In a world of increasing globalization people with very different experiences and backgrounds are bound to interact even more intensely. The nudge approach offers its own ways of smoothing the process and Singapore leads the way.
A symbiosis of social coordination and nudging
Imagine coming to a country where most of your daily commuting was guided by colorful signs, where huge arrows told you which line to stand in and tiny cartoon kittens implored you to recycle your trash or limit your use of plastic bags. Well, guess what, this “Nudgetopia” exists and its name is Singapore.
What Vegas is to gambling, Singapore is to the use of behavioral strategies in its public spaces, everything is bigger, brighter and weirder. Yet, even for a cold headed scandinavian this far reaching communal strategy for guiding both native citizens and foreigners starts making sense in city with one of the highest and most diverse populations in the world.
Singapore, which is pretty much just one gigantic city, has 5.800.000 citizens, and 40 pct. (or 2.320.000) of these are expats living there from anything between weeks to decades. Add an additional influx of 10.000.000 tourists per year and you have a cultural melting pot that makes the US seem homogenous in comparison.
The unwritten rules
In most European countries, such a vast influx of foreigners, all used to several different behavioral “rules”, combined with Singapore´s very limited amounts of public space, would quickly ensure that public life broke down. With our many (and often inconspicuous) rules for public behavior, we expect everyone to know what to do and how to interact without needing explicit guidance. These implicit rules get us by to such an extent that foreigners almost always get them wrong, which in turn ensures that they stand out from the locals. Although these occurrences can be a source of much amusement (usually more for the locals than the tourists), it also slows down the public pace and increases the risk of accidents.
For a country like Singapore to function properly, it needs social coordination that enables everyone to get by in day to day life without constantly having to exert energy on “figuring out the rules”. This concept or strategy isn’t nudging per se. The key when coordinating social life is efficiency first and foremost and simple social coordination is being done all over the world with no particular eye towards increasing pro-social behavior, health or happiness. For instance when we tell people to stand at one side of the escalators so that people can walk past them or mark where pedestrians should cross the street so that traffic can run smoothly. Neither of these would be necessary in a village (the villagers would simply know all this by heart), but crucial in a city with many different people from many different places are mingling and interacting all at once.
Salience, Visual Perception and Conjunctive Norms
What makes Singapore stand out is the city’s symbiosis of social coordination and nudging resulting in a fluent and easy environment for both foreigner and natives to get by. The following are but a few examples:
An escalator has many advantages for people being in a hurry. While ascending half of the work is being done for you and you can arrive at the top in about half the time as if you had chosen the regular stairs. Sadly this advantage hasn’t gone by unnoticed and thus you will often find yourself on a clogged up, slow-moving escalator while glancing envious to the left at those overtaking you on the wide open stairs.
This scenario does not only produce a problem for the speed on which pedestrians can move from A to B, it also removes the chance of getting a small amount of exercise that would make a huge difference in the long run. A solution to this problem might be located in this example from Singapore where salience (the colors of the stairs) and visual cues (the pictogram of a walking man) primes the pedestrians to take the stairs rather than the escalator.
Now-a-days a car will provide you with a mirage of information while you are driving: Speedometer, Tachometer and even a roadside thermometer – which of all are useful inputs for safe (and legal) driving. But driving is not like solving a mathematical equation as much as it is a “gut-feeling” or to put it in more technical terms we often measure our driving from informations provided by our visual perception of the surroundings and process it through the automatic system (which unfortunately doesn’t provide you with the correct information).
In Singapore they have used this knowledge of how we estimate speed to help drivers slow down on stretches of road that has a high risk of accidents. The horizontal lines make it seem like the driver is going faster and thus he is more likely to slow down.
No Pets Allowed
Walking through a park you have properly stumbled upon a sign saying “Don’t step on the grass!” and while the message is clear you might have found yourself wondering “why not?”. A likely answer would be (or so my abilities of deduction concludes) that a park frequently visited by a large amount of people would quickly find itself without any grass if walking on it was allowed. However, since this is not stated on the sign it appears almost as a “dare” and more often than not visitors will put it to the test with no salient consequences for either them or the park (other then an almost invisible portion of the collective destruction of the grass).
Singapore, being such a densely populated country, is no exception – but instead of doubling the amount of park rangers to keep people in check they found a way to incorporate a nudge into their park signs. Studies show that if you frame the message of a sign into a positive conjunctive norm people tend to follow. The example (the picture to the right) shows how a typical pictogram of a dog is followed not only by an explanation to why you can’t bring pets into the forest but a premature expectation that you concur, formulated in a positive manner (Thank you for your co-operation).
The above mentioned examples are only a handful of the well-planed nudges you stumble upon when moving around in Singapore but many more exist out there if you know where to look.
What we can learn from “Nudgetopia”
So, what can we learn from Singapore? You may flinch at the notion of having our public spaces covered in signs telling you everything from how to stand in line, to what and how you should eat.However, it’s highly unlikely that most cities in the world will ever reach the same level of symbiosis of social coordination and nudging as Singapore in any near future since very few cities are as densely packed with so much cultural variation. Still the global trend is moving towards an increased urbanization, and one result of the strong pressure towards fine-tuning social coordination by nudging is Singapore´s emerging status as one of the worlds best real-world laboratories when it comes to this particular branch of Nudge.
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