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Behavioural Design Week: Tim Versnel

By All, behavioural design week, Behavioural Science Insights, Sustainability

Tim Versnel is not only a senior Behaviour Design Lead and trainer at SUE, but foremost he is genuinely driven to unlock the powers of behavioural science to make this world a better place. Especially, designing behaviours for a sustainable future is what makes his heart tick, with an energetic and uplifting beat, that is. It’s a breath of fresh air to listen to Tim’s positive take on what we as humankind can achieve in changing the behaviours to secure a sustainable future. It simply needs a different approach which he explains in his Keynote. You will end with the idea that sustainability will make our lives better instead of worse. Be ready for a change, in point-of-views and your future!

Behavioural Design Week: Tim Versnel

Are you are worried about climate change but are overwhelmed by the apocalyptic future scenarios that tend to stifle your behaviour instead of boosting behaviour change? Well, fasten your seatbelts for an hour in which Tim’s talks about sustainability optimistically and confidently. And not just talks about it but showcases how behavioural science can open up a new way of thinking that will get sustainability done. He makes a solid case why the shock and awe tactic isn’t working but foremost proposes an alternative that will make us proud of what we can do to save this precious planet we all call home.

Tim Versnel: Our key take-aways

Tim showcases how behavioural science can get sustainability done. It simply needs a pivot. According to Tim, it takes three things:

  1. Talk about sustainability in an optimistic and confident way
  2. Help create products and services that are sustainable and make life better
  3. Use your social reward powers to encourage positive choices

Why what we are doing now is not working
He makes a case that we are currently acting on an implicit assumption that doesn’t hold:

Realisation of severity -> sense of guilt/shame/fear -> motivation to change behaviour -> change of behaviour

This shock and awe tactic is just a motivation strategy. There is a big gap between what we intend to do and what we do. We also see this in sustainability. The motivation to change behaviour translating into behaviour is doubtful at best. Especially, evoking negative emotions is not an effective strategy to motivate change. It may encourage you to act once, but research has shown that it decreases the chance of more sustainable behavioural change.

What can lead to behaviour change promoting sustainabilty
Tim makes a plea that we need to change the direction of our collective imagination. Let’s start harnessing that one force of nature we know so well; humans’ drive to make their own life better right now.

The core of our approach should be innovation-driven by empathy. People will sell climate action to themselves if we make them better products that help them fulfil their jobs-to-be-done. For most of us, that is not living a sustainable life. But for example, eating great food or driving somewhere fast. That’s why beyond burger is such a success: It is not fulfilling the wish to live sustainably; it fulfils our need to eat great food and reap the benefits of not eating meat such as meat sweats.

A different perspective on climate change
How might we make life even more incredible is a much more exciting design briefing than how might we stop life from being disastrous? Let’s get used to the idea that sustainability will make our life better, not worse. Not eventually, but right now.



Tim Versnel: Quotes to remember

The shock and awe tactic is not working. If we need to change the behaviour of billions of people we need a different approach that isn’t driven by guilt.

Let’s stop saying we have to stop climate change. Let’s start saying we get to be the generation that gets sustainability done.

The core of our work should be innovation driven by empathy.

For most people sustainability isn’t a critical job-to-be-done and that’s ok. By innovating with empathy at its core we can design products and services that are sustainable and solve annoying pains of current offers.

People will sell climate action to themselves if we make them better products that help them fulfill their jobs-to-be-done.

Let’s get used to the idea that sustainability will make our life better not worse. Not eventually, but right now.

Tim Versnel: Masterclass How to make sustainability simple

Want to truly learn how to apply behavioural science to shape choices and behaviours promoting sustainability? Tim will be teaching an exclusive online one-day masterclass ‘How to make sustainability simple’ on the 9th July 2021. Seats are limited (16); if you are interested in joining, you can reserve a spot for two weeks before turning it into a booking. If you want to do so, send us an email, and you’re on the list. Booking has been opened 1st May, and spots are running out. Here is some more information on the masterclass: UK version and Dutch version (direct download).

