A central issue in any discussion of a sustainable society is the issue of growth. Can we imagine a future where human prosperity is not measured in material wealth? Of course, says economist Tim Jackson, Economics Commissioner for the British government’s Sustainability Commission. And for a new definition of prosperity, behavioural economics might help.

Ingerid Helsing Almaas has talked to ”nudge”-architect Avani Parikh and Craig Dykers from Snøhetta about people and their architecture.

From the High Line i New York. Diller Scofidio + Renfro with James Corner & Field Operations, 2011. Photo: Are Carlsen.

The title of the Oslo Architecture Triennale 2013 is ”Behind the Green Door – Architecture and the Desire for Sustainability”.


Sustainable architecture has been on the drawing board for a while, and it is undoubtedly time to evaluate. But it is surely unfair to relegate all our efforts to the realm of desire, to cast a sustainable society as little more than a dream...? Of course the intentions of the triennale are considerable more substantial, and more productive. But in the article ”Pockets of Sustainability”, Maarten Gielen and Lionel Devlieger from the Belgian curator team Rotor conclude that the way to a sustainable society does not lie with Absolute Truths Applicable Everywhere. It is the small, temporary truths, which may quickly be displaced but that are nonetheless within the realm of the possible, which can have an effect, and which may slowly alter the way we live.

Growth and Prosperity

A crucial issue in any discussion of sustainability is of course the question of growth. The Earth’s limited resources will not allow unlimited growth, unless we can develop a cyclical economy where growth is based on renewable resources and supply and consumption find some kind of global balance. In his book Prosperity Without Growth from 2009, economist Tim Jackson discusses prosperity.1 Yes, he says, growth is possible. But if the aim of growth is just to increase material prosperity, we’ll run out. Instead, we need to adjust our idea of prosperity to the resources that are available to us.

The main conference of the Oslo Architecture Triennale has the title ”The Future of Comfort”, and grapples with the same dilemma. What is the good life of the future? Because of course we want it to be good, but what will that mean?

Jackson calls for a new concept of prosperity. A lot of studies have documented that the relation between human happiness and material prosperity is not proportional: More stuff does not actually make you happier. Once your basic needs are met and your survival and health relatively secure, people’s need for material goods diminishes, or rather, other things are more important for your happiness: meaningful relationships with other people, for example. Love, family, friends, things like that. The knowledge base for an alternative conception of prosperity is already established.

"Once your basic needs are met and your survival and health relatively secure, people’s need for material goods diminishes."

Can architecture, our built environment, be part of realising that new conception? Can architects contribute to building a new culture of human prosperity, not just as citizens, but in their professional capacity?

”Progress relies crucially on the construction of credible alternatives”, says Jackson in the concluding chapter of Prosperity Without Growth. ”The task is to create real capabilities for people to flourish in less materialistic ways. ... To renew our sense of public space, of public institutions, of common purpose. To invest money and time in shared goals, assets and infrastructures. It sounds grand, but it needn’t be. Green space, parks, recreation centres, sports facilities, libraries, museums, public transportation, local markets, retreats and ’quiet centres’, festivals: these are some of the building blocks for a new vision of social participation.”2

A more socially oriented life is at the heart of Jackson’s idea of an alternative prosperity. And his image is clearly physical: People’s lives are shaped by their built surroundings – a dream that architects and planners should be very well positioned to help realise.

Today, growth is primarily defined along economic parameters. Politically, market forces rule in most of the world. Can market mechanisms be directed to produce a sustainable human society on a finite planet? Yes, if people, both politicians and the populace, make sensible choices. Which, of course, they don’t.

Behavioural economics and nudging: The basis for a new architecture?

Behavioural economics has become an established field of research over the past few decades, but it is still unknown to most architects. Behavioural economics and one of its branches, prospect theory, looks at how people judge risk and make decisions in areas that have significant consequences for their opportunity to prosper: finance, health etc. And behavioural economists study the choices people actually make, rather than the choices they would ideally have made if they realised what was good for them.

"Because, as it turns out, whatever people think of themselves, in a lot of situations they will make quick and often wrong decisions."

One of the books that offer a larger audience a window into this field of research is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow from 2012.3 In this book, Kahneman gives an overview of the cognitive mechanisms governing people’s choices and decisions, and which lead to a number of common biases and trip-ups.4 Because, as it turns out, whatever people think of themselves, their education or their common sense, in a lot of situations they will make quick and often wrong decisions. They will make irrational choices, and choices that are not in their own best interests. Often because it is almost impossible to navigate the overwhelming tide of information a given situation presents them with, or because they use what little information they have in seemingly irrational ways. Kahneman maps the main biases, and suggests how we can avoid being misled by them.

