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Nudge and Behavioural Design: The way to a sustainable future?

June 18, 2021

reading time: 8 minutes

by Peter Firth, guest author

Sille Kurkow

Behavioural design represents one way to tackle the climate crisis.

Left to their own devices, humans don’t always make great decisions. That’s why nudge theory (also known as behavioural design) was such an enticing idea when it was first popularised in 2008 by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health Wealth and Happiness. The book proposed that design interventions can appeal to our biases in everyday settings and prod us in the direction of better choices. 

Nudge
The term "nudge" is becoming increasingly important in the jargon of behavioural economics.

In the following years, governments formed nudge units with the intention to inspire people to eat more vegetables, pay their taxes on time and behave more conscientiously in public bathrooms (among other things). Brands followed suit, designing experiences that intuitively volunteered customers for products and services – consider Amazon Prime’s artful mechanic that promises cheaper delivery.

While detractors might be keen to point out the limitations of nudge theory, evidence shows that – broadly speaking – behavioural design gets results. This is why practitioners are turning the methodology to its toughest trial yet: the fight against climate change. 

Can behavioural design help fight climate change?

Sille Krukow is a Nudge and Behavioral Design Expert who assists brands and governments with nudge solutions. She believes the opportunity is clear: “Behavioural design is going to be crucial in the great fight against climate change,” she says. “It’s going to be the one tool that can accelerate the green transformation enormously. This thing can only go too slow.”

Green nudges
Universities are applying them, too: Nudges can help make campus life greener. © www.unep.org

The hidden potential of nudging, Krukow believes, lies in it leaping out of government-affiliated companies and into the hands of everyone else. When individuals and small businesses can use behavioural design to pursue their own ends, humanity reaps the benefits. That’s the assumption behind Krukow’s new initiative, Elephant Trail, a Netflix-style content network that features digestible how-to videos showing simple steps to self-made behavioural design. Companies of all sizes enter in their sector and areas of interest and Elephant Trail creates a tailored learning programme with relevant videos. 

British company The Behavioural Insights Team - once a division of the UK government - takes a similarly educational tack. In collaboration with the UN Environment Programme, the organisation has produced The Little Book of Green Nudges, a handbook for leaders in higher education that offers a simple guide for how to intervene in campus life to make institutions greener. And data shows that the measures in the book actually work. 

Nudge Cork
Cup washers can be simple but effective nudge tools. © Keystone / Westend61 / Jose Carlos Ichiro

For instance, University College Cork installed cup washers on its campus. This meant that students were able to wash their flasks and KeepCups on site after using them - rather than having to carry them back to digs dirty.

This meant a boost in reusable cup use of 20%. Meanwhile, in Shanghai, Tongji University draws upon humans’ game-loving impulses to encourage students to sort waste properly, an arcade-style machine is controlled to drop either garbage or recycling into the correct bin container.

Tom Savigar
Tom Savigar wants to help large corporations become more sustainable - thanks to nudges.

Krukow observes that behavioural design works on a global scale, in vastly different settings irrespective of culture or national identity. “Nudge and applied behavioural science approach is a global tool that can help guide behaviour effectively anywhere,” she says. "But where we differentiate is the colour, wording or signs we use. We start by selecting the behaviour change principles – and these work with our basic human instincts. They can be related to our pack mentality, or the fact people like games, or that they are more visually driven than likely to absorb written information.”

This democratising of behavioural design in many locations around the world offers a hint of the potential of the movement. But the key to using nudge to accelerate a green future isn’t just about where humanity deploys nudges, but at whom. Tom Savigar, founder of Norway-based consultancy Avansere AS, helps move organisations forward to a regenerative state so that they succeed in generating a new and more vigorous social, natural and economic world. He believes that those at the helm of multinational corporations and brands are mentally unequipped to make the sweeping changes necessary to halt the onset of climate change. 

Amazon nudge
Companies use nudges to design processes that intuitively encourage customers to buy products. One example: Amazon Prime. © Keystone / DPA/ Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert

A bit of nudging when it comes to key decision makers in industry sectors, he suggests, wouldn’t go amiss. “Lots of leaders are put off when they are confronted with the real world organisational and cost implications of becoming regenerative companies,” he says. “What we are likely to see next will be nudges directed at industry decision makers. When buyers, retailers and service providers cross sector are de-incentivised from making costly environmental decisions, we’ll witness the true potential of behavioural design.” Nobel laureate William Nordhaus’ arguing for a global carbon tax illustrates the start of the shift outlined by Savigar.

Nudge: From companies to cities

Looking further into the future, there is a crucial battleground for the welfare of the planet: the many burgeoning cities around the world. Behaviour change initiatives in such places are already underway. Consider the forthcoming rules in many European centres that slap daily charges on diesel vehicles as one measure that could be perceived as a nudge strategy. Meanwhile, urbanists are de-incentivising the use of cars by making streets less auto-friendly. Carparking spaces in metropolises such as Oslo, Cairo, Buenos Aires and London are being stripped out and replaced with cycling paths, bus lanes and walkways. These things aren’t so much to encourage other means of transport as much as to discourage the using of cars.

Nudge Buenos Aires
Metropolitan cities like Buenos Aires are removing parking spaces and replacing them with bike lanes. © Keystone / LAIF / Paul Hahn

As cities become smarter and more connected, people will turn to technological tools to nudge themselves and hold peers to account. Digital services are already showing how this trend is likely to play out in future. Consider the appearance of apps like JouleBug, an innovation that merges social networking, gaming and educational tools to help usher in more sustainable lifestyle choices among its users. The idea is to play on competitive impulses in a social mechanic that allows people to brag about their green credentials. 

As behavioural design moves into its next phase, its impact depends upon how many people become conversant with and draw upon the basic principles of nudge. In order to tip the balance in the fight against climate change, nudge itself needs to find the path of least resistance.

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