by Katleen De Flander

January 16, 2015

Image credit: Rami

Image credit: Rami

The German Climate Action Goal for 2050 foresees an 80 to 95 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases compared to 1990. If we are to take this goal seriously, I believe there are two crucial things to keep in mind starting from this very moment. Firstly, impact offsetting (e.g. companies purchasing carbon credits to compensate for their own emissions) is hardly a good way of reaching this target, since it mostly moves action beyond national borders. Secondly, as Ina Richter mentioned in her IASS Blog Post, there will be a clear need to go beyond efficiency improvements and bring about a profound societal transformation. This fundamental aspect is what’s usually avoided in environmental strategies (see also: Current Environmental Strategies and Why They Don’t Work) where problems are usually tackled from within the same systems that created them in the first place. The target of one million electric cars by 2020 is a good example of trying to solve the mobility problem by replacing our fossil-fueled car fleet with an electric car fleet, leading to more throughput of materials, more energy required for production, and more waste.

Ambitious targets will demand a changed relationship between the city and the resources it depends on, which, I argue, will require a more fundamental re-organisation of the urban systems we have developed to handle transport, waste disposal, food provision, building, etc. In other words, we need not only to fundamentally remake the way we ‘make’ things (this is effectively advocated by the cradle-to-cradle circular design approach) but also, first and foremost, to transform the way we ‘do’ things. This implies a general shift from thinking in terms of ‘goods’ (‘owning products’, e.g. a car, a washing machine, etc.) to thinking in ‘functions’ (e.g. ‘getting from A to B’, ‘having clean clothes’, etc.), leaving room for the reorganisation of the urban environment.

Apart from the fact that most strategies still focus on changing ‘goods’, even if a demand-side approach is taken to tackling environmental problems, changing consumer behaviour tends to focus on changing individual choices at the point of purchase or use. Labels and awareness campaigns often try to effect cognitive behavioural change by appealing to people’s moral sensibilities and guilty consciences. However, this only succeeds in mobilising a small percentage of citizens and has thus proven to be ineffective, given the scale and urgency of current global environmental problems. A simple survey in Copenhagen showed, for instance, that of the 40% of people who used a bicycle as their main mode of transport, only 1 per cent cycled for environmental reasons. All the others did so because it was faster, healthier and/or cheaper. This suggests that we need to rethink behavioural change. The question of how to change the behaviour of a more critical mass of citizens is therefore crucial.

Urban morphology and the organisation of public space have a great influence on how people use the city and move in it, which in turn affects matters such as lifestyle, safety, pollution levels and consumption patterns. These insights are not new. In the 1960s, Jane Jacobs described in great detail what makes a street safe and what makes a public park popular. The work of Jan Gehl focuses on the “life between buildings” and demonstrates how (small) changes in public space change the behaviour of people in the city. This is not because they were told to do so, but because the context in which they make choices (e.g. on how to move through the city) has changed. In other words, the ‘choice architecture’ changed. This term, which was first coined by Thaler and Sunstein [1], is used to describe the different ways in which choices can be presented to consumers, and the impact of that presentation on consumers’ decision-making.

Applied to an urban context, the way we design, construct and operate urban systems and the way we organise urban space creates a socio-technical environment that shapes the ‘way of life’ of the citizens, how they use and move in the city, and how they procure, use and dispose of the resources they require [2].

Going back to behavioural change, Thaler and Sunstein [1] differentiate between two systems of the human brain that generate behaviour: the ‘automatic’ system, which is uncontrolled, effortless, associative, fast, unconscious and skilled, and the ‘reflective’ system, which is controlled, effortful, deductive, slow, self-aware and rule-following. They claim that the former is far more important than the latter. A great deal of behaviour is governed by mental processes that are automatic, intuitive, emotion-driven, and therefore involve little deliberation or rational thought. Correspondingly, Dolan et al. [3] make the distinction between two ways of thinking about changing behaviour: the first is based on influencing what people consciously think about (most traditional interventions in public policy take this route); the second focuses on more automatic processes of judgment and influence, shifting the focus away from facts and information towards altering the context in which people act.

The questions we are asking are:

  • To what extent can we apply the idea of changing ‘choice architecture’ to urban space and urban systems to attain behavioural change and bring about a transformative change?
  • What role do citizens need to play in this respect?


[1] Thaler, Richard & Cass Sunstein (2008), Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Yale University Press.

 [2] UNEP (2013), City-Level Decoupling: Urban Resource Flows and the Governance of Infrastructure Transitions. A Report of the Working Group on Cities of the International Resource Panel. (Authors: Swilling M., Robinson B., Marvin S. and Hodson M.).

[3] Dolan, P., Hallsworth, M., Halpern, D., King, D., Vlaev, I., (undated), MINDSPACE The Practical Guide, Influencing Behaviour through Public Policy. The Institute for Government, London.



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