Can information drive behaviour change?

8 Sep

Been wondering what to blog about after another hectic month or two. Then I was talking to someone this week about retrofitting social housing, and the need for this to be accompanied by behaviour change….and it occurred to me that the area where technology meets behaviour change was pretty pertinent at the moment. It was interesting to learn about the work going on in preparation for the Green Deal (which is what our conversation was about), and how the technical changes (eg. photovoltaic cells on roof, new boilers, new insulation, better glazed windows) need to be matched by behaviour change. Not much point changing all the windows if the resident opens a window rather than turn the heating down…which led to a further chat about whether some of the nudge-type techniques (including how much money neighbours have saved on utility bills, smart meters etc) would really work.

I love reading behavioural economics books like Nudge and they are very persuasive, but I have found myself questioning whether it isn’t just a way, from a policymaker’s point of view, of ducking difficult decisions. This post by Will Wilkinson, which I was alerted to on Twitter, takes that thought and expands upon it at length: Behavioural Economics: Ammo for Bullshitters. Well worth a read, especially because it deals exactly with the electricity bill example I mention above (“showing someone their neighbor’s bill is not the best way to get them to cut their own bill. The best way is to charge an amount that reflects the true cost of the electricity”).

That leads me on to SoCap 2011 which is a conference about the intersection between money and meaning, or more prosaically about all things social investment and impact investing in the US and beyond. I’ve watched a few of the sessions livestreamed, and the opening plenary had an interesting discussion which included Mathieu Senard of Alter Eco and Kevin Starr of the Mulago Foundation. They had an interesting conversation about whether they wanted their products to be judged purely on their place in the market (i.e. a bag bought because it’s a great bag, not because of any other reason…) or whether they wanted to utilise the stories behind the product to sell it (potentially at a premium). Is it enough to sell the products and have the associated social impact or does that waste the opportunity to utilise the products to create awareness and behaviour change (and potentially more impact)? That can be a chicken and egg type of conversation, as SoCap founder Kevin Jones pointed out: “Once you’ve changed the world, you’ll be able to sell way more bags…”.

Stories that hold the meaning proved crucial when doing my work in Beijing recently (running a learning programme with university students to enable them to run their community projects and potentially become social entrepreneurs). Case studies that had resonance to them brought them and the subject alive, so I was drawing on all the examples I knew of over the three days of the programme. And used videos liberally (of Catch 22, MyBnk, We Make A Change and many more)…. Inevitably with a cohort of 75 (!), some were more engaged than others, but I’m hopeful that some of the information and inspiration in those stories does lead to behaviour change in some small ways.

Finally, to tie all of that together (he says hopefully), I found a whole series of links from Beth Kanter on infographics and their use for charities and social enterprises (found because she sent them to me!). See Infographics for Non-Profits: the New Storytelling, this post on infographics and this post on video infographics. All worth a look for anyone who’s interested in this whole area of stories, information, meaning and changing behaviour. I’ll leave you with the best video I’ve seen of late (I think this may even be an infographic), which is an animated colour representation of Kiva’s loans over the last five years. I tried to spot my half a dozen loans, but no luck. Enjoy:

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