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Yezarni Wynn thanks for the shoutout all

March 12, 2018

Yezarni Wynn thanks for the shoutout all those weeks ago- you are definitely a work of art! Thanks to the talented @tatembrombal for directing me with your descriptions! Definitely one of my favourite parts of live doodling is hearing the creative and sweet way people describe each other. check out for more photos. #pulpartparty #installationart #digitalart #light #doodles


Directed by the thoughtful Yezarni Wynn

March 11, 2018

Directed by the thoughtful Yezarni Wynn
#pulpartparty #projectionart #installationart #

loved drawing with these bonobos http://

March 11, 2018

loved drawing with these bonobos

These bonobos were so delightful to draw

March 11, 2018

These bonobos were so delightful to draw and hangout with. More photos available at
#projectionart #art #pulpartparty #theylikethemuscianbonobo #installationart

Human-Centred Public Policies: The Case for Behavioural Economics

August 31, 2016

The following thoughts/opinions are my own and don’t reflect those of the Government of Ontario.

Hey there.

Where were we? Oh, right, I was savaging behavioural economics as a method of solving complex problems. I did promise you to present the opposite case, and that’s exactly what I will do now. Why is behavioural economics in government a good thing?

I was in an Intro to Service Design session this week and the presenter gave a vivid analogy for designing without thinking about the end user in mind. He said it was like making a Jaguar sports car for a farmer. Jaguars can’t ship pigs to market. No matter how shiny, fast or powerful the Jaguar is, it’s not going to help the farmer.


Ha! It turns out that Jaguar makes tractors. Or at least KillerCroc88’s youtube channel has a picture of a simulated Jaguar tractor…

When governments design programs to help people or rules for them to follow, I think this analogy applies. Why? Because the people who decided to give the sports car to the farmer were probably thinking about their own needs and preferences. They were using themselves as a proxy for a very different group of people. In government and in other places, people who design programs, policies and procedures tend to be people who are very rational, detail-oriented and logical. They’re probably not representative of the populations they design for. As well, we have a tendency to imagine that we will behave more rationally than we actually do, especially if we are thinking about an action in the future (“Oh yeah, I will start planning that bike trip next month, of course I will”).

What do you get when you put optimistic, rational, detail-oriented people and have them make stuff for others? Pretty much, you get programs and rules that don’t work as well for people as they could. Because we’re not seeing people for who they really are, and not understanding what their lives are really like, we’re often not solving the right problems at all. We tend to solve problems in ways that make it easiest for our bureaucracies to work. We are kind to our systems rather than to our citizens. There’s some give and take here, to be sure, because we have finite resources and time to meet everyone’s needs, but there is much to be done on this front.

What I love about the behavioural economics field is that it does take a kind view of people. It focuses on how people actually behave, and does so with very little judgment. It emphasizes that being human means we have amazing strengths and some flaws as well. As people, we have limited attention spans, we’re easily influenced unknowingly, and our preferences don’t remain consistent. Yet, that doesn’t mean that people don’t have goals and dreams that they keep trying to achieve, and it also doesn’t mean that people aren’t capable of being rational. Behavioural economics tells us not to give up on people, and not to see their failure to take action on their intentions as necessarily being a sign of their laziness or incompetence. It takes a very kind view of people, and tries to find ways to work within their natural human limitations, or even ways to make their natural human limitations work in favour of our goals. By seeing people as they are, we can help them become who they dream of being.


Replace ‘corporations’ with ‘governments’ and it still applies. Credit: Allison Press, a designer caught

Seeing people for who they really are means letting their actions (and the data they produce) speak for themselves. What’s very satisfying about behavioural economics in government right now is that it is super-objective. We set up and run randomized controlled trials (RCTs), the gold standard for research in the social sciences. If we set up our groups and run the trials right, we can say with a lot of confidence that the small tweaks we make to the decision-making environment are really working. We don’t have to get snarled up in the politics or theory of why people might want to make a choice. We don’t have to pretend to know what will work (often we don’t), and we can get on with testing and improving our solutions until they actually work.

In a way, behavioural economics has a systems perspective built into it. Experiments have shown that human behaviour can vary very widely depending on the context (place, time, people) of a decision. If a doctor tells you to stop smoking, you might try to, but if an acquaintance says the same thing, you’d probably dismiss it. Behavioural interventions usually try to change that context (the Path, from the Elephant and Rider analogy), so they are usually about changing the system. Right now, the system-level changes that can be proposed are very small (e.g. tweaks to forms), but I think that is because of the newness of this way of thinking and the lack of deep research and experimentation capacity in government.

In the future, I can see behaviourally-informed redesigns of our welfare systems or post-secondary application processes becoming more common, and perhaps even informed by small RCTs of different parts of the system. The work of ideas42, a behavioural economics consultancy group, points in this direction. Their reports on poverty in general, and financial products for low and middle-income people demonstrate the crisp new perspective that a behavioural underpinning can bring to big questions like “How can we help people out of poverty?”.

In short, behavioural economics encourages us to see people as they are, to not assume that we know what will work, to test things at a small scale, and to never think that the fact that people (or systems of government) have inbuilt limitations means that they cannot achieve extraordinary things. After all, how is it that we, as extraordinarily flawed beings, have built a society that produced the computer I am typing on, the Internet I am posting to, and the grocery store I will soon shop at? Great things are possible when we start from where we are and keep building.

I’ve glossed over what it really means to make huge changes in government/other sprawling systems, mostly because I think that could be an entire PhD. However, I commit to taking some kind of rambling stab at it  next week. How could it really be possible to develop a new system given that we can’t suspend any essential services? How can you redesign the healthcare system without threatening the care of a whole bunch of people? How do we change when change is hard?






