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 a nutshell, choice architecture refers to the influence of people's actions via subtle interventions or ‘nudges’ which take advantage of predictable patterns in human behaviour to achieve positive outcomes at low costs. A really simple example of choice architecture at work is the ‘musical stairs’ in malmo, which was a tiny experiment to try and make the ‘healthier choice’ of taking stairs versus the escalator an easy choice.
Plastic decals of a piano keyboard were applied over the steps leading up to the surface, and would play musicalthe number of people who chose to take the stairs compared to the escalator increased
For those working to design the built environment, 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.