Action as a Necessary Driver of Change
Our society has been suffering a series of climate, environmental, geopolitical, energy, health and social crises, to name just a few. The repetitive nature, and increasing intensity and frequency of these crises are weakening our society. However, these shocks have also had a positive effect: our awareness of the need for action. We have entered a world where expansion is no longer the rule, and where there is an urgent need to commit to becoming a more sustainable society. In particular, this transition consists of decarbonizing society and achieving a form of restraint. It requires profound systemic changes (with regard to our economic and social organizations, etc.) but also rapid and lasting adjustments to certain individual behaviors.
From this perspective, digital technology, which is now an essential way of communicating, working and consuming, is a paradox. On the one hand, it is criticized for being part of the problem due to the growing physical and environmental impact of digital infrastructures and servers. On the other hand, digital technology is presented as part of the solution, with a growing number of economic, social and scientific organizations relying on digital technology to overcome certain challenges, particularly climate and environmental issues.
What could be the benefits of soft incentive techniques, also known as nudges, to help users on their way to more sustainable digital practices?
Unlike with energy and water consumption, the defining characteristic of digital technology is that customers are not billed according to use, but as a flat rate for access that is presented as unlimited. Therefore, users are barely aware of what is actually being consumed or the impacts of this consumption. Even those who intend to achieve some form of digital restraint often don’t know how to do so. How can the unlimited nature of digital culture and the restraint of ecological culture meet in the middle? 
Nudges to Help Our Customers on the Road to Sustainability
Nudges are ways of encouraging individuals to change some of their specific behaviors or decisions. These methods aren’t coercive; individuals aren’t subject to any pressure or obligation, and they don’t risk any punishment. Based on research into psychology and behavioral economics, nudges were theorized by Richard Thaler (The University of Chicago) and Cass Sunstein (Harvard University). They are based on the premise that our choices are not only determined by our ability to reason based on our own interests, but that they are also influenced by a certain number of cognitive biases, such as our emotions, taking into account the opinions of others, our fears, our intentions and our memories, all without us realizing it. So, playing to these biases can be more effective than coercion in guiding our behavior and decisions. Indirect suggestion can influence decision-making just as effectively as direct instruction, if not more so, without the use of pressure. Since the early 2010s, many public authorities have used these methods, starting with the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. Some of the most notable projects include signage painted on the road to encourage drivers to reduce their speed near Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. Made up of a series of white lines that get tighter and tighter as the driver gets closer to the bend, they give the impression that the vehicle’s speed is increasing. Another nudge, also designed in the United States, is the appearance of more or less approving smileys on electricity bills according to the position of the recipient’s consumption compared to the average consumption of a similar household.
Studied internationally for 20 years, these soft incentive techniques can be effective if 2 essential conditions are met. Firstly, users’ willingness to modify their behavior and, secondly, understanding the aspects of that behavior that need to change. It is essential that these behavioral change objectives are aligned with users’ values (ecological, social, societal, etc.) and that the incentive techniques used are personalized according to the user and the context.
Nudges pose a number of ethical questions that must be taken into account, such as how good behavior and the best practices to adopt should be defined, by who and according to what criteria? What about potential conflicts of interest? In addition, risks, including condescending manipulations, are inherent in these soft incentive techniques (sometimes referred to as dark nudges).
While soft incentive techniques are inexpensive and easy to implement, their scope is generally quite limited. Any solutions that aim to overcome current societal and environmental challenges will, conversely, require highly profound changes to our lifestyles. Moreover, addressing societal and environmental issues requires a systemic approach that questions our organizations (economic, political, social, etc.) and not just individual behaviors. Nevertheless, nudges are an interesting lever for Orange to take advantage of, as our mission is to ensure that digital technology is designed, made available and used in a more sustainable way. This sustainability can never be fully achieved, it is a continual process. When used properly, soft incentive techniques can help to support each customer with more sustainable usage. In this way, personalized nudges make it possible to tend toward more restrained, safer and reasoned usage, for example:
- Encouraging users to limit their data consumption by favoring Wi-Fi over 4G/5G, favoring audio platforms over video platforms for listening to music and turning off unused equipment (Internet hubs, etc.) aids restrained usage;
- Preventing certain digital dangers such as cyberbullying and access by children to inappropriate content aids safe usage;
- Combating screen addiction and prioritizing certain uses aids reasoned usage.