Local Maxima vs. Global Maxima: The Case Against Nudging

August 23, 2016

Look at this. Can you guess where I’m going?


Image Credit: Andrew Parker of the Gong Show

I’ve been thinking about this image pretty often in the month and a half that I’ve been officially working in the behavioural economics field. Sometimes, it worries me.

Why? Because for the past couple years, my main interest has been in complex systems, and how they might be shifted into entirely different (and much better) ways of working. I went to San Francisco because I was interested in how Minerva Schools was drawing a radically different future for higher education. I went to India to learn from the incomparable Pradeep Ghosh about how social problems might be solved with a specific kind of innovative thinking. As I wrote then:

I am interested in how communities can be changed for the better. How does that happen? How do you address problems that part of “the system” itself? And by system I mean all the people and groups in a community and the ways that they interact. The system is partly created by the rules we lay out for ourselves as communities and societies (formal laws = rules, informal = values), partly by some things we can’t always control or change (geographic factors like how far away houses are, or biological factors like aging) and partly created by how we interact with these rules and with each other. It sounds messy, right? Let me take another pass: when we talk about a “community”, it’s tempting to want to picture only the people. That’s a community, right? If you want to fix a problem, you can just help individual people – give them a leg up or something like that.

I think that if you only look at people, and if you look at them all separately, you end up trying to plug holes in a leaky tub but never turning off the water.

Someone explained it to me like this: There are two people, and a river, and there are bodies floating in the river. One person immediately starts fishing bodies out, and another walks away. “Where are you going? How can you leave me when there are so many bodies to be pulled out?” says the first one. “I need to go figure out why they are there in the first place,” the other calls back as she keeps walking.

And we need both kinds of people (we need all kinds of people!), but I strongly identify with the second kind of person, the one who pulls back and tries to see the entire landscape, rather than helping people one by one.

The interesting thing for my personal integrity is that behavioural economics, at least the Version 0.1 that is being implemented in the public sector right now, is arguably more about saving the individual people in the river than it is figuring out why they are falling in in the first place.

For example, let’s look at tax collection. Studies around the world (but especially in the UK) have shown that when you send a letter to people with overdue payments telling them that the majority of their fellow citizens pay their taxes on time, and that they are in the “small minority that requires extra collection efforts”,  these delinquent payers actually get on the bandwagon and fork over more cash than they would have without that letter. That’s great, but it’s not going to affect the wealthy businesspeople who squirrel away as much of their earned income as they can so that it can’t be clawed back. How many ‘average’ people nudged into paying a little more will it take to equal the hidden millions of a few top families?

Nudging (a more colloquial term for behavioural economics) is be easier to do than reforming our tax laws, and that’s probably why the rewards are lower. Successful nudges result in bumps in the single to low double digits. Maybe 86% of people pay on time, and with a nudge, we can get that to 88%. Because nudges are so cheap, even these small bumps can result in huge returns-on-investment. They work quickly, and in a fast-paced political climate it is easy to love things that give results quickly.

I’ll throw up this picture again, because I think I’m finally ready to talk about it.


Image Credit: Andrew Parker of the Gong Show

When we tweak an existing letter, or train a social worker to ask slightly different questions to their clients, we are searching for a local maximum. We are trying to leave the core of the system or process intact, and instead trying to make peripheral changes that will make it run just a little bit better than it did before. If we are midway up a hill, we will keep walking until we get to the top. We won’t even consider the fact that there are other hills, because to get off of our current hill, we would have to descend – face failure, disrupt people’s lives, and generally cause chaos. Who wants that? There isn’t even a guarantee that there is something better out there!

But, if there is a better way out there, if there is a taller hill that we need to climb, if we refuse to move off of our hill, we will never find it. That’s why behavioural economics Version 0.1 is unsettling to me. We focus on making incremental improvements to existing systems, even though we know that more fundamental changes might be required.

I know I’ve been a bit uncharitable to behavioural economics in this post, though I am trying to make very clear that it is the Version 0.1 implementation that I am seeing in governments across the world to which I am reacting, not the field in general. I think there is a case to be made for behavioural economics, but that can wait for next week’s post.

Until then, keep climbing, my friends 🙂

The Elephant and the Rider

August 16, 2016
Note: The views expressed in this post are my own and do not represent those of the Government of Ontario. 

Hello again!

I am slowly getting back into the swing of blogging. Last time I posted, I was still in San Francisco, a city I miss dearly. I am now back in Toronto, feeling more at home than I have in years. I am lucky enough to be working in the service of the people of Ontario, in the provincial government’s behavioural economics unit.

What exactly is behavioural economics? It’s a necessary addition to traditional economics, a discipline that tends to assume people are perfect rationalists. That is, people are able to effortlessly analyze any situation to make decisions that maximize their self interest. They know exactly how much they want to pay for a house, and they always eat their vegetables because they understand the long-term health benefits. In real life, people aren’t like that, I’m sure you can agree. People who study Behavioural economics observes others in real life (and run some experiments in labs) to find out how they actually make choices. Their research has confirmed that, yup, people are really not perfect rationalists at all.

So what are people like? My favourite way to describe what’s really going on inside our minds comes from psychologist Jonathan Haidt (and was finessed/extended by Chip and Dan Heath in their book Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard). I’ll hit you with a sweet visual to get the point across:


Taken from Stanford Business School lecture on using neuroscience to influence behaviour.

The Heaths say it well:

“Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader.  But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant.  Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose.  He’s completely overmatched.”

So what do you do with a willful Elephant and a weak Rider? You need to shape the path so that the Elephant starts to walk exactly where the Rider wants to go. How? That’s exactly what I’m learning about at my new job! Follow along if you want to hear about it too… 🙂