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Is There an App for That?

Maya Brahmam's picture

I’ve been working with my colleagues on the Apps for Climate competition. We’ve been puzzling over the intersection of climate and technology and what sorts of new ideas we’ll get from this exercise. What about “little green nudges?” Is there an App for that?

“Nudges” are subtle messages that have been used to change behavior. George Webster’s recent article on CNN’s website notes that, “whether we're conscious of them or not, nudges -- of a sort -- are all around us. From the rumble strip along motorways -- gently encouraging motorists to remain in the correct lane -- to rows of brightly colored candy wrappers, less subtly inviting us to pick them up and place them in our shopping cart…” And what’s more, they work and have the potential to be harnessed for the greater good.

Human beings, for better or worse, are creatures of habit. So learning new behaviors to break old patterns is very hard; for example, turning down the thermostat to save energy, turning off the water while you brush your teeth, and turning off the lights when you’re not using them are all examples of behavior change.  What if you could introduce something that changes the usual pattern?

Webster notes that visual cues are very helpful. An experiment with candy wrappers showed that when a prominent trail of green footsteps leading up to the nearby litter bins was stenciled on the ground, there was a 46% decrease in the total quantity of litter.

This idea has gained currency with policymakers. Patrick Wintour of the Guardian notes that “A ‘nudge unit’ set up by David Cameron in the Cabinet Office is working on how to use behavioural economics and market signals to persuade citizens to behave in a more socially integrated way.” David Halpern, author of the highly praised Hidden Wealth of Nations, heads the unit, formally known as the Behaviourial Insight Team. The unit’s official website states, “The traditional tools of Government have proven to be less successful in addressing… behavioural problems. We need to think about ways of supplementing the more traditional tools of government, with policy that helps to encourage behaviour change...”

Which brings me back to my original question: This is all very well…but is there an App for that?


Picture credit: flickr user factoryjoe

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Submitted by Andrew on
I'm probably barred from entering the contest as I'm a former STC with the Bank, but I've just done an app here in Hong Kong that is designed to 'nudge' people into greater consciousness about the air pollution in this part of the world. My "Hong Kong Air Pollution" app takes raw data on air pollutants in Hong Kong, but then runs it through various air pollution indexes so people can get a better understanding of current conditions. It's been quite interesting in once you see that air which is considered 'moderate' for Hong Kong people and requiring no changes in activity are considered 'harmful' by say Australian standards, where the government would recommend affected individuals and children avoid outdoor activity. By showing users 'another view' on a standard set of data points, I'm hoping to nudge people into a great recognition that the air quality index, and more importantly, the air quality might need a change. Good luck with your competition. I'd put a link to the Hong Kong Air Pollution app in here but it's probably flag for spam.

Submitted by Skeptical on
"Nudges" and other pushes for mindful consumption are at best ineffective and at worst absolve us from taking real responsibility for consumption. Mindfulness is to climate change what tolerance is to civil rights -- minimal-effort activity that distracts us from the structural nature of the problem and the necessity to radically change our way of life.

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