The Ideal Incentive?

Here’s a straightforward, but fun, example of encouraging behavioural change. Mexican parks have a dog poo problem. They also – unlike parks in the US – don’t ususally have public wi-fi hotspots. So internet company Terra is bringing parks free wi-fi, metered by the amount of poop scooped. The more crap park users put into bins, the more, er, high quality online content they’ll be able to read while sunning themselves.

It’s a wheeze from agency DDB, and as the piece says, while the execution is tongue in cheek the offer and benefits are real. This isn’t the first time ad agencies have used wi-fi access in a promotion – controversially, at South By Southwest this year, the agency BBH turned homeless people into “living hotspots”, a move which sparked a lot of debate around the ethics of the campaign. The Mexican parks initiative feels like that promotion’s more respectable cousin.

It’s a small price to pay for all those cat pictures.

Both campaigns, though, hinge on the marvellous properties of public wi-fi access. Public behavioural change is very hard to pull off for all sorts of reasons, but one of them is that it’s difficult to incentivise. A lot of bad public behaviour – from noise pollution to letting your dog shit everywhere – involves an individual trading their convenience for the inconvenience of many others, and is usually dealt with by cracking down on the individuals doing it. Except that once it becomes normalised, crackdowns don’t work. So you can increase the inconvenience of doing bad – reducing rubbish collections to encourage recycling, for instance. Or, in the absence of the stick, you can turn to the carrot.

But what kind of carrot? Actually giving people money for doing something they should be doing anyway feels like a slippery slope – though it has been done, as in the VW “speed camera lottery”. But perhaps you’d be better with some other kind of reward.

Enter wi-fi, which turns out to be almost perfectly designed as a behavioural change incentive. Public wi-fi is a clear public good, but not (yet!) so essential that depriving people of it would provoke outrage. It can be provided at flexible levels – as in the dog poo experiment. It can, I grant you, be abused in ways that inconvenience other users – but it’s far more difficult to do this than it is in physical public spaces. So it’s unlikely to solve one behavioural problem by creating another.

At the moment it’s only commercial agencies like DDB who are experimenting with this, but the flexibility and usefulness of wi-fi as a reward (especially in the mobile Internet age) means that anyone interested in behavioural change should be looking at these experiments very carefully indeed.

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