Governments everywhere have declared a climate emergency: it is high time for pandemic-like efforts to tackle it, on screen as well as off

Windmill

Written by Suzanne Maxted, Lead Consultant Strategy and Business architecture, Methods

A culture shift has emerged from the 2020 pandemic, nurtured by communications from governments, mostly onscreen. For example, in the UK, the “hands, face, space” message has, within a year, changed most people’s behaviour, perhaps permanently – it is too early to tell.

This paper asks whether government onscreen communications could invoke an equally huge culture shift in society to tackle the climate emergency and ecological crises.

In the first instance, much of the success of the “hands, face, space” slogan can be attributed to its communication via television, press briefings, and social campaigns – a proven medium that can be utilised to transform to a sustainable society.

Secondly, the notion of embedding a culture shift in mainstream media, in order to protect nature, is described by the Zero Carbon Britain report (CAT, 2019) as one way or ‘wicked solution’ to urgently address the ‘wicked problem’ of ecological collapse. Since storytelling has been employed effectively throughout human history to convey information and to influence people (Stibbe, 2020), the culture shift aims to engage the arts to create positive narratives (fiction or non-fiction) on screen, in film, advertisements, and in TV soap operas, to help people visualise a positive, prosperous and eco-friendly future to which they can contribute. These narratives move away from the consumerist ‘beautiful car, beautiful man’ persuasions to environmentally responsible storytelling (CAT, 2019).

A positive story set in 2030 is demonstrated by Greenpeace New Zealand (2020): “Everywhere you look, nature is thriving. … Thinking back, you didn’t believe it was even possible for things to turn around as quickly as they did.”

Finally, there is another form of onscreen communication that can be exploited. People must interact with government on screen to access services. The purpose of this paper is to discuss the potential of non-fictional or fictional stories, and pathways to participate or ‘signposts to action’, as components of standard government online services, to mobilise people to value nature and protect the living earth, as unwaveringly as we protect our own children. In the moment when they interact with government online, will many more people be inspired to take up cycling, join a local land army or city farm project, engage in civic decision-making, or lobby political representatives?

The question is relevant because in Western society many areas of personal and professional life require decision-making and obligatory administration in a digital on-screen environment (Weinmann et al., 2016), and most government services are now presented on screen (the author’s profession). Millions of people worldwide must interact with government online, for example, at least once per year to renew their car tax, millions more to apply for any kind of benefit such as child benefit, and all citizens should when they change address or register to vote.

Transforming to a sustainable society requires millions of people to act urgently (CAT, 2019). It seems imperative to the author to make it easy for them to do so. Hoping for and burdening individuals and businesses to first imagine, then investigate and then sign up to whatever they can do to contribute will take forever, and we have run out of time. We need millions of people acting now, and all non-essential jobs should shift towards essential work. Now. Once again, the scale of labour shift required to protect, restore and fund nature is apparently equivalent to WWII and the moon race projects rolled into one (see this blog post).

The discussion targets not only individuals, but also business owners, a central group for transformation, (Sukdev, 2012) who also make decisions based on personal values and local place identity (Kaesehage, Leyshon, Caseldine, 2014). Of course, national governments are central to a culture shift, just as they have been in the pandemic.

 

Evidence of existing solutions

  1. Covert nudges

Where traditional methods to motivate eco-friendly behaviour are considered difficult and costly (Henkel et al., 2019), the media has been found to be an essential tool to promote and induce pro-environmental behaviour (Huang, 2016). Another recent approach, ‘digital nudging’, also looks promising (Henkel et al., 2019).

A “nudge” is a term stemming from behavioural economics that describes a technique to guide people, through subtle choice alterations, to take desired actions (Oliver, 2013). They are now commonly used in government policy to influence economically beneficial choices for example, to save for retirement and pay taxes on time (Halpern, Sanders, 2016). In another setting, people might be guided to choose certain foods if they are placed on the centre shelf in a supermarket (Dunt, 2014).

Nudges are deemed an effective approach to influence behaviour provided they have specific aims for target demographics (Grillia, Curtisa, 2019, Andersson, 2019). Government nudges also have strong European citizen support (Reisch, Sunstein, 2016) but only if stripped of political or partisan cues which otherwise are subject to ethical judgements (Tannenbaum, Fox, Rogers, 2017).

Digital nudges use various communication technologies and user-interface elements in digital choice environments to guide people to take desired actions (Weinmann et al., 2016, Henkel et al., 2019). They are a promising approach in contexts such as emergency and disaster communication via social media (Mirbabaie et al., 2020) and sustainable travel decision-making (Andersson, 2019). In addition, most users i.e. the consumers involved, were positive about digital nudging in a private enterprise setting (Andersson, 2019).

In relation to sustainability, digital nudges are effective in nudging people (with a preference for the status quo) to act pro-environmentally (Henkel et al., 2019). Peth et al., (2018) positively tested famers’ distance-to-water compliance using a game device and nudge that included information and pictures about the environmental damage caused by nitrogen run-off.

