Words by OLIVIA BOYD
The design of spaces has always “nudged” people’s behaviour. But with digital technology, our tools are becoming more precise and potentially far more powerful. So how far should we push?
You may not know it, but you’ve been nudged. Possibly several times a day. It might have been that last-minute health drink you bought at the office canteen. Or an arrow that got you to walk the long way between subway platforms and avoid the crowds. Or perhaps when a frowny face on a digital road sign reminded you to drive slower.
Cues in our environment have always influenced our actions. But since US academics Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein brought the idea of “nudging” to prominence in their bestselling 2008 book, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, the application of behavioural science has blossomed. By using psychology to understand how people make choices, the research shows, environments can be subtly altered to favour certain outcomes. The potential impacts are far-reaching, from boosting retailers’ profits to solving societal problems such as obesity and climate change — or the spread of disease, as when the UK government’s “nudge unit” helped shape its response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Now the built environment is catching on. Architects and engineers are hiring behavioural scientists, or offering specialist services such as “workplace nudging”. The fast-growing WELL and Fitwel certification systems both recognize buildings optimized for healthy behaviours, such as eating fruit, drinking less coffee or taking the stairs.
But the simple message that designers can help drive “good” behaviour conceals a host of tricky questions: who gets to decide what “good” is? Is there room for a designer’s intuition if impacts on human behaviour are rigorously codified? And, if our actions are so readily changeable, are we in the end just robots?
In one sense, nudging has long been part of the designer’s arsenal. Back in the 1920s, London Underground’s Frank Pick was pioneering an approach to navigating the Tube that was responsive to human intuition. He ditched the old, cluttered map that organized stations by geography, instead introducing the schematic design still in use today.
Behavioural economics remains central to Transport for London’s (TfL) approach, says Ian Pring, its customer marketing and behaviour change planning lead. His team spends its time considering everything from platform markings that nudge people to mind the gap as they step off the train, to how station design affects perceptions of journey times. “It’s pervasive really,” Pring says. “Our job is to try to get people out of cars and onto public transport, and into cycling and walking. We also have a remit to keep people safe on roads and on public transport systems. So it’s arguable that behaviour change is at the heart of pretty much everything we do.”
Elsewhere in the built environment, the approach feels more novel. Joanna Frank, who was director of active design under former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, says interest has grown significantly over the last two years. She now runs the Center for Active Design, which promotes architectural and planning solutions to public health problems, specifically by translating thousands of peer-reviewed studies into practical design strategies, and is the licensed operator of Fitwel.