What does it take to radically transform the way in which households and businesses relate to waste separation? In the context of emerging collection services for recyclable and organic waste, how can behavioral planning principles apply?
Behavioral design is commonly used by the private sector to improve experiences for customers. Targeted interventions have often proven to be effective and relatively simple, with impressive results. But what happened when I needed to oversee the reshaping of behaviors from the ground up in the context of creating public services at a municipal level?
In this article, I’ll share my experience leading behavior change for Delterra’s Rethinking Recycling program in a mid-sized Argentinian city, where we are on a mission to help the community transform their recycling and waste management system for the benefit of both citizens and the environment. I’ll focus on four lessons I learned along the way in a high-level “how to” format in case it can help others on this journey.
As I approached this project, the disappointing truth I faced was that there was no firm framework that served my purpose. Since these disciplines continue to be evolve, their tools and practices are sometimes immature and shortsighted. When designing behaviors to sustain emerging public services at municipal level, these underlying constraints, shortages, and discussions inevitably surfaced throughout the design project. Many, many times.
In order to be useful when designing behaviors associated to public services, most methods used in the private sector must be meticulously adapted. This is in part due to the complexity and uncertainty of changing economic landscapes, but it is overwhelmingly due to fundamental differences in the underlying decision-making processes and cultures. Overlook these differences at your peril.
First, I realized that I needed to move beyond nudging and start designing wholistic systems that could thrive in complex contexts where political decisions shift rapidly. I needed to come up with transformative and accompanied journeys to convert residents into recyclers. And I needed to come up with a relevant value proposition to provide citizens with a robust experience.
Second, I needed to stop over-relying on past data that was often insufficient at the municipal level and that could not reliably inform the future of these uncertain and changing scenarios. What is true for today is true, precisely, just for this one day. As I needed to change the game entirely, data from the past served me up to a certain point and then, I found myself navigating on my own.
Third, measuring short-term success was not the best path to measuring the real efficacy of interventions. Tactical successes sometimes landed me in strategic failures. Even now, I struggle to come up with tools and processes to systematically track the evolution of the journeys as results have changed over time and system dynamics behave in unexpected ways. Oversimplified definitions of success blinded me to foresee broader and systemic outcomes.
A fourth lesson I learned is that engaging citizens is at the heart of designing behaviors that fundamentally affect public life. It starts with their lived experience, and the empathy-driven approach requires a very specific set of skills. Human-centered behavioral design involves understanding and re-configuring people’s habits, infrastructures, and relevant resources for the purpose of improving their user experience and ultimately, the long-term wellbeing of the community. With that in mind, I needed to be able to consider diverse and deeply embodied personal experiences and needs that informed people´s choices and decisions in their households. On its own, I found out, behavioral design could not address these deeply embedded cultural dynamics.
It was only when I went beyond the pre-digested frameworks and neat formulas that I was able to enter a new paradigm, and effectively empathize with the communities and citizens I was assisting and truly empower them to change their relationship with waste management and collection services.
And we’re just getting started. As we work to scale this work to reach new populations, we welcome your thoughts and reactions! Please reach out to us if you have comments or suggestions, or if you would like to get involved in these critical efforts. I look forward to what’s ahead.
This blog was written and contributed by:
Project Lead, Behavior Change, Olavarria