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Can You 'Nudge' People to Lead Greener Lifestyles?

09/07/2014 16:00 BST | Updated 08/09/2014 10:59 BST

Back in 2010 just before coming to power David Cameron gave a TED talk stating that 'with all the advances in behavioural economics I think we can achieve a stronger society without having to spend a whole lot more money'. The age of 'Nudge' politics was born and no ambitious politician could afford to head off on holiday without a copy of the best-selling book in their bag.

In the spring of 2010 the behavioural insights team quickly known as the 'Nudge Unit' was established and a different way of doing politics seemed to be on the cusp of being born. But as the messy reality of being in power hit home, the amount of air time given to 'nudge' diminished and earlier this year the unit was removed from direct government control and partly sold to the Nesta innovation charity. So is nudge dead?

Judging by a debate at the newly formed All Party Political Group created by Laura Sandys MP and supported by Global Action Plan, the answer is that nudge isn't dead but it doesn't provide the all encompassing solution David Cameron had in mind when he spoke in 2010.

The 'nudge unit' has had quantifiable success in encouraging people to change a wide range of behaviours. They have found that sending timely, personalised messages have considerable success in changing behaviour.

As a result of their activities more people are paying taxes on time, less are missing court appearances, more are donating organs and more are avoiding visits from the bailiffs. These changes have resulted in considerable savings to the public financial purse and less personal stress for many.

There is a common theme around the successes. They are all targeted around very specific one-off behaviours. They all involve more sophisticated direct communication to the individual that is timely, makes the action easier and more attractive. Finally they use the power of social norms to demonstrate that most other people are behaving differently.

For organisations wishing to engage their employees, customers or community in environmental behaviour change the 'nudge' techniques definitely have a place but they also have considerable limitations.

Encouraging greener lifestyles requires techniques that do not fit with the 'nudge' success themes. For starters, greener lifestyles require people to change long-term repeat behaviours rather than a one-off activity. Secondly environmental issues are complex and often one step removed from the daily pressures of life. Finally greener lifestyles require people to have an understanding of how all their daily activities could impact on the environment. Simply changing one behaviour pattern does not cut the ice if negative environmental impact is simply displaced elsewhere.

Clearly a more complex solution is needed. Global Action Plan's 20 years experience in this area provides some indications as to what is required. These include:

• Substantive and long-term change is most likely to occur in strong tightly-knit communities where there is a common desire and agreement to address environmental issues. For example this could be in a community group such as a Women's Institute or a company where there is a strong and consistent message from the CEO.

• People are more likely to change if they have the time and space to discuss and consider the issue with their peers and friends and then decide what actions they can take that are relevant to their circumstances. Having an external voice telling you how to live your life invariably never works.

• People like to know that their actions are making a difference. On-going measurement can be used to reward behaviour and motivate change - particularly if it is linked to some sort of fun or competitive game.

What is obvious is that encouraging greener lifestyles is complex and there is a pitiful amount of evidence to show what really works. My hope is that the newly created All Party Group on Behaviour Change will help to provide more evidence and give policy-makers the information they need to create better informed policy.