Nudging citizens towards social innovation?

Nudging citizens towards social innovation?

05.09.2013 Blog

What is nudge and what does it have to do with social innovation? Much has been said about how Barack Obama harnessed the power of the social web in his ultimately successful bid for the White House. His campaign was heavily influenced by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s book ‘Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness’ (2008) (You can read more about the book and  about success stories here) and, as a result, ‘nudge’ has become the hottest term in brand communications, and a new approach in policy-making. As a side-note, following mixed reviews during the past 5 years, it looks as if nudge is back in fashion in the White House.

Thaler and Sustain theory focusses on changing peoples’ behavior without binding regulation or legislation. What is the big idea? A Guardian article summarizes: It comes down to this: you’re not as smart as you think. Humans are less rational and more influenced by peer pressure and suggestion than governments and economists reckon.

The core subject of ‘nudge’ is ‘choice architecture’ — the art of indirectly influencing decision-making. Indirect routes that gently nudge an audience towards an ultimate goal is an attractive proposition, particularly as governments are going depend more and more on people to take social responsibility and socially innovate.

For evidence-based effective policy making, there is some evidence that nudge could advance to a powerful instrument across the value chain of data collection, data analysis, and support for action. However, nudging is only part of a powerful set of strategic new, crowd-based data tools, that might be appropriate for complex multidimensional and highly dynamic societal challenges such as social innovation. See for example Nudging lifestyles for better health outcomes: crowd-sourced data and persuasive technologies for behavioural change (2011) written by Brigitte Piniewski, Cristiano Codagnone, and David Osimo.

So could this be a mechanism governments should be using to support social innovation? They are certainly trying across the political spectrum and with more or less success across domain areas too.

For instance, nudge is applied from Obama to Cameron from the political left to the political right, and in some countries like the UK even has its own delivery team: In the UK this is the Behavioural Insights Team, often called the ‘Nudge Unit’, applies insights from academic research in behavioural economics and psychology to public policy and services. The nudge unit works with local authorities, charities, NGOs, private sector partners and foreign government, in addition to working with almost every government department, developing proposals and testing them empirically across the full spectrum of government policy.

In Denmark, Pelle Guldborg Hansen, chairman of the Danish Nudging Network and CEO of, has collaborated with several Danish Authorities, including The Danish Business Authority, The Danish Competition and Consumer Authority, Danish Environmental Protection Agency, and Danish Energy Agency amongst others. One success? The group claims to have initiated and helped draft a suggestion for prompted choice for organ donation in 2012 to be put before Danish parliament by the Danish Social-Liberal party in 2013.

For more discussion about the politics of nudge please see an article by Gerry Stoker here.

But do citizens like to be nudged? Ipsos Mori recently conducted some international research considering the public acceptability of a range of measures intended to change behavior across four key policy areas: smoking; eating unhealthy foods; saving for retirement; and living in an environmentally sustainable way. Big national differences immediately catch the eye: the much higher acceptability of state intervention on behaviour in countries such as India and China than in wealthy North European nations – from Sweden to the UK – and the USA’s wariness in particular. Generally speaking though there is surprisingly high overall level of public support for action – and especially for more transparent information and various ‘nudges’.

Is nudging really the appropriate method to effect sustainable change for social innovation? Luc Bovens, the author of an article called the ethics of nudge  begs to differ. He argues that in the democratic process we may give the government a mandate to engage in certain types of nudges. But then we wish to respect the right of minorities who do not appreciate this type of manipulation. To safeguard their interests, we stipulate that every nudge should be such that it is in principle possible for everyone who is watchful to unmask the manipulation.

Rather than being an effective policy intervention tool to empower citizens,he argues that nudge is less desirable when it creates a people who have become incapable of taking their lives in their own hands and to make autonomous changes in their agency to make it fit in with their overall preference structure. Such long-term infantilisation effects are difficult to assess empirically but it is nonetheless a concern that does not go away. Adam Smith (Part VI, Sect. III; 143- 5) thought that adversity was the best school to develop the respectable virtue of self-command. In other words, the cost of nudge may be high as governments might “forego the chance to gain the virtue of self-command.”

Summarizing, there is no question that network technologies and especially social technologies have created the opportunity to nudge. There is also no question that social innovation is a complex multidimensional and highly dynamic societal challenge governments all around the world are facing.

However, governments should maintain key principles when applying nudge theory:

  • Mix&match – evidence seems to suggest that nudging is most effective if part of a mix of policy tools.
  • Be open – engage rather than manipulate and listen to your citizens.
  • Be transparent – inform citizens about what you are doing and create the debate about the potential of nudging.
  • Experiment carefully – Sustainable social innovation requires agency, and local responsibility-taking. Consider carefully when to nudge and think about wether it’s a sustainable intervention.
  • Monitor and openly discuss the potential negative consequences of the soft paternalism or “nanny-state” nudging may produce.


Picture is picture of book cover, downloaded from this website.