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These Citywide Behavioral Science Experiments Are Paying Off

Cities like New York and Chicago are finding that small nudges in form design or simple text messages can make the city more equitable and run more smoothly.

These Citywide Behavioral Science Experiments Are Paying Off
Cross junction in the northwest corner of the Loop in Chicago (Tower 18). [Photo: Daniel Schwen/Wikimedia Commons]

In New York City, a redesigned reminder notice about SNAP food stamp eligibility has reduced the number of people who forget to submit to continue their benefits by almost 6% overall. People aren’t just remembering to file that paperwork, they’re doing it more quickly, which helps administrators keep the program running smoothly.

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That same trouble seemed to be occurring with second-year college students on federal student aid, about 40% of which didn’t renew after their initial year in school. Many otherwise smart kids have to drop out because they can’t afford that mistake. At CUNY, several different tests led to the idea of paired email and text reminders around the deadline. That spurred 31% more kids into action.

In Chicago, where the subway becomes congested during Cubs games, a text reminder paired with a rebate for one free ride coaxed users to avoid peak time, reducing crowding by 17%. The effort keeps commuters from going crazy, and helps the trains keep running on time.

In each case, an intervention that cost just a few dollars or less per person yielded tens of thousands of dollars in benefit—or, in the case of Chicago, dramatically improved quality of life. But these are just three of dozens of behavioral science driven nudges being invented by the those city-sanctioned design teams, both of which have spent the last couple years collaborating with Ideas42, a nonprofit behavioral design firm, to show how small, thoughtful tweaks in how basic governmental processes work can make metros run more safely, smoothly, and ultimately convince citizens to act in ways that dramatically improve their lives.

The work–which was backed in New York by the Arnold Foundation, and in Chicago by the MacArthur Foundation–aligns with both funders’ goals of providing both more equity and opportunity to the underprivileged and creating a more just and verdant world. But for Ideas42, many of these successes are a chance to prove out that these concepts actually pay for themselves. Cities that buy-in by staffing their own behavioral design teams can provide their citizens with outsized rewards.

“The rubber meets the road for a lot of critical human services with city governments and with state governments,” says Anthony Barrows, an Ideas42 managing director who leads the organization’s city design work. “And so going to the largest cities in the country–if you’re doing something like helping people get access to food stamps more effectively, or helping them get access to their federal student financial aid more effectively–you’ve just baked scale into your work.”

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To encourage other places to adopt similar practices, Ideas42 has compiled a public playbook outlining all of its experiments in both places. The guide, which has the straightforward title “Behavioral Design Teams: A Model for Integrating Behavioral Design in City Government” is accompanied by a tip guide, that clearly enumerates five ways to get started and continue success. (In behavioral parlance, such clear and timely directions improve the odds those with good intentions actually act.)

The report breaks various New York and Chicago experiments into six categories: economic mobility, education, equity and justice, government operations, health, sustainability. Not everything that was tried actually worked (and in some cases, it’s too early to tell the results) but it’s all a helpful blueprint that other cities can learn from. Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia are pioneering their own behaviorally minded municipal practices, and Bloomberg Philanthropies is also working with its own city partners about how to do more in this area.

“My sincere hope is that we see more behavioral design teams popping up in cities and even at the state level across the country,” Barrows says. “What we’re hoping we can do with this playbook is share practical lessons that can help people make the right choices.” Long term, he’d like to see such nudges inspire a deeper commitment to embedding behavior design thinking to all sorts of civic processes. “These small tweaks are great and they produce these oversized impacts for their cost in their effort. And there’s a ton more that we could be doing.”

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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