Because people can of course be shown how to make good decisions, even when they don’t take the time to think very thoroughly about it. Behavioural economics and prospect theory is also the basis for another popular book that has had a great deal of influence over the past few years: Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, published in 2009. A ”nudge” is a small, but well-considered hint aimed at helping people to make better choices, or make the choice that actually serve them best.

Tim Jackson: _Prosperity Without Growth. Economics for a Finite Planet_, 2009Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein: _Nudge. Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness_, 2009Daniel Kahneman: _Thinking, Fast and Slow_, 2012

Nudging differs from the pushes and shoves of advertising, for example, by being overt: nudgers are very open about the nudges they provide. For example: British behavioural research has shown that if your print ”Nine out of ten people pay their back taxes in time” on the bill for your back taxes, the proportion of people who pay their back taxes on time goes up. Considerably. This particular nudge by the taxman increased voluntary back tax payments from 57% to 86% in just one year.5 This is the kind of result that has made nudge theory, as it has come to be called, a common reference in policy discussions. There are now ”nudge units” in both Downing Street and the White House.6

– Behavioural economics and prospect theory are providing us with a new model of man and with this, the ability to understand how people make choices, says Avani Parikh, a New York-based architect who has shown how prospect theory, which is derived from psychology, and the economists’ ”nudge theory”, can provide interesting insights into architecture and planning. – With this new model we can also get a better understanding of the built environment and introduce more effective design solutions.

Avani Parikh

"Behavioural economics and prospect theory are providing us with a new model of man", says Avani Parikh.

Parikh’s initial study looked at architectural examples of ”nudges” in the field of health planning, and focused on health prevention and cost control. – When prospect theory was first introduced in the 1970s, Kahneman and Tversky, because they were psychologists, were able to show that people don’t make the same decisions about the same things, she says. – They found that decisions are reference based, and that people don’t think in terms of final stakes, even for decisions concerning their own health or wealth... People think in terms of what is directly in front of them, about minor changes, and they will look at their choices depending on their frame of reference.

Framing, context, habits and habitat all have an effect on how people make choices. The physical implications of the findings of the behavioural economists quickly became evident. Parikh came across prospect theory and behavioural economics three years ago, when she was preparing a submission for the 7th Design & Health World Congress in Boston in 2011.7 People were already looking at behavioural economics and ”choice architecture”, the term Thaler and Sunstein uses to describe their policy work. But the concepts were not being applied to the built environment or to general architectural thinking.

Avani Parik's "nudge" poster from the 7th Design and Health World Congress in 2011. One of the first presentations of architecture nudges. The devices may be familiar, but the connection to behavioural economics yields surprising results.

– All I did was to analogise some of their findings and apply them to my field, says Parikh. – It wasn’t quite evident how one might be able to translate those insights, but it gave some interesting results.

Parikh’s examples drew from the recently published NYC Active Design Guidelines, but she added explanations, based on the theory, for why certain interventions worked and others did not.8 A trivial example was the NYC ”stair prompt”, a poster campaign developed by the Center for Active Design to promote the use of stairs in public buildings. The bright green poster says ”Burn calories, not electricity”, a proposal that could actually explain the campaign’s limited effectiveness.9 Her explanation showed that if you look at this in the light of prospect theory, people would actually perceive it as a loss rather than a gain. Nudge says that if people perceive something to be easier, as something that adds value for them, i.e. a gain, they’re more likely to choose that. And so if you were to reverse the stair prompt, by saying for example ”Add energy to life”, you’ve made it a positive, and you’ll get people to actually do it.

This stair prompt is being distributed by the New York Center for Active Design.

The brain that moves us

Another architect who recognises the potential of the nudge concept is Craig Dykers, senior partner of Snøhetta. – Nudge is a nice word, he says. – I was once told a story about a sheepdog. Whenever the owner of the dog had a party, it would start off like most parties do, with people congregating in the kitchen. But after a few hours, everyone would find themselves crammed together in the opposite corner of the room. Without anyone noticing, by nudging everyone at the ankles, the sheepdog had herded the party into the corner. This would inevitably happen, no matter how many people were there.

"Without anyone noticing, by nudging everyone at the ankles, the sheepdog had herded the party into the corner."

– This anecdote made me realise how limited our perception is. Our bodies are beautiful machines, much of the time they operate without the help of our conscious mind. The brain is the body, operating autonomously as it navigates within changing environments.