Tim will teach the masterclass in English in MS Teams unless we have all Dutch speaking participants. Do you want to enrol a group of 8 or more people in this masterclass? Then the masterlcass can also be taught in Dutch. Please contact us, if you want more information on this (in-company) edition of the masterclass.

Tim Versnel: Book as Keynote speaker

Would you like Tim to give this Keynote for your own team or at your own event. You can book him as Keynote speaker at a fee of € 1500, excluding VAT and travel expenses. Want to know more about the possibilies or customisation of the Keynote, please contact us.


Tim Versnel: Further reading

As said, Tim is truly passionate about unlocking the powers of Behavioural Design to design behaviours that promote a sustainable future. he has written a very interesting blog post on the subject, explaining why motivating people for climate change is problematic. He will be writing a blog post series, so be sure to subscribe to our newsletter at the bottom of the page to not miss out on his fascinating thoughts.

Furthermore, Tim is city counseller at the city of Rotterdam representing the Dutch Liberal Party. Together with the former campaign leader of the Dutch Liberal Party (VVD), home secretary, Minister and chairman of the Dutch liberals in the cabinet, Klaas Dijkhoff, he co-authored the book ‘Alles komt Goed‘ (everything will be fine). A conversation in a book well worth reading (only Dutch).



Hungry for more Behavioural Design Week?

Please make sure to check out our other videos of other 2021 Keynote speakers on Behavioural Design Week: Matt Wallaert on running behavioural change projects within organisations and Baptiste Tougeron on using behavioural science for more effective advertising.

Also, you can find all the videos of the keynotes of Behavioural Design Fest 2018 and Behavioural Design Fest 2019; watch and re-watched here to upgrade your Behavioural Design knowhow and to boost your inspiration.


Want to learn how to apply behavioural science yourself?

Suppose you want to learn more about how influence works. In that case, you might want to consider joining our Behavioural Design Academy, our officially accredited educational institution that already trained 1500+ people from 45+ countries in applied Behavioural Design. Or book an in-company program or workshop for your team. In our top-notch training, we teach the Behavioural Design Method© and the Influence Framework©. Two powerful frames to make behavioural change happen in practice.

You can also hire SUE to help you to bring an innovative perspective on your product, service, policy or marketing. In a Behavioural Design Sprint, we help you shape choice and desired behaviours using a mix of behavioural psychology and creativity.

You can download the Academy brochure here, contact us here or subscribe to Behavioural Design Digest at the bottom of this page. This is our weekly newsletter in which we deconstruct how influence works in work, life and society.

Or maybe, you’re just curious about SUE | Behavioural Design. Here’s where you can read our backstory.

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Why motivating people for climate action is problematic.

By All, Behaviour in Organisations, Citizen Behaviour

Of all ‘wicked design problems’, motivating people for climate action and designing for sustainable behavioural change are topics many people at SUE are passionate about. When Tom recently suggested Futerra’s paper Sizzle to me, I dove right in, eager to find additions to our toolbox. It’s an excellent read and it makes a persuasive case for a new way of ‘selling’ climate action: instead of selling the negative necessity, we have to sell the positive results of action. Not the hunger, not even the sausage, but the sizzle. Being half-German it invoked lots of appealing memories of grilling bratwurst, so I was all aboard.

We know what dystopias look like, but we lack images of a green utopia.

Lame jokes aside (it’s a cultural thing), it reminded us of a podcast we made some time last year (sorry, Dutch only), in which we discussed climate inaction and stumbled upon the realization that we badly lack utopian visions of the future in popular culture for behavioural change in sustainability. I really don’t know of any book, film, game or piece of art from the last couple of decades that plays out in a positive future. Albeit in many different variations, it’s pretty much all cyberpunk or otherwise dystopian and apocalyptic visions and the message is simple: one way or another, in the not-to-distant future we’re gonna fuck it up. Big time.

