Human Behaviour

The Ecology of Innovation

One of the component parts of Citizen Power (a two year programme of innovation, participation and place-making in Peterborough) aims to spark and support local people’s ideas that could make “green” behaviour easier throughout the city. When planning the project we were inspired by insights into what can influence people’s behaviour and decision-making (such as the dramatic effect of social proof).

Our approach has been to teach these principles to local residents and help them apply them to the behaviours that underlie local environmental problems. We think that giving community activists the knowledge and support to “nudge” their neighbours could be a better way of encouraging behaviour change. National attempts to apply these principles could leave people feeling preached at, or alienate people by taking covert approaches.

Instead, we think that training community activists with the knowledge they need to nudge their neighbours can harness their local knowledge, their “one-of-us” status, and their existing trusted relationships with their community.

Towards the end of last year we tested this approach in a two-day workshop. Twenty-five enthusiastic residents learned about the effects of personal, social and infrastructural factors on human behaviour, then worked together to apply this knowledge to Peterborough specific problems. After a pitch to a panel of judges, two ideas were selected for seed-funding and non-financial support to allow them to become pilot projects.

One of the pilots will encourage a wider segment of the community to manage local plots of unused land. The group behind this project plan to map unused land in their neighbourhood and throughout Peterborough, then run small interventions to encourage local people to take an active role in stewarding the land.

The other pilot will encourage residents living near an area of ancient woodland to take an active forest management role. Currently neglected and the scene of anti-social behaviour, the community decided to create a woodland walk to make walking through the forest a normal activity for local residents.

Part of this approach to local nudging was informed by a paper – The Ecology of Innovation – that we published just before Christmas. It presents a few simple principles that could be used to encourage and support local people in getting projects off the ground. These principles include ensuring that local community organisations are able to participate in contributing their ideas, and supporting their ideas with financial and non-financial support so that they can be tested. You can read the paper online or download it here.

In 2011, we’re looking forward to getting these ideas off the ground, and also holding more workshops to encourage and support more ideas that could make Peterborough into an even greener place to live!

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology

Emotional Appeal

Nudge, Nudge, Wink, Wink – there needs to be more promiscuity across different disciplines if there’s to be more fruitful solutions to environmental change. On Earth Day, Seed magazine published a well-toned article about economist Ben Ho, and suggested a need for joined-up thinking on climate change between behavioral economics (hence the reference to ‘Nudge’) and social sciences (erm… ‘winking’ is anthropological). And these latest understandings from the sciences about human behaviour bring big questions into focus for art practioners.

Do the arts understate their potential role in generating a more holistic understanding of contemporary life? And what are our expectations of art? What kind of insights do artists bring about in relation to social change and environmental change…? (The most talked about art book on this is Bradley and Esche’s ‘Art and Social Change’, which is worth reading in conjunction with Mute magazine’s in-depth discussion).

The idea that people’s decisions are governed more by their subconscious emotional responses than by an impartial rationality is well argued by behavioural economics (and the RSA projects, Social Brain and Design & Behaviour). And that the social sciences grew from analysising how and why people behave they way they do, prompted Ho to reiterate the ol’ ecological adage: “The only way to get anything done is a holistic approach,” but then he emphasises the need for productive argument “We’re all speaking different languages, and that leads to conflicts. But that has to be the way forward.”

And this is surely the way forward for the arts too – art benefits hugely from engaging with other disciplines and there is real need for productive honest progressive debate about the ‘use’ of the art in relation to contemporary environmental change, without returning to the entrenched positions of instrumentalism v art for arts sake. Isn’t it the case that speaking provocatively about personal ethics and politics enhances our understanding of artists’ work?

And if emotional appeal is now regarded, by the natural sciences, as a highly persuasive human resource, why has visual art appeared to move so far away from ‘emotional expression’? And if it hasn’t really moved away from emotional expression – but has transposed it into provocative gestures , such as Jeremy Deller’s work (see Michaela’s blog) – should artists feel any responsibility to make their own position explicit as part of a public debate? Art should still infuriate and delight us – so isn’t it time for the arts, and the discussion that surrounds it, to get more overtly passionate, excitable and intellectually promiscuous again? Wink, wink …

“Human beings’ decision-making processes, as individuals and collectively, are probably at least as complicated as the climate system itself,” Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change. From  Seed.com

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology