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Smart City & Behavioural Sciences: two sides of the same coin?


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Why and how Smart City and behavioural sciences are meant to collaborate in the close future.






Urbanization has never been spreading so quick. The percentage of people living in cities is increasing every day (50% worldwide and 77% in Europe). An ever-growing population living in reduced spaces becomes a real challenge. A geo-demographic conundrum lies in maintaining people’s life quality, as well as promoting a reasonable, ecological and sustained use of energy. Real-time data collecting, artificial intelligence, big data and connected objects are all technological innovations that bring a new dimension to this challenge: they create an information network from which decisions can eventually be taken.



Twenty-first century’s cities shall be built around their inhabitants’ habits, behaviours and needs Click To Tweet



Adjusting public transport to real-time busy periods, improving waste recycling, centralizing cities’ services for better efficiency, encouraging the production and use of sustainable energy, improving the co-existence of different ways of commuting… these are all issues which a Smart City is eventually supposed to provide adequate solutions.





As Smart City enthusiasts put it, users’ behaviour is at the heart of the system. Smart Cities will be developed through them and for them. Twenty-first century’s cities shall be built around their inhabitants’ habits, behaviours and needs. Smart Cities will be democratic! Beyond the above-mentioned technological improvements, other more down-to-Earth issues are at stake: 1) understand users, their psychology and expectations to adequately answer their needs, and 2) reciprocally, for users to respond to a Smart City’s requirements, guiding them towards new habits.



Communicating is not influencing, proposing is not persuading Click To Tweet




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Understanding and predicting citizen’s behaviour is one thing. Favouring the adoption of new habits is another. Public projects commonly fail to stimulate citizens’ commitment mainly because communication agencies and public relations experts usually are unable to anticipate users’ psychology and behaviour. This is especially true for projects linked to waste recycling or sustainable energy use. Communicating is not influencing. Proposing is not persuading. Yet communication represents the launching platform for Smart City projects. It is not sufficient to provide recycling bins for citizens to use them. For guidelines to be followed, it is not sufficient to ask people to save water on a drought period, nor to save electricity during times of peak demand. The Smart City can eventually optimise our collective lifestyles if and only if users behave in a way that makes this optimisation possible. Without adherence or commitment from users, Smart Cities will simply fail.


The aim of a Smart City is by definition to promote efficient and sustainable collective interests. The question lies in how to translate these collective interests into individual motivations; without any effort of this sort, new habits promoted by the Smart City simply won’t be added to its citizens’ behavioural repertoires. There is a need for persuading users to modify their habits and adopt new ones. This can be achieved through associating the ergonomy of the Smart City to users’ psychology.





The good news is that behavioural sciences have uncovered many solutions intended to successfully influence behaviour: nudges, strategical communication, decision architecture or more traditional social psychology interventions all propose efficient techniques to encourage the creation of new norms and habits.


smart city behavioural sciencesIt does not come as a surprise that currently these disciplines are largely ignored by strategic planners and agencies. Indeed, these groups commonly tend to focus more on the aesthetic aspects of communication campaigns than on core messages and how they are framed. I argue that Smart Cities’ stakes are too high to ignore users’ psychology and not put it at the centre of the thinking process. Encouraging citizens to adopt new habits is a subtle and crucial process. Behavioural sciences genuinely provides necessary and reliable tools to make it a success.


In 2014, the governments of 51 countries worldwide were using or planning to use a range of behavioural science techniques, including nudges, for public innovation projects. In the UK for instance, David Cameron’s government set up a Behavioural Interventions Team from 2010 onwards.


These past initiatives now provide useful feedback about how Smart Cities can benefit from behavioural sciences’ techniques. Cities have a chance to be smart only if the professionals involved in their development rely on rigorous approaches and knowledge about how people think, take decisions and act. This represents a critical turning point for the creation of tomorrow’s user-powered and sustainable urban centres.





Dr Morgan DAVID   

A former academic and behavioural sciences expert, Dr Morgan David is the founder and director of ANALYTICA, a consultancy agency based in the UK and in France. ANALYTICA uses the way our brain works to design better products and better services in the realm of neuromarketing, public innovation, communication & customer experience. ANALYTICA is the creator of CogniSales and of CogniMenu, the first neuromarketing service of new-generation menu engineering aimed at improving restaurants’ sales.



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