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Wake, Nudge Or Engage?

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

What is the best way to mobilise civic action – to wake, nudge or engage citizens?

The growing Youth Strikes for Climate movement is demanding that governments around the world declare a state of climate emergency and is calling on them to act accordingly. Extinction Rebellion, a new direct action group, goes further and is demanding that the U.K. government declares a climate and ecological emergency, reduces greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025 and acts to halt biodiversity loss, and creates a citizen’s assembly on climate and ecological justice. Other activist groups are telling us the same inconvenient truth: we should all be trying much harder.

Government can be pushed by citizens to make big changes, often with the help and organisation of impassioned social activists. Resolute and undaunted, activists advocate fundamental change on behalf of their fellow citizens, agitating an existing system that serves the status quo. We need these committed individuals and their energy: they wake us up, and if we don’t wake up we become complicit.

Of course, governments can also be proactive, and encourage people to do things through bold policy interventions or light touch ‘nudges’. Bold interventions require a lot of political capital and energy to compel citizens to act; on the other hand, nudges are a much easier way of changing people’s behaviour towards policy goals without compelling citizens to do anything. Thaler and Sunstein, authors of Nudge, believe it is legitimate for governments to design the contexts – so called ‘choice architecture’ – in which individuals make their decisions, to nudge people into making changes that can improve overall wellbeing. Good examples of nudge policies that have worked include automatic enrolment into employers’ pension schemes, so people put more money aside for retirement, and opt-out systems for organ donation, whereby all citizens are automatically registered. The authors counter the suggestion of social manipulation by insisting that individuals should still be free to make their own decisions, and that this choice architecture should leave all options available.

Nudge can be effective for behaviour changes that are relatively small scale or narrow in scope, but it does not change the broader status quo in ways that activists demand. Nudges that improve energy efficiency or increase recycling rates will not be enough on their own to combat climate change, which requires large-scale recognition on the part of citizens that major shifts in lifestyle are necessary. Neither does nudge work in the case of communities implementing structural changes or disrupting the norm, such as building a new wind farm locally, where participatory decision-making and public involvement are required. To successfully challenge the status quo, citizens need to engage actively.

Most of us are not activists, but all of us are citizens. Active citizenship is about finding new ways to engage and collaborate, making the place where we live the seat of the solution and creating non-linear change locally that can scale. Participatory budgeting is one example of this new approach of collaboration, in which local city residents allocate a portion of the municipal budget to city programmes of their choice that they believe serve the greatest need. Originally conceived in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, the practice has since spread to hundreds of municipalities across the Americas, Asia and Europe. Urban commoning is another example of civic engagement, whereby municipal policies are reconfigured around citizen participation and the sharing of resources, from co-housing projects to community-owned renewable energy providers to urban agriculture co-operatives.

As modern societies steer away from government and towards governance, and from hierarchical control to co-operative networks, there is a structural shift in power and funding from national to civic centres. Governments accept that issuing commands to compel citizens to act, or creating incentives to cajole them, is not as effective as dealing directly with citizens, whose participation helps to co-produce public outcomes. Devolution is widely recognised as a more constructive way to tailor policies to local needs; as contributing to increased wellbeing by creating more opportunities for innovation; and as a catalyst for more local involvement and accountability.

Empowerment is the other side of the coin to devolution, as broader civic engagement grows from the seeds of individual citizen participation. The public outcomes may well be changes that are genuinely innovative, partly because of the amount of effort involved and the degree of frontline implementation. This empowerment paradigm, of which water, food and energy supplies are important elements, points to a future where citizens choose to regenerate as many of the urban life support systems as possible that are within their direct control – thereby pushing for drastic action to mitigate climate change and halt the loss of biodiversity.

For holistic change, we need actions that wake, nudge and engage citizens. Activism is essential to stir our collective consciousness and open our minds. Nudge is important to influence individual behaviours and alter the judgment about taking further positive action. Engagement is the conduit to mobilise civic action on a large scale. Citizens have transformative power – implementing change locally and ultimately nudging governments nationally to adopt bold, structural policies that foster, rather than erode, the same social and environmental values.

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