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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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Interview about neuromarketing with Morgan David



I have recently been interviewed about neuromarketing by Salomé Ficarelli, a student of the master in Communication & Marketing of ISCOM in Lyon, France. Definition, techniques, examples, strengths, limits… everything you have ever wanted to know about neuromarketing without asking…! I leave you to discover the transcription of this interview and thank Salomé for soliciting me.





Salomé Ficarelli: Morgan David, who are you?


Morgan David: I am a behavioural sciences expert, with a PhD from the University of Burgundy (France) and the University of Quebec in Montreal (Canada). I have worked as an academic in several universities in France, Canada, the UK and Belgium. My research dealt with the factors influencing people’s behaviours and decisions in various contexts. I am the fonder and director of Analytica, a behavioural sciences-grounded consultancy company based in the UK and in France. I help my clients develop their services and products by taking into account how their customers’ brains work, how they make decisions and how they behave. My services rely on neuromarketing techniques, nudges, social psychology and other disciplines related to behavioural sciences.



“Taking customers’ psychology into account is an essential added value for companies to improve their margins and their benefits”



SF: Could you please, in a few sentences, tell us what neuromarketing is?


Morgan David: Not all professionals would give the same definition, depending on their expertise. As far as I am concerned, I consider neuromarketing as a technique used to promote a product or a service’s sales by taking advantage of scientific knowledge about how customers’ brains collect information, process it and take decisions. Neuromarketing sometimes uses advanced technology, like MRI or eye-tracking, mainly for marketing purposes and because clients fantasize quite a bit about those kinds of technique… But I would like to make two statements: 1) these techniques are rather descriptive and their efficiency quite limited. Is it sufficient to know where a customer places their attention to make a sale? The answer is no; and, 2) a vast array of knowledge from consumer psychology, cognitive and social psychology provides efficient techniques to profile customers, anticipate their decisions and their behaviour, so as to develop services and products that match their preferences and expectations. I personally tend to use these latter types of knowledge and techniques because they are based on evidence despite being neglected.




Click on the image to read our article ‘What is neuromarketing?’

SF: On which tools and technology does neuromarketing rely on?


Morgan DAVID: Neuromarketing relies on the direct recording of brain activity (like MRIs), on physiological measures (such as skin conductance or eye tracking), or on techniques based on consumer and cognitive psychology. In this latter case, we adjust the environment and the context in which customers make choices and take decisions to promote specific products or services. Therefore, information about how the brain collects and processes information, and how it takes decisions, is essential to create an efficient sales strategy. Without it, we are just fishing for solutions following uncertain customer stereotypes. This is why it is important, in my opinion, to rely on knowledge and techniques that have been scientifically proven. As far as I am concerned, I only use techniques whose efficiency has been assessed in peer-reviewed articles published in international scientific journals.



SF: What are the benefits and limits of neuromarketing?


Morgan David: The added value of neuromarketing is high for companies. Take the example of these big American chains, like McDonalds or Starbucks. Whatever we think of them, these ventures have succeded because they have for a long time tried to understand how to attract customers, sell them products and encourage brand loyalty. And they did not do it by flipping a coin. They have asked behavioural experts to carefully think about these issues. Adopting a customer-centric approach by taking customers’ psychology into account is an essential added value for companies to improve their margins, their benefits, customers’ loyalty and to expand their market. Neuromarketing allows them to more accurately target a relevant sales’ strategy, from its conception to its development. I argue in favour of a trial and error framework to determine what works and what does not. Also, knowing how customers think and behave enables to be one jump ahead within this process.

            Talking about limits now, a large portion of customers’ behaviour still remains unknown. It is sometimes hard to identify which of several techniques is likely to be the most efficient. Customers are not robots. It is unrealistic, and ethically questionable, to think that people’s decisions and behaviour can be predicted with perfect accuracy. That is simply impossible! Neuromarketers are more successful than the average marketer because they work with large samples of people. Statistically speaking then, the techniques that we use, when grounded in experimental evidence, are likely to be more efficient than others, which then translates into concrete benefits for companies. Neuromarketers are not magicians! They use scientific techniques; that is, the objectively most efficient techniques currently available, to reach precise goals. Nothing more, nothing less.



“Neuromarketing allows companies to more accurately target a relevant sales’ strategy, from its conception to its development”



SF: Could you please provide concrete examples of neuromarketing applications?


Morgan David: As far as I am concerned, I can tell you about some examples related to webmarketing. I work on company websites, and more precisely on their composition, their organisation, the formulation of their offers and on the general website environment (what we usually call ‘atmospherics’) to improve conversion rates. It is highly efficient. The reason is that websites are almost never optimised from a customer-experience point of view. When we know how people’s brains work, it is rather easy to anticipate customer reactions, behaviours and decisions within the “confined” website environment. The way information is laid out and organised is key. I also am experienced in contributing to the development of physical shops. In this case I work on customer experience: people’s buying journey inside the shop, pricing optimisation, lights, music, the layout of products and the whole shopping environment. In consumer psychology, these parameters are known for impacting customers’ satisfaction and loyalty to the brand. I have also created a new-generation menu engineering service called ‘CogniMenu’, which aims to increase restaurants’ benefits by improving their menus and display boards.



SF: To end with, should we fear neuromarketing?


Morgan David: As I said earlier, the media and the general public fantasize quite a lot about neuromarketing. All that neuromarketing can do is to increase a product’s sales by a few percent. This is done by modifying some of its features according to customers’ preferences and expectations. Neuromarketing helps to increase margins, benefits and market shares. That’s all! It translates into lots of benefit for companies that wish to boost sales, but remains virtually impactless for customers. When neuromarketing increases customers’ average spending, it is by a few percent too. Customers cannot be manipulated as one pleases. I am often asked about manpulation: is neuromarketing manipulation? That is a very good question. I have seen TV documentaries in which companies were trying to hide somehow their use of neuromarketing techniques… From a social psychology point of view, any interaction can be manipulative. Manipulation consists of influencing others’ decisions to make them adopt behaviours they would not have adopted otherwise. This interview is a good example. In a sense, you have manipulated me to convince me to answer your questions. Asking your kids to set the table? That is manipulation. Inviting your friends for dinner? That is manipulation. And here comes the link with selling. Selling is manipulation by definition. This is because salespeople try to convince clients to buy their products by emphasizing the benefits of those products. Have you ever found a shop that does not promote its products? It would not last very long on the market. Advertisement is manipulation because it tries to convince customers to purchase a product or to buy a service. In conclusion, manipulation is not a bad thing in itself, as long as it does not harm the person who is being manipulated. If you rip customers off, that is both illegal and morally condemnable. That said, malpractices and dishonest salespeople have always existed, long before neuromarketing showed up. Any attempts to persuade, like advertisement and marketing have always done, can be considered as manipulation. Using knowledge about customers’ behaviour to persuade them better is not, in my opinion, any more morally reprehensible.