Craig Dykers

Dykers’ brother suffers from short-term memory loss.

– It has made me recognize the problem of how to navigate without memory. If you don’t have the luxury of memory, you can’t use many of the rules, conventions and faculties you normally call on to manage your life. You just have to take things as they are presented to you, he says. – Part of the way you move is instinctual anyway, or course, but what is instinct? I love that question too, says Dykers.

– My brother’s way of getting around is instinctive. And most of ability to navigate has to do with nudging. Dykers explains: – A good example of this is the commonplace problem of finding toilets in a restaurant. We have all found ourselves in this situation: Even if you have never been to the place before, there are certain things you tend to look for... A stair going down, a corner off to the side, a screened opening at the back... And that’s what my brother does, that’s how he navigates. And when he returns to the dining room he might not remember where he was sitting or who he was with, but he looks for signs, nudges: An empty seat, or a group of people with a lull in their conversation. That is our lizard brain working, the part of the brain that allows us to do things without knowing.

Isn’t this what we are doing anyway?

To a certain extent, nudge theory may be seen as simply describing what architects are doing every day: We imagine how people will use the spaces we design, and how they will be experienced.

"Good architects know a lot of this already, but now can use it with the aid of a vocabulary that bridges across to the social sciences."

– I have been cautious about how to introduce what I am doing in an architectural context, says Avani Parikh. – There are many mechanisms – such as forced perspective, changes of scale, as you will see in the study – that can be used to nudge. These play with things that architects, sculptors and painters have been doing throughout history. They have played with people’s perception of their environment. Good architects know a lot of this already, but now can use it with the aid of a vocabulary that bridges across to the social sciences.

Arkitektur N: Architects mostly do it intuitively, without the benefit of evidence or theoretical backup, and often with quite vague intentions, which can make an architectural proposal seem very fragile or flimsy when confronted with hard-line financial or political arguments. And even when the proposal is good, architects often have only the evidence of their own experience, their own assumptions, to refer to.

– And they often don’t really have the language to present that experience. But if you can say that this is an example of non-linearity, or good use of framing, or avoids the status quo bias, for example, then the connection to economics gives you a different authority. I went into this because I kept feeling that unless you have some sort of economic argument available to you, you are going to be value-engineered out of the picture, and nobody listens to architects when the inevitable cost-cutting process starts. And yes, the best architects may already be doing this and more, but the profession in general never had this sort of language, or the evidence to show how the built environment actually does impact people.

Arkitektur N: Have you experienced the benefit of these arguments yourself?

– Yes. It is a very new field, but yes. But I have been holding back, because I haven’t been sure how the architectural community would react. And I would like build some more evidence before presenting it. Actually, when I did the conference poster, I was in doubt as to whether to submit it, because it just seemed so very obvious once it was done. But then I found it wasn’t.

Following the reductionist social engineering that went on in architecture in much of the post-war period, architects for the past couple of decades seem to have been resisting a certain kind of rationalisation or operationalization of architecture. They have tried to turn to aesthetic argumentation, often claiming that it is only architects who see the whole picture. They are probably right, but if they can’t back up their argument, it tends to isolate them from some the realities of the building industry, and it leads to a lot of disappointment.

However, framing certain aspects of architectural decision-making in terms of behavioural economics, for example, doesn’t detract anything from architecture. And with the introduction of psychology, you might be able to acknowledge the value of that emotive aesthetic expertise in the design process?

Parikh agrees. – In fact, she says, – It allows you to not just respond to a more realistic model of man, but you find that administrators and others on the opposite side of the table are also willing to accept that man has both dimensions: the rational side and the ”irrational” or emotive side, and that you need to address both.

Evidence-based design

It may be obvious that architects are working to create the framework for how people live. But what do they base their designs on, beyond their own intuition and life experiences? And how representative is that, really? And, if they base their designs on the lives and conventions of people today, how can architects ever become the agents of change?

– It is apparent that nudge and prospect theory can impact the physical environment, says Avani Parikh. – And at least in the field of health planning and building for health, people are beginning to work with these ideas.

Arkitektur N: Why in health?

– Because health has been the first field in architecture to use evidence-based design. It has always drawn upon science, more than many of the other areas of the discipline. Health planners have been looking at research to formulate programmes and develop design. Medicine is evidence-based, and it’s obvious for health professionals to value evidence-based design.

– I think evidence-based architecture is important, says Parikh. – People in a variety of fields are already collecting behaviour databases, open-source databases for behavioural studies, and architects should add their own experience into them.10 They have a lot of experience, from talking to their clients, a lot of relevant information, and now they have the opportunity to take some sort of leadership in this field.

