About This Live Project

Sheffield Homes is an Arms Length Management Organisation (ALMO) set up and owned by Sheffield City Council to manage council housing in Sheffield. As our client, Sheffield Homes offered us a list of potential project briefs for us to choose from, all of which deal with important issues and concerns regarding the current council housing stock in Sheffield. Our group decided to embark upon developing innovative solutions to address the important issue of waste disposal in flatted council estates. Our hope is that our efforts can offer strong design initiatives on the topic whilst creating awareness and incentive on the importance of recycling and proper disposal of household waste.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Default Architectures

Default –noun
1.failure to act; inaction or neglect.
3.Lawfailure to perform an act or obligation legally required, esp. to appear in court or to plead at a time assigned.
6.Computersa value that a program or operating system assumes, or a course of action that a program or operating system will take, when the user or programmer specifies no overriding value or action.

Design is always political...
 ...even if we're not always aware of it. Even something as mundane a door schedule contains all sorts of political decisions about privacy, ownership, exclusion, status, behavior. At the same time though, design is not the same as politics. As Buckminster Fuller argued - 'Redesign the environment, don't redesign people.' There are a number of instances where 'political' tactics (e.g-advertising) are used to alter behavior as a substitute for changing the system. Politicians tell us not to fly on holiday - a designer might instead develop a zero-carbon means of intercontinental transport.

The 'Recycling' Myth
'Recycling' too falls into this trap. The conventional wisdom is that we need to use advertising campaigns and incentives to persuade people to recycle. But that may well be because we see recycling as something 'extra' we expect people to do above and beyond getting rid of their waste. Hardly anyone needs an incentive to get rid of the waste - we just want rid of it. 'Recycling' is only seen as a separate, extra activity if it requires more time, more effort or more money on the part of the consumer. That's not a political problem - that's a design problem. We haven't integrated 'Recycling' into the the design of waste disposal system, so it takes political persuasion to make up for the shortfall in design.

'Choice Architecture'
A book I'm reading at the moment (which I would recommend to everyone), 'Nudge' by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein looks in detail at the design of the environments in which we make decisions. Skirting sensitively on the edges of social engineering (what it refers to as 'Libertarian Paternalism'), its basic premise is that there is always a 'choice architecture', whether we choose to design it or not . Businesses use choice architecture to exploit us ("Would you like to supersize that?"), so why shouldn't we use choice architectures to bring about more socially-beneficial outcomes? The 'default' option is the one that people conform to when they don't think about it, so if you want people to behave in ways which are better for the health, the environment or society, don't try to persuade them to put effort into doing it, but try to design the system until the 'correct' course of action is the default - the easiest.

A good example I heard about recently has been pioneered by Gateshead council, who rather than spending money on advertising campaigns persuading people to lower their salt intake, supplied local take-aways and fish & chip shops with re-designed salt shakers, with 5 rather than the usual 17 holes. This works because we don't gauge the amount of salt we take on the plate with our eyes, we just habitually give it 2 or 3 shakes. By and large no-one notices that the chips are any less salty. The important thing is that the salt shakers don't prevent you from eating salt, but by tuning the default downwards, improve the health-outcomes of those of us helping ourselves to salt on auto-pilot.

"Add more bins"? - Questioning 'Black Bag' thinking.
In the case of waste disposal, "recycling" is intrinsically
ungenerous. We have to take the effort to handle our 'recyclable' goods in extra bins, we have to drive it to the supermarket (assuming we own a car), we have to remember to put the right bin out on the right day. When a council introduces a new recycling programme, they introduce another bin (resulting in a sort of 'bin rash'). In short: Recycling is hard work - you have to believe in it. No wonder it's almost exclusively a middle class phenomenon.

We need to see recycling not as an optional extra that relies upon ethical sacrifices, but as
the default. Not as an extra on top of waste disposal, but rather an evolved, more sophisticated version of the 'Black bag: Shove it all in one bin' model, which is now outdated. If we look hard at our household 'waste', we know that most of it can be recycled, and there's not much 'black bag' (unclassifiable) stuff left at the end... so recycling is not adding waste but subdividing it.

It might turn out on the long run that we can make other improvements to the waste disposal service. Eliminating costs on our time such as having to remember to take out the bins?...or the smell of keeping them around?...or the noisy bin men at 7am on a wednesday morning?...

1 comment:

Jordan Lloyd said...


Choice architecture at its best. :)