illustrations by Elia Barbieri
The nudge,

a gentle push
A conscious citizen 
can count much more than an obliged citizen
A supplementary alphabet to create a layout for our future.

In January 2020 I was asked to do TEDx talk in Barletta[1]. I thought about it for less than 5 hours, and then I said yes. And, reflecting on the expectations expressed, and my own desires, I chose to address the concept of the nudge as my topic, as a common thread through the sustainable mindsets and behaviours I have always worked towards.

I haven't always known the English word nudge, however, which translates into Italian as "pungolo" or "spinta gentile". It is a method that comes out of behavioural economics and psychology, studied by illustrious authors, among whom two Americans, Sunstein and Thaler, particularly stand out.
I started to become familiar with it a few years ago, but I didn't immediately understand its reach... But then I reflected on the many designs and actions carried out in my working life in order to create new opportunities to choose products with less impact, and therefore also more gratifying sustainable behaviours.
This was my response to a need for new visions for a society able to take on new green identities.
Everything starts from a basic observation: regulations, as we know, are important, because they can change the scenarios we move around in, creating new incentives, and therefore new requirements, but they are not always sufficient to create new behaviours inspired by care and respect for the environment.
Respect for the planet and other people cannot simply be imposed by laws and sanctions. A conscious citizen counts for much more than a citizen bound by rules.
And it is from this fact that the opportunity arises to employ soft (or gentle) nudges, which in effect are an extra option we are offered, never obligatory, that helps to shift behaviours and therefore design new ones.
This push can be given in words, or through the redesign of a product, or using default options (which take advantage of our laziness/inertia), or by example, which as we well know, is worth 100 words.


Let's look at some examples.
We give a nudge when there is a specific problem that we want to try to resolve through specific behaviours.
A nudge in words: if you want to save energy at work, because all too often the lights are left on at the end of the day, you could write signs to place next to all the switches, saying "your colleagues on the floor above or in the neighbouring building have already saved 35% of their energy use by remembering to turn off the lights". Information combined with comparison with others (the "social norms" effect) is powerful. In other cases, you can also simply use information on environmental quality (for example) to direct people's choices towards certain products.
A nudge through a product: if you want to push people to save water, those who have showers could use a showerhead that changes colour after 7 minutes. This encourages reflection, without impositions of any kind, on how much water we are consuming, and therefore pushes us to speed up in order to consume less of it.
A nudge through default: if you want to use less paper in the office for printers and photocopiers, setting the device to print double-sided will lead to an inevitable and immediate saving. If someone doesn't want it, just one click will turn it off. But the default setting takes advantage of our behavioural inertia, so it usually wins.
A nudge by example (social rule): using a reusable water bottle, instead of buying bottled water, produces less waste. In the last few years this practice has spread enormously, thanks to more and more people using these, and ever trendier bottles available. The herd effect that has gradually come about with water bottles has pushed more and more people to use them confidently and joyously, making it a truly distinctive behaviour.

Designing behaviors using a new alphabet

A nudge finds particularly fertile ground in sustainability policies, because it starts from the aim of aligning present behaviour with long-term goals.
And what is more important in the long term than more awareness and proactivity towards the environment?
In this sense, it can be called upon as a tool to combine with many others, in order to redesign our urban surroundings. Those that today demand change in the name of taking better care of people, and consequently, the environment.
When you use nudges, people are at the centre.
Because regardless of the issue/problem to solve, or try to find solutions for, listening to people and their needs is the place to start from in order to imagine new behaviours, and therefore gentle pushes that may work - new forms of engagement that lead to new behaviours.
This means designing behaviour using a new alphabet.
The idea of the nudge tells us that behaviours can be designed too, not only objects and services.
And behaviours, particularly in man-made contexts, are an effective response that dictate the success, or lack of it, of a policy, a piece of architecture, or a new service.
We know very well that, as much as words count, and as much as they tell us who we are and why we are here, in the end what really makes the difference is only behaviour.


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N° 3


Great leaps, ideas, dreams.
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