A nudge appears to unconsciously guide and can be portrayed as mind control (Dunt, 2014). For example, a setting that defaults to an added tip when paying in a restaurant was found successful – the customer had to actively choose not to tip (Weinmann et al., 2016).

 

  1. Overt digital signposts to action

Oliver (2013) argues that government interventions to prevent harm and negative externalities should be more overt, and that covert nudges do not fulfil this need and might be deemed democratically unethical.

The author introduces an alternative concept to nudges: pathways to participation or ‘signposts to action’. Signposts are defined here as more obvious presentations of or links to stories (videos, articles) and invitations to participate – these could be deemed to inspire and encourage, rather than guide, people to consciously contribute to the ecological emergency effort.

No literature could be found to explain or explore their use in the government digital arena for sustainability purposes, although they are used in other contexts, most research having been carried out in off-line or private contexts (Weinmann et al., 2016).

In addition, there is little research on how effective government apps are on citizen ‘compliance’, however better government-citizen digital interaction can influence compliance (Wang et al., 2020) and the Cabinet Office Behavioural Insights Team (2012) found that, in a citizen compliance study, physically “making it easy” for people to respond, such as pre-filling forms with known information, had the strongest positive effect on persuading people to comply with tax requirements. Strikingly, the trial brought in £160m of tax debt within only 6 weeks of the trial period (Cabinet Office, 2012).

Peterson (2001) argues for a ‘lived ethic’ to connect people with nature so that they can make moral decisions more easilyDrawing on people’s significant emotional ties with their local environment, using ecologically contextual narratives, helps them understand and evolve their own values towards the natural world, such that protecting nature becomes part of everyday life and something to be proud of – liveable, understandable and practicable, in their own community. Narratives for sea-side residents might cover, say, ‘plastic soup for lunch’ causing sea-life sickness. In addition, positive stories related to people’s values and sense of place (Arnold, 2017, Kaesehage et al., 2019), and connecting people with nature are effective in motivating environmentally responsible behaviour (Zylstra, Knight, Esler, Le Grange, 2014).

 

Discussion

Encouraging sustainable behaviour as a government intervention via digital signposts can be considered a new application of storytelling and invitation.

Renewing one’s car tax is presented as an online UK government service. At the time of writing, the only link appearing on the page directs the reader to Brexit information. The author could find no pathways to pro-environmental action options on government pages. Natural England, tells the reader about Brexit and a tree planting project without any help for people to participate. The author imagines that, on the car tax renewal page, the image or video of a long dress wearer on a tricycle with Birmingham Big Bikes (Ashden, 2017) would grab the attention of people who consider bicycles too difficult or unsuitable for them to attempt cycling, and so sign up, easily on the same page, immediately, for free cycling lessons and a bike.

Making it as easy as technically possible could persuade more people to take action on climate change, especially given the speed at which this tactic worked in tax collection. The author’s observation is that it is easy to donate to charities on-line via advertisements but burdensome to find stories about local city farms, or to sign up to participate with an eco-friendly land army.

There is a reservation in that conditions must be right for people to act, with time, physical and mental capacity being necessary (Aponte, 2020) which, in itself, supports the argument to make engaging in action as easy as technology will allow, to increase take-up and embed environmental responsibility into everyday culture and society, just as recycling has taken hold in society through provision of bins and waste collection.

Making it convenient for people to absorb stories and pursue on-screen suggestions when they interact with government is likely to be successful, given evidence around people’s responses to experiments in other contexts (Cabinet Office, 2012, Mirbabaie et al, 2020), along with the knowledge that pro-environmental behaviours contribute to well-being – such an important ambition in the wake of the pandemic – and invoke further pro-environmental behaviour (Zawadzki, Steg, Bouman, 2020).

Changing the digital ‘face’ of government will require engaging with government decision-makers. The UK’s standards body is Government Digital Service (GDS) which appears to set service standards without referral to higher levels of government; GDS is guided by its advisory board, a steering group and an advisory group (GDS, 2021). If this is the case, engaging with GDS should be relatively straightforward.

 

Conclusion

Stories and signposts, triggered from government media, look to be a promising contribution to culture shift, especially where government digital service design is governed by a standards body in some countries, and where those same countries have declared a climate emergency.

The concepts explored could be extended beyond individual behaviour to other layers of decision-making, for example, helping local authorities to choose local and sustainable businesses and suppliers.

There may be many questions over what government should and should not encourage people to do but the coronavirus pandemic has set a precedent in just how quickly and effectively the public can be mobilised to act in an emergency, just as they were in wartime, which highlights the importance of considering the topic of this paper.

Further research could test effectiveness of stories and signposts in a government setting, and ethical judgements to avoid unintended consequences. Analysis could measure acceleration, as well as impact, feedback loops, and co-benefits using a sample set of eco-friendly projects. If benefits outweigh the relatively inexpensive cost of digital solutions, the analysis would support a policy implication to require pro-environmental action signposts on all government digital service pages.

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