Using ISM for sustainable change

Making sustainable change happen requires changes in behaviours and decision-making. ISM (Individual, Social and Material) is the Scottish Government’s preferred method for understanding and addressing barriers to behaviour change. It provides a wholistic approach for involving stakeholders in the co-design and delivery of projects, programmes and strategies for ensuring effective action on climate change that takes account of material and social contexts, not leaving change to individuals alone.

Behaviours and decision-making are influenced by a range of factors that operate across three main domains - the Individual, Social and Material (ISM) contexts. ISM presents these contexts and their associated factors conceptually in a simple graphic.

The head at the center contains factors which influence people at an individual level.

The circle surrounding the head includes social factors which influence our behaviours/decisions due to interactions with others.

The external square denotes material factors in our environment which shape or constrain behaviours.

The dotted line between social and material indicates the interactions and dependencies that exist between different factors across both contexts.


ISM offers a range of benefits:

Wholistic: ISM considers all three behaviour-related contexts and influencing factors in contrast to more traditional approaches, such as a campaign which generally only targets individuals without taking account of social interactions or material constraints, e.g. a lack of suitable infrastructure to support the desired change.

Scalable: ISM can be applied at a range of levels, from scoping a project or developing a programme through to formulating a plan or strategy.

Iterative: ISM can be used at the outset e.g. to explore and define a particular challenge, and then applied in successive iterations as new issues and challenges arise at subsequent stages e.g. feasibility, implementation or monitoring and evaluation phases.

Neutral: ISM evolved as part of Scottish Government research on low carbon behaviours (more information can be found in the Policy Context pages) however it can be applied to a range of challenges and initiatives as it is not content-specific. Read about examples of how ISM has been used, including topics beyond the low carbon agenda and insights from users in “Climate-Changing Behaviours: Behaviours, ISM and the public sector 2015/16”.

Flexible: ISM is best used in a workshop to engage relevant decision-makers and representatives of those undertaking or involved in making the desired change happen. An ISM workshop convenes discussions that build shared understanding of the barriers/challenges and priorities which need to be addressed and fosters common purpose by mediating solutions which enable co-ownership of the required actions.

ISM can also be used as a desk-based exercise e.g. to help structure research findings and identify gaps or to compile a survey or questionnaire.

Read examples of ISM workshop findings and other uses beyond low carbon.


ISM annual reports

We have published two annual reports on using ISM as part of the SSN support to the public sector. These provide information on who has used ISM, where and how ISM has been used and users have found it helpful.

Stimulating Change: Report on Low Carbon Behaviours project 2014/15

Climate-Changing Behaviours: Behaviours, ISM and the public sector 2015/16


For advice or support using ISM please contact June Graham, T: 01786 468785.



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