WaterSmart launched its first water conservation programs leveraging normative comparisons in 2011. We are early pioneers in using behavioral science to help communities improve water efficiency. But it turns out the country of Colombia was doing it two decades ago. Oh, and the World Bank is catching on too.
In 1997 a tunnel carrying water into Bogotá, Colombia collapsed, leaving the city in a water shortage crisis. The local government’s first approach was to flatly inform residents that if they did not reduce their water consumption, over half of the city would be left high and dry. The assumption - a common communications mistake - was that information and awareness would lead to behavior change. This was not the case; water use continued unchanged, and some people even started stockpiling water.
Realizing their error, the government then shifted to a behavior-based social norms approach, which yielded dramatic reduction results within just eight weeks. The city launched a campaign based on conditional cooperation, which established a new social norm of conservation. Daily reports about who was conserving and who was not were published in all of Colombia’s major newspapers - a national spotlight shone on the issue. Talk about social pressure!
In addition to these comparisons, the city also circulated entertaining ads teaching the most effective ways to save water at home. For example, the mayor filmed a TV ad in the shower with his wife, advocating turning off the water while soaping up, and showering in pairs. The city also leveraged the powerful social influence of entities like the Catholic Church to spread their conservation message.
This behavioral strategy of social comparison and specific, engaging calls to action was very effective. Conservation exceeded even the most optimistic of expectations. And interestingly, the reductions in water use persisted even after the tunnel was fixed and water supply returned to normal levels. Bogotá was one of the first success stories of behavioral efficiency, before the field itself even really existed.
Eighteen years later, the World Bank dragged the Bogotá water campaign out of the archives, and used it as a case study in their 2015 World Development Report titled “Mind, Society, and Behavior.” As the name suggests, the report focuses on how behavioral science can provide a conceptual framework for economic development and inform policy making.
Behavioral psychology is a new thing for the World Bank. World Bank president Dr. Jim Yong Lim, who has a background in anthropology, has been a big part of this shift. His view, as he states in the opening of the Report, is that “when it comes to understanding and changing human behavior, we can do better.” This mindset is the foundation of our work here at WaterSmart, so hearing these words from the President of the World Bank is inspiring validation. Speaking about the Bogotá case study in a recent Freakonomics podcast, Dr. Lim said "Knowing that your neighbors are trying to save, or knowing that you’re not saving and they’re going to see it in the newspaper had a huge impact on people’s use of water.” Funny, that sounds a lot like the logic behind our own WaterSmart program, in which residents are compared to their neighbors and given customized tips for reducing their water use.
So WaterSmart is but one of many organizations leveraging notions of behavioral psychology for more efficient resource usage. We see the early campaign in Bogotá and the publication of this World Bank report as further validation of our approach. Together they demonstrate that behavioral science has both a history and a future as an effective tool for improved resource management. Along with reports like this one validating the effectiveness of our own behavior-based programs, they provide positive feedback that we are heading in the right direction with our approach to changing how the world uses water.
For more information about behavioral water efficiency, click here.
For the full 2015 World Development Report, click here.