Using Incentives to Guide Social System Improvements

Posted on December 5, 2012  Comments (2)

When confronted with the challenge of managing a social system (or market) I like to find ways to use a few simple rules that will guide the system to find improvements. I favor allowing participants in complex social system to determine how to adapt. So I support, for example, a carbon taxes where the market can decide where it is most effective to invest to reduce carbon use (both to reduce our depletion of the resource and to reduce pollution leading to climate change).

I like to try and keep prescription rules as limited as possible and instead set simple rules that will allow people to make choices. These rules will often allow for people to judge when they need to temper the extremes (in management examples) and in economic situations they often can have costs that escalate as the system is strained (so low pricing if the road is currently not heavily used and increasing the cost to users as congestion increases). The more prescriptive the rules the less ability people have to find creative solutions.

Traffic congestion is a perennial problem with high very costs to society. I very much like congestion pricing. You set a rule that puts increasing costs on those creating an overload on the system (which has costly negative externalities). Then allow people to figure out how to adapt.

The video also provides a very good example of why leadership is important. In Stockholm people were against congestion pricing (70% to 30%). This isn’t surprising they see a new tax that only is a cost. They don’t understand that the system performance is going to improve – the cost will provide a benefit. Leadership is required to push forward when the benefits are not obvious to everyone. Once people saw that congestion was greatly decreased 70% supported congestion pricing.

Jonas Eliasson: “Don’t tell people how to adapt. Nudge them. If you do it correctly – they’ll embrace the change”

Related: The Case for Physically Separated Bike LanesUrban Planning in Northern VirginiaDisregard for People by FedEX and UPS – Systems thinking allowed the engineers to design a solution that wasn’t about enforcing the existing rules more but changing the system so that the causes of the most serious problems are eliminated. – Using Outcome Measures for Prison Management

2 Responses to “Using Incentives to Guide Social System Improvements”

  1. Alex Fuller
    December 5th, 2012 @ 10:47 am

    I particularly like the concept of nudging people. Volkswagen has a bunch of YouTube videos about making good behavior fun, which encourages the behavior (see thefuntheory.com). Making stairs into a piano nudges people to take the stairs over an escalator. Making a fun sound when you throw something away nudges people to clean up litter. Often small tweaks to people’s rudders have large results on their direction and actions. In the small business I work with, we make a game out of emptying our personal wastebaskets every week. It gives everyone a two-minute break, reenergizes the employees, and saves us money on janitorial time. A small example, but it nudges everyone to have fun while cutting costs.

  2. John Hunter
    December 5th, 2012 @ 7:50 pm

    From the Curious Cat Science and Engineering blog back in 2009 – Volkswagen Fun Theory: Piano Staircase

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