Design for Social Good

Social engineering is way of designing products and situations which actively encourage people to behave in a desired way — Nudging for Good. EDF Challenge “Sharing energy in the city, 2030” seems an ideal circumstance for social engineering for the greater social good. The basic question is how do we as designers find ways to incentivize individuals to save energy? How do we make a bit of personal sacrifice an attractive option for most? How do we “nudge” people to behave in a socially responsible ways when it comes to energy use?

First, it makes sense to break up the problem into several user categories: personal energy sharing, family sharing, neighborhood or community sharing, city or village sharing. At each level we expand the circle to involve more and more individuals, and so we need a different approach for each category. Each category has a set of pressure points on which social engineers can apply pressure to achieve the desired changes.

Once we identify the user groups targeted for “nudging”, game theory can be used to find the most attractive options. While there are numerous strategies that can be borrowed from game theory to incentivize the desired energy sharing behavior, the following are the most basic:

Reward Dynamics:

  1. levels and badges to distinguish members and membership levels (encourage competition)
  2. rewards for effort (don’t punish failure)
  3. social component (i.e. allow people to share their achievements among their social networks)

Progression Dynamics:

  1. progress bar and % of completeness toward some reward
  2. rapid, frequent, and clear feedback
  3. multiple long and short-term goals

Temporal Dynamics:

  • appointments — to succeed gamers, have to do something by or at a certain time (e.g. happy hour, events)
  • summative — e.g. best time as part of a reward

Each user group would need a different combination of game theory strategies to “nudge” them toward conservation.

Werby Nudging by Design

Personal Sharing — Design Focus on Individuals

Personal energy sharing focuses on better management of personal energy use — sharing with future-self. A person is competing with themselves. Like so many other personal challenges — weight loss, learning a new skill, training for a marathon — social engineering can provide the individual with tools to make the challenge easier to accomplish. First, it helps to break up large tasks into small easily doable components that build on themselves. Designers want to create many opportunities for personal successes — small, achievable, visible, and sharable. For the EDF Challenge “Sharing energy in the city, 2030”, these could be

  1. 2.5% reduction of electricity use per day
  2. using public transportation once a week
  3. 2.5% reduction of energy use during peak hours

All of these are easily achievable and they could build on themselves — the following week, reduce the energy use by 5%; use public transportation twice a week, and so on. For each accomplishment, give success points that can be shared with friends or social media networks:

“Dear Friends and Colleagues: I’ve started the EDF Challenge “Sharing energy in the city, 2030″ and in the first week I managed to reach all my stated goals. I’ve earned EDF Challenge Green Badge.”

People usually do better when others are tracking their progress. That’s why Weight Watchers work well — precisely negotiated goals + careful tracking of accomplishments at an appointed time schedule + public transparency over the goals and progress + frequent public support and recognition. This is a winning combination for personal “nudging” for good.

Family Sharing — Design Focus on Interpersonal Relationships

In a family, everyone knows each other very well and everyone is sharing the same energy resources under one roof. The competition is with other families for most energy saved. But within the family group, individuals are expected to collaborate with each other to achieve their goals of energy reduction. In this sense, similar strategies to Personal Sharing can be used, except that members of the household share the responsibility for total energy saved. Some household members could save more, some less. Careful negotiation and inter-family energy trading can be supported with tools designed to decrease the overall energy consumption per household.

The trick for Family Sharing is to also recognize individual accomplishments within the family energy saving achievement. And again, the goals for individuals and that for a whole family need to be small, achievable, visible, and sharable with a greater community.

Neighborhood or Community Sharing — Design Focus on Groups

The next level of sharing is a neighborhood or a community. Unlike in the previous sharing situations, members of this group can’t be expected to know each other well. Visibility will become key to social engineering — how can individual achievement within the group be made visible and how can the group as whole compete with other groups (e.g. other neighborhoods)?

These type of competitions already exist — school sports is a prime example. One school (i.e. one neighborhood community) competes with another by playing ball games or doing track and field activities. The overall scores are tracked by a committee that oversees all of the schools in a region. Thus a competition based on energy saving/sharing among larger communities needs to be tracked by an organizational body that has access to the scores of each participant community.

Neighborhood or Community Sharing is a geographically defined group. Each community might adapt its own strategy for energy sharing or conservation. Some might create car-sharing schemes or neighborhood-owned bike co-ops. This is all about community — share cars or commute together; take the kids to school in the same car; share shopping trips; organize neighborhood lighting and bike/car sharing schemes. There are many more examples.

Designers for Neighborhood or Community Sharing need to create tools that make the goals of the community easier to accomplish. At this scale, designers need to understand what is the best approach for energy conservation/sharing for particular community and build support structures that help that community to achieve its goals. This requires some research. Solutions have to be hyper local, addressing unique needs of each community (e.g. creating after school clubs that share heating, light, and internet connectivity among a large group of kids, as opposed to each kid going home and heating, lighting, and surfing individually).

City/Village Sharing — Design Focus on Social Institutions

This is a much larger and more diverse user group, and at this level, any group activity requires political involvement. City/village-wide energy sharing and conservation of power is about politics and policies that improve lives within a larger community. City-wide bike share is a prime example. But so is the investment into a great public transportation system and creating school start times that are compatible with employment opportunities, allowing families to manage and share resources better.

Game theory can be very helpful here as well. A municipality can set yearly goals for energy use reduction. City government can provide tax incentives (rewards) for households that save the most energy or who meet the desired goals set by the city council. The city can reward particular communities or schools that save the most energy with group prizes like block parties or getting priority on road re-pavement. All such activities would need to be democratically negotiated as part of the city-wide government.

The city can also encourage individual families to conserve energy by providing tax credits for installing solar power (or other renewable energy sources), or replacing old windows for super-insulated ones, or installing energy-saving appliances. The savings created by doing all of these energy reductions have to be made easily visible on the household energy bills — visible, trackable, understandable. This empowers families and individuals to take control over their energy use.

Small achievable goals that are supported by rewards, made public through social media visibility, and encouraged by the community can drive the EDF Challenge “Sharing energy in the city, 2030” through multiple levels of competition: self-competition, family competition, neighborhood-wide competitions, and civic-wide competition for the most energy shared and saved.