In real terms, different types of devices and tools can be designed and offered to our customers to support them in their digital behavior changes. For example, this could mean tangible or ambient devices that make it possible to visualize and measure digital consumption:
- Tools that provide users with personalized information, such as the amount of data consumed, the time spent in front of a screen, the environmental impact of digital services, etc.;
- Tools that provide elements of social comparison (e.g. comparing a user’s data consumption to the average data consumption of users with similar profiles);
- Tools that allow users to make commitments (reducing the time spent in front of the screen, the amount of data consumed, etc.), which users may choose to share with friends and family.
First Nudges Tested on 1000 Users
At the end of 2022, Orange and its academic partner, the Laboratory for Experimentation in Social Sciences and Behavioral Analysis (Burgundy School of Business), organized an experiment to observe the effect of different types of nudges on certain digital behaviors. The objective was to prioritize the use of Wi-Fi networks over 4G/5G mobile networks and limit mobile data consumption.
First off, co-design sessions organized with students identified the main behavioral barriers that limited the use of Wi-Fi and prevented the control of mobile data consumption. The main behavioral obstacle identified was the lack of awareness about the environmental impact of digital technology, as well as the changes to individual behavior that could contribute to limiting it (e.g. the advantages of favoring Wi-Fi over a mobile network). While the provision of such information to users is necessary to establish substantial changes in their behavior, it is not sufficient. Users must also be proactive in their restrained approach, for example by making regular commitments to reducing their own data consumption.
Taking into account this preliminary analysis, our nudges were implemented and evaluated among 1000 students from different cities (Dijon, Montpellier, Strasbourg and Nice) for 5 weeks. A smartphone app was used to collect consumption data from each participant for the duration of the experiment. In the first group of students, each one received weekly information including the amount of mobile data consumed, the amount of CO2-eq emitted due to this mobile use and the amount of emissions that could have been avoided if a Wi-Fi network had been used systematically. In addition to this information, students in the second group were invited to set weekly targets to reduce their mobile data consumption. The students could track, week after week, whether or not they met the targets they set for themselves the previous week. In addition, questionnaires sent to the participants (relating to their personality traits, their awareness of the environment and their consumption habits, etc.) were used to study the correlation between the effectiveness of the nudges tested and the participants’ profiles.
Analysis of the results showed that the information alone had little impact on the use of Wi-Fi compared to mobile networks, as well as on reducing mobile data consumption. However, the addition of a personal commitment tool significantly increased the use of Wi-Fi and reduced data consumption. The effects of this method continued for two weeks after the discontinuation of the tool (behavior monitoring was not carried out beyond that). When using the 1byte Model (2018) put forward by The Shift Project, it was estimated that the implementation of such a personal commitment tool could reduce the carbon footprint of mobile use by 2.4 kg of CO2-eq per year, per user.
Beyond this potential contribution to limiting digital greenhouse gas emissions, soft incentive techniques could also be used to prevent other digital dangers. Educational nudges could allow users to become fully aware of the daily time spent in front of screens and therefore contribute to combating potential screen addiction. Other nudges could help to raise parents’ awareness of the harmful effects of their children’s behaviors, for example, the risks of cyberbullying in the event of publishing intimate content on social media, the risks of falling behind at school due to excessive mobile use or the risks related to children accessing content intended for adults, etc.
There Is Still a Lot of Research to Do
This experiment demonstrated the significant effect that nudges had on the change in targeted digital behaviors in a specific context, with a specific population of students. It also raised new questions that could be the subject of future research, including:
- How can we maintain the effectiveness of incentive tools over time, in particular avoiding fatigue and rejection?
- How can we further personalize incentives, adapting them according to users’ profiles and usage context, to maximize their effectiveness?
- What are the specific costs of implementing these digital incentive techniques (environmental and economic costs), in particular taking into account the overall environmental impact and possible rebound effects that are yet to be studied?
- How can we minimize any harmful rebound effects?
- And finally, do small gestures lead to big ones or do small gestures predominantly exempt users from making big gestures?