Role of Behavioral Science and Design

Wastewater pollution can often be the result of human activity. Open defecation, unmaintained or improperly managed sewage and septic systems, illegal dumping and more all contribute to the excess nitrogen and phosphorous entering our waterways. Furthermore, while technological innovation and policy reform are often necessary precursors to change, the adoption, implementation and enforcement of these mechanisms require additional efforts to ensure successful reductions of wastewater pollution.

Behavior-centered design can help overcome many of the remaining barriers to this challenge. Traditionally, environmental practitioners have relied heavily on three levers for changing behaviors: rules and regulations (such as policies and laws), material incentives (such as financial payments or taxes) and information campaigns (such as sharing data). While they can be effective, these levers rely heavily on an assumption that people make all their decisions in purely rational, maximizing terms.

Levers of behavioral change
Levers of behavioral change (Source: RARE)

Recent research in social and behavioral sciences indicates that environmental interventions, such as those addressing wastewater pollution, should incorporate a more holistic set of levers underpinning human decision-making and behavior, including the following premises:

  1. Emotions are often more powerful than reason.
  2. People are inherently a social species and influenced as such.
  3. The context and timing of our decision- making matters.

These levers are relevant across all types of interventions. They can be applied in smaller communities or across large urban areas. Similarly, they can be used effectively across diverse types of audiences. While many consider behavior change campaigns to be most relevant for public-facing efforts, recent research also indicates that social norms can be effective in encouraging compliance of discharge limits by wastewater utilities.

Yet knowing when, where and how to apply these behavioral levers can be challenging for practitioners. Behavior-Centered Design (BCD) is a method that combines behavioral science and design thinking to develop and implement successful change interventions. Practitioners can follow this process to strategically design solutions that leverage behavioral science and drive towards the desired reduction in pollution. These methods are widely recognized among behavior change experts and often emerge through other best practices. For example, the Strategic Communications Planning Process promotes similar steps and analyses to develop effective messaging campaigns. The approaches lead practitioners to develop interventions that specifically target the key stakeholders with messages that resonate and come from those that influence them the most.

Combining behavioral design with the necessary expertise in the biological and natural sciences, policy reform, and sanitation system management provides a more comprehensive toolkit for tackling the wastewater pollution problem facing our oceans.