However, the datasets that underlie these market research tools are almost entirely inappropriate for categorising early adopters. Market research tools identify and cluster generalisations and commonalities - ‘what normal people do’ - but as the Citizen’s Advice research shows, the early adopters are by definition ‘not normal’. We are looking for particularity, not generality and need to use different methods.

People Powered Retrofit have a wealth of research on the Early Adopters for retrofit, afterall, they make our members, beneficiaries and clients. Research consistently indicates these people are motivated by issues like tackling climate change, preparing for extreme weather events and making their homes more comfortable, rather than purely financial considerations. Some people view householders as ‘rational market actors’ who simply need the right financial incentives to trigger action, but this is clearly not the case and motivations are complex. Home renovation and the practical and emotional implications involved is a very different proposition to an off-the-shelf consumer product. The picture that emerges here is not of a homogenous group of ‘early adopters’ but a range of drivers and situations that can be codified into a variety of personas. People Powered Retrofit has found groups of people motivated by civic concern and by climate change as well as a simple desire to improve their home.

There are of course dangers involved in designing services for Early Adopters alone. A small number of people are VERY motivated by climate change, feeling a responsibility to act. They may want hurricane proof roofs and batteries to last blackouts lasting days not hours. Whilst these concerns may be real, the vast majority of people don’t share them or it isn’t financially feasible for them to adopt these measures. A service targeting Early Adopters alone is likely to be self limiting in scale and services like People Powered Retrofit always need to look ahead to the next cohort.

But we want to scale!

With the recognition that climate change is urgent, there is a need to scale retrofit quickly! Whilst some have mistaken People Powered Retrofit’s focus on early adopters as a desire to keep things bespoke and small, nothing could be further from the truth.

Engaging with early adopters is a standard stage in the development of any new innovation. Even giants like the Cooperative Group or Marks and Spencers started with a single store. And there are dangers of skipping ahead and designing a service fully fledged for the ‘mass market’. In 2012, the government spent a great deal of time and money designing the Green Deal, a retrofit programme that would work for 'everyone' that ended up working for no one.

There are different approaches proposed to scaling the retrofit sector, from using local authority procurement frameworks to tech investment. But it should be recognised that scale already exists in the local refurbishment, maintenance and improvement construction sector - every community has a network of electricians, plumbers, plasterers, joiners etc. There is therefore no need to invent a whole new industry, we just need to tap into and shift one that already exists - with early adopter households working with builders and installers who've made the move into retrofit - in an ultimately self-reinforcing process.

People Powered Retrofit's route to scale has always been centred around replication and social franchise models, developing successful approaches in the North West and working with like-minded organisations to support their adoption and growth. Our belief is that scaling is more than codified models, it’s about personal relationships, long term collaboration and basic good business principles. Social replication has worked effectively across diverse sectors in the cooperative movement and our progress to date is good, so far so there are positive reasons for optimism.

Who Are The Early Adopters? Panel event

Taking place from 5-7pm on Thursday 28th September and streamed online, our Who Are The Early Adopters? The event will explore these issues with an expert panel. Cara Holmes, Senior Policy Researcher at Citizens Advice, is author of the excellent Demand Net Zero report which asked the related question: who are the ‘able to pay’? Ian Preston is DIrector of Household Energy Services at CSE, he has many years of experience in the sector and played an integral role in CSE's Futureproof service and the new Retrofit West organisation. Amy Hield is a Home Energy Assessor and Technical Lead at Cumbria Action for Sustainability, and herself an early adopter of retrofit and regularly works with householders to support their retrofit decision making. Marianne Heaslip is an architect and highly experienced retrofit designer, she was associate principal at URBED before co-founding PPR and acting as the organisation's Technical Director.

Book here for what should be a fascinating and illuminating session: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/700172834797?aff=oddtdtcreator

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