Nudge to action: Behavioural science for sustainability

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6 March 2017

In Kibera, Africa’s second-largest informal settlement, located in Kenya, researchers were puzzling over the low uptake of a water purification solution. This was a place where water-borne diseases were rampant and sometimes lethal, so why didn’t more residents buy this simple, cheap answer to a chronic health threat?

Even after residents were given discount coupons for the solution, not much changed. So the researchers started looking more closely into behavioural aspects of the process. What actually happened on the way from the water source to their homes?

It turned out that, with households making daily trips to a water source, an extra trip to the store for the chlorine solution felt inconvenient, even though the benefits were well known. Evidence from behavioural science shows that even small hassles can make it difficult to adopt a programme or product.

The answer? Make the solution convenient, visible, and easier to access at the point it was needed most. The researchers moved the chlorine solution to the water source itself. They put it in large containers that, at the turn of a valve, dispensed just the right amount for a standard, commonly used jug. Everyone could see everyone else using the chlorine solution too, and habits started changing. As a result, uptake rates increased from 10 to 60 percent.

Subtle, cost-effective, and context-specific – these are the traits shared by many documented “nudges”.

Nudges can take many forms, but describe policy design choices or actions that apply insights from behavioural science to improve consumers’ existing choices. So how can nudges combat climate change, pollution and unsustainable use of the Earth’s resources?

We as humans make thousands of decisions each day, but many of these may be habits or choices that are not the most environmentally-friendly. Despite knowing that we need to adapt our behaviours to combat climate change, we may still not take the actions needed in our daily lives to be impactful. So what explains our failure to act when it comes to a crucial goal like saving the planet?

This chasm, the difference between good intentions and actual actions, is called the intention-action gap. It helps explain why we may intend to save more money, conserve more energy and water, or buy sustainable products, but ultimately fall short.

Understanding how we process information and how context affects our behaviour can help policymakers design more robust and cost-effective interventions to ensure sustainable consumption behaviours. 

“In the real world, humans do not always behave in perfectly rational ways, something behaviourally informed policies and programs take into account, helping people, organisations, communities, and countries translate intention into action,” said Behavioural Science Advisor to the United Nations Dr. Lori Foster.

The last seven years, in particular, have seen a surge in formal recognition of the potential of behavioural insights to help meet policy goals. Since 2010, the governments of Australia, Canada, Denmark, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United States have set up dedicated behavioural insights entities. In addition, in 2015 the World Bank launched a behavioural science unit called the Global Insights Initiative (GINI).

Last year, Dr Foster became one of the first Behavioural Science Advisors appointed to the United Nations, to ensure that behavioural science insights are effectively and efficiently mainstreamed in various UN programmes and activities.

And in January this year, communications giant Ogilvy and Mather announced the launch of their Center for Behavioral Science.

This recognition comes not a moment too soon.

Behavioural insights needed to tackle global challenges

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes the Sustainable Development Goals, gives us less than 15 years to fulfil ambitious goals, including achieving changes in how we consume and produce.

Energy demand is set to grow by at least one-third by 2040, requiring stringent adoption of energy efficiency measures and less carbon-intensive sources to keep global temperature rise to under the Paris Agreement targets of 1.5C to 2C.

By 2025, 3 billion people could face water scarcity; and by 2050, if consumption and production habits don’t change, annual natural resource extraction would need to triple, exceeding the Earth’s capacity to satisfy demand.

The relatively subtle levers behavioural science provides can maximise outcomes for the money spent on interventions and have potential for scale.

“Agenda 2030 can only be accomplished if we understand the habits and behaviours that prevent our societies from fully achieving sustainable development,” said Dr Foster.

Currently, though, the Kenyan example is a relative rarity. Developed countries largely dominate the application of behavioural sciences in policymaking.

Applying behavioural insights to sustainability efforts in developing countries is crucial. Three billion middle-class consumers will join the global economy by 2040. This consumer class will largely be youthful, urban and predominantly located in developing countries.

Join the webinar: Consuming Differently, Consuming Sustainably

On 8 March, in this context, UN Environment will launch its report, Consuming Differently, Consuming Sustainably: Behavioural Insights for Policymaking, and discuss its findings in a webinar hosted by the Green Growth Knowledge Platform.

Produced in collaboration with ideas42, a non-profit behavioural design firm, the report centres on case studies and other evidence of how behavioural science can further sustainable consumption in the areas of Energy, Water, Transportation and Mobility, Food and Diet, and Waste and Disposal. It highlights that the design process of public policy can incorporate a deeper understanding of human behaviour and suggests a 4-stage methodology to systematically apply behavioural science in tackling sustainable consumption.

The report identifies five main barriers to more sustainable consumption.

The webinar will focus on behavioural insights and green growth, and is aimed at policymakers, practitioners, academics and anyone interested in how behavioural change can further climate and sustainability goals. To register, please visit the GGKP webinar website.

Download the report

This story was originally published by UN Environment and can be found here.