Choice Architecture & Urbanism: Changing How we live in our cities by Matthew Poot

I recently read through the book Nudge, written by Nobel laureate Richard Thaler along with Cass Sunstein, and have been struck by the opportunity of applying the ideas in the book to the design of our cities. The book describes the concept of ‘choice architecture’ and how it can be used to improve the quality of decisions people make, as well as those made on their behalf by representatives in business (employers) and government (politicians).

In simple terms, the goal of choice architecture is to improve well being and quality of life through simple, low cost interventions without limiting an individuals opportunity to choose between various options. Thaler and sunnstein go into detail with various examples showing how one can influence of people's actions via ‘nudges’. These are subtle environmental cues and interventions which take advantage of predictable patterns in human behaviour to help achieve a desired outcome.

A simple yet powerful real world example of choice architecture applied within the school system of New York, where administrators sought to promote healthier dietary choices for students.

In New York, the Department of Health decided to do some research. How much, it wondered, would a school need to cut its prices for apples, oranges and bananas to increase sales by 5 percent over a year? Brian Wansink…soon discovered he had been hired to answer the wrong question. Price wasn’t the problem. It was the presentation.

In the school cafeterias Wansink surveyed, whole fruits were displayed in steel bins in dimly lighted areas of the lunch line. Wansink went to discount store T.J. Maxx and bought a cheap wire fruit rack. He found an extra desk lamp, which he used to shine on the fruit. “Sales of fruit in one school went up 54 percent. Not in a semester: by the end of the second week,” Wansink said. “It would have gone up faster, but they kept running out of fruit.”

read the full story from the Washington Post here

Though this is but one small example, there are many success stories where nudges have been applied in much larger scales with almost no cost, yet producing significant and positive outcomes.

Like any tool, these same tactics can also be applied for less admirable goals simply to increase sales of a given product or as Tristan Harris has highlighted in his work in the digital world, to keep your attention focused within an app to increase advertising revenues.

For this conversation, there are obvious connections to goals of improving public transit choices, reducing pollution, energy consumption and the wealth of challenges relating to climate change and urbanisation.

What happens when we apply this strategy to the design of the built environment?

The principle of shaping choices through subtle environmental cues is part and parcel of design and planning practice.

For those working to design the built environment, across a variety of spatial scales,these ideas could be a crucial component to the transformation of cities and towns into places which have a truly productive relationship with their ecological support systems, while improving the health and well being of their residents simultaneously.

The classical views eschewed by economists that sees humans as rational actors which make good choices if provided with the right options have been thoroughly discredited.  We often behave in irrational ways which can be contrary to our own self-interest, even when provided with the right information and a variety of good alternatives to choose from.  While some of these decisions are intentional, many of the choices we make as individuals, in groups, or through institutions are shaped by subtle inputs from our environment that function on a subconscious level.  These behavioural nudges should be relatively simple. For example, some utility companies have achieved significant reduction in energy consumption amongst their customers simply by showing their usage compared to neighbourhood averages, taking advantage of predictable reactions to social norms of comparison.  It does not take much imagination to start thinking about how this approach might be applied to areas like public transportation and cycling infrastructure.

From the smallest sites to the scale of urban regions, the tactics of choice architecture can be incorporated into our plans and projects to achieve sustainable outcomes without sacrificing quality of life and freedom of choice for individuals. Ultimately, it is not enough to provide information about the consequences of our actions, or to create alternatives with

For those of us who work to shape the physical environment, or the ‘built environment’ that makes up the cities and towns we live in, this idea of choice architecture is both implicitly understood, yet poorly developed when it comes to the urban scale. While those working in industrial design must understand choice architecture on its most minute scale, the application of choice architecture on an urban scale offers immense potential to shep

Upcoming post on how the ideas of choice architecture can be applied to the design of infrastructure in order to reshape the types of choices which are available to people living in cities.  

Should we take the car to work, or take public transit?

Should I turn down the air conditioning to save energy?

If we seek to reduce pollution, improve efficiency, and have cities which connect with nature, then we need to remove certain choices from the table in order to eliminate the worst, but most immediately comfortable and satisfying options.