Arkitektur N: Are there other areas of architecture where prospect theory and nudge can be of particular use?

– Yes, Housing, education and health are the immediate areas of course, but even cultural facilities can benefit from evidence-based research. Can we document what it is that creates that feeling of awe, or wonder, that you expect from a significant cultural building? If you could, perhaps some of our cultural centres would be more distinguished.

Oslo Opera. Snøhetta, 2008. People can walk on the roof: A powerful architectural nudge!

From the High Line in New York. Diller Scofidio + Renfro with James Corner & Field Operations, 2011. An urban nudge.

Avani Parikh sees evidence-based design as a potential springboard for new ways of thinking. – I think it would be wonderful. You’ve seen the High Line in New York, or the Opera House in Oslo, with people walking up the roof – people are really doing something differently. Those are culturally innovative projects, that change behaviour in a way you can effect with good architecture, and that you perhaps argue for on the basis of nudge and prospect theory.

Leap of faith

But in any project there is still a leap of faith. Evidence from previous projects is one thing, but in architecture, each project is unique.

– Of course, says Parikh. – This is not hard and fast evidence. But even in physics you take a leap of faith... Einstein had to take a leap of faith to overcome Newtonian physics. So that’s how creativity and innovation happen.

But few architects do systematic research. Craig Dykers has developed a different approach to arguing for solutions and designs in Snøhetta’s projects.

– People have asked me in various situations, when I discuss our way of working: “How do you become such an expert on all these things?” It’s a good question, he says. – I’m just doing what I do, and I try to do it as best I can, and think about it as much as I can. But I’m not an expert. Ultimately I would say evidence is simply a manifestation of intuition. You use your intuition, and then you gather evidence. Sometimes the evidence qualifies your intuition, sometimes it does not, nevertheless you can’t erase your initial intuitive guidance.

– I can’t take the time to look at ten different buildings and document how they work, although I am constantly analysing things. And my motivation when I look into something is the same as the motivation for the evidence-based designer. The difference is that they have the capacity to follow it up, and to document. I have to operate with whatever I have available to me at the time: research, memories, stories, experiences, analogies, whatever.

Arkitektur N: But what if your intuition is wrong?

– Even evidence-based thinking can be wrong. I often say that doubt is one of our most powerful tools. Most of our work as architects is far from perfect; it focuses on absurdities alongside convenience... That is perhaps a manifestation of who we are as creatures. I think when things are wrong, it is because they manifest negativity and stress in our world. When I see a creature in the zoo pacing frantically from side to side in its cage, I know that something is wrong with its environment. When I see similar manifestations in the human world, I try to think of ways to adjust that environment.

Arkitektur N: If you look at the stair in the Hunt Library, which you have placed in the middle of the space and painted bright yellow: To verify your design, to produce the evidence, as it were, you would have to have a bunch of graduate students sit there and record how many people used it and how and at what times, where they stopped and so on.

The staircase of the James B. Hunt Library, North Carolina State University. Snøhetta, 2013.  
The stair is yellow and placed right along the main sight- and circulation lines to encourage users.

– Yes. But the challenge for these post-occupancy studies, like in any other science experiment, is that any solution is site-specific. And you can’t recreate the exact same context in the next project, you will never be able to find a model that predicts everything accurately at all times. Which is how many people approach quantitative analysis. But architecture is not a science in that way, says Dykers.

Arkitektur N: No. But behavioural studies can say something about probabilities; they can support your assumptions about future behaviour. At Snøhetta, for example, you must be constantly faced with the expectation that you should argue for your proposals?

– Of course, says Dykers. – But since I don’t have the capacity to throw a scientific study on the table – and even if I did nobody would read it –my response usually is to say something surprising or unexpected to get people to understand what we are proposing. I have to convince them on a different level. You could say that I nudge people by the use of narrative, to get them to accept a nudge in design reasoning.

Arkitektur N: So you’re asking them to come with you and make that intuitive leap? You are, in effect, asking for their trust?

– Yes. We always need to build trust, even if we are using data. Data is not inherently trustworthy.

Asking for trust seems a risky strategy, and it is dependent on a certain charisma and rhetorical talent, in addition to architectural skill. But I have seen Craig Dykers in action. He is very good at it, at these rhetorical nudges, good at getting people to see what they need and how architecture can help solve it for them.

Architectonic nudges

– Right now a common challenges for me is vertical movement, says Craig Dykers. – Americans tend to resist stairs, they want to be transported up and down by escalators and elevators. When we design a poignant staircase, nearly everyone says, “No one will want to go up stairs.” But I’ve sat and watched people go up stairs, and want to go up stairs, and yes, it can be a challenge, but a good stair is a great thing. To argue for making a stair a prominent feature, basically all I need do is look around the table and say: ”We have too much obesity and diabetes in the world, people are getting more and more overweight. You know it and I know it.”

"To argue for making a stair a prominent feature, basically all I need do is look around the table and say: We have too much obesity and diabetes in the world. You know it and I know it."

– So in architecture, we should place staircases directly in the visual corridor, and tuck elevators to the side. We should be making landings with interesting viewpoints, so people will want to go up and look around. Nudges, if you will, that would engage people to move their bodies more.

– We should work with the notion of light and dark. People tend to move like moths, you know, differences in light levels push you around. Vertical movement is similarly subconscious. When elevators came along we lost a long tradition of stair design. A good stair should be clear and suggestive of where you came from and where you are going. All that manner of thinking was wiped out. No one, or very few, teach this in architecture school. A stair is just a stair. And even with great architects, people I really admire, some of their stairs are pitiful!

– We should be able to create space that not only promotes interactivity between people, but that also allows you to feel good in your own skin as you move about. And that doesn’t mean making everything easy. It just means creating places that allow you to make choices about how you navigate, or how your body wants to move.

Nudge and sustainability

Sustainability is another field where nudge is becoming a reference, even in Norway. There has already been a climate-nudge conference in Kristiansand, and the organisation GreeNudge is travelling around the country advising towns and municipalities on how small nudges can have big effects in establishing a green lifestyles and implementing new proposals.11,12

So, can we nudge the dream of sustainability into reality?

As Tim Jackson says: ”It’s clear that changing the social logic of consumption cannot simply be relegated to the realm of individual choice. In spite of a growing desire for change, it’s almost impossible for people to choose sustainable lifestyles, however much they’d like to. Even highly motivated individuals experience conflict as they attempt to escape consumerism. And the chances of extending this behaviour across society are negligible without changes in social structure.”13

– Nudge makes sense on a policy level, says Avani Parikh, who has a lot of experience with public planning. – You can facilitate certain things. Non-Communicable Diseases, lifestyle diseases like obesity and diabetes, are all a result of how people have made decisions. And partly it’s because of how one has designed the physical environment. For cars, for walking, cycling etc.

– In fact, you could be talking about designing more resilient cities: You can see it in an almost medical way, trying to find out what prevents bad lifestyle choices. I like that. How does one create a resilient urban environment?

"The boundaries we set for how market forces operate and shape society can obviously be changed – but it will take a great deal of political openness and economic creativity."

Most urban development and design decisions today are in one way or another connected to the workings of market forces. The marked can be seen as creative in the way that it will operate within the allowed boundaries: It will exploit whatever it is allowed to exploit, for better or for worse. This is where we are today. So if we want economic changes, for example in the development of a sustainable society, we need to set new boundaries for the market. Because the boundaries can obviously be changed – but it will take a great deal of political openness and economic creativity.

The framework for a sustainable future is given by the decisions we make today. And there is a lot of potential in making good surroundings for people, particularly in the cities. Do we have politicians who are willing to reshape our physical environment, allowing us to make the right choices for the future?

  1. Tim Jackson: Prosperity Without Growth. Economics for a Finite Planet. Earthscan, London 2009. For the UK Sustainable Development Commission, see www.sd-commission.org.uk 

  2. Jackson, p. 193. 

  3. Daniel Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. The formulation of prospect theory earned Kahneman and his fellow psychologist Amos Tversky the Nobel Prize for economics in 2002. 

  4. Read Jim Holt's review of Thinking, Fast and Slow in the New York Times Review of Books here. 

  5. A background article on the effect of the tax nudge in Harvard Business Review, here. 

  6. For more on David Cameron’s ”nudge unit” click here.
    Nudge-author Richard Thaler was directly involved in establishing the unit. He has also been adviser to Obama’s government. 

  7. For a link to the Design & Health World Congress 2011, click here. 

  8. New Yorks ”Active Design Guidelines” can be downloaded here. 

  9. Download the Stair Prompt here. 

  10. The AIA BRIK database of design-relevant peer-reviewed research.. Search “behaviour” in the database. 

  11. Norwegian nudges: Information on the 2013 Climate Nudge Conference in Kristiansand here. 

  12. GreeNudge is an organisation aiming to initiate, fund and promote research into behavioural change as a climate measure. 

  13. Jackson, p. 153. 

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