That is a symptom of a lack of positive imagination within our cultural avant-garde and a serious problem for the rest of us. Why invest in a future that’s doomed? Why take part in process of change if you don’t have any mental pictures of the exciting and bright future that it could lead to? It’s hardly a surprise that indeed many people simply don’t: compared to where they fear change will lead them, they like where they are just fine, and inaction or worse is the result. So yes: I think Futerra makes a meritorious point. Climate action must be framed in a far more positive way if we are to motivate people for behavioural change.

Yet, for some reason it didn’t sit with me well.

Aren’t we just yet again preaching to the choir?

Isn’t this all a – granted, greatly – improved version of a still fundamentally flawed approach, which is that through communication we should try to achieve a level of aspirational motivation among the population to contribute to a sustainable way of life, and that behavioural change will follow from that? And won’t it, when that inevitably yields limited results, still turn out as a way of preaching to the converted, but with a nicer preach? Isn’t it therefore essentially still focused on fulfilling the emotional and social jobs-to-be-done of the activist, rather than purposefully designing large scale behavioural change? In other words, use behavioural psychology to drive real behavioural change?

Now, I don’t mean this to feel harsh. In fact, the authors explicitly invite a behavioural perspective on their approach. Here it comes.

Want to learn more?
Masterclass: How to make Sustainability Simple

Want to truly learn how to apply behavioural science to shape choices and behaviours promoting sustainability? Tim will be teaching an exclusive online one-day masterclass ‘How to make sustainability simple’ on the 9th July 2021. Seats are limited (16); if you are interested in joining, you can reserve a spot for two weeks before turning it into a booking. If you want to do so, send us an email, and you’re on the list. Booking has been opened 1st May, and spots are running out. Here is some more information on the masterclass: UK version and Dutch version (direct download).

Tim will teach the masterclass in English in MS Teams unless we have all Dutch speaking participants. Do you want to enrol a group of 8 or more people in this masterclass? Then the masterlcass can also be taught in Dutch. Please contact us, if you want more information on this (in-company) edition of the masterclass.

Intention is a bad recipe for motivating people for climate action

One concept from behavioural psychology that’s particularly interesting in this regard to behavioural change is the intention-action gap. As a rule, people have a hard time acting up on their intentions. More than often, people even behave in a way that directly contradicts them. This happens at the level of individual behaviour (just think back to everything you’ve intended to do to live more healthily and reflect on how much of it you’ve actually accomplished), and definitely at the level of collective behaviour as well.

We love our local shops, but with every purchase on Amazon, we give them the finger

A good example is the struggle that local retailers have in their competition with the big webshops. Both individually and collectively, we all want flourishing city and town centers, with lots of locally owned shops and cozy restaurants and such, but with every passing day we buy more of our stuff at a small number of big webshops. With every purchase at Amazon, BOL or Zalando, we’re tightening the rope around those local entrepreneur’s necks, and yet we keep doing it – even employees of the local shops.

Why? Because it’s simply easier and cheaper. Individually it’s the better decision.

Even when motivation to support local entrepreneurs peaked during the first COVID-lockdown, Dutch online giants BOL and Coolblue did better than ever and Amazon managed to very successfully enter the Dutch market. We heedlessly make choices that completely contradict our intentions, let alone our larger aspirations. Behavioural psychology at work?

In other words, even when exactly the right messaging manages to build up peoples’ intention to contribute to climate action, it’s not at all likely that this will lead to matching behaviour. That’s a sobering insight which, especially when it comes to climate action, we must be very clear-eyed about. The stakes are too big.

How might we break this behavioural pattern?

Apparently, many behaviours emerge, even if they lead to an outcome that people aren’t motivated to achieve – in fact even if it’s an outcome they’re motivated to prevent. Current consumer behaviour will lead to a web-only retail sector, dominated by a handful of giants. Nobody wants it, but it’s the outcome of our daily choices, which are heavily determined by convenience and costs.

This can work to our advantage.

Many of the most fundamental changes in our way of life have occurred over time, without people having some clear end goal in mind, or even an expectation of what the end result of the road they were on could be, or even a desire to look further than the immediate short-term. When steam machines and electric light bulbs were first put to use, nobody had the ermergence of the industrialised welfare state in mind. When people ordered their first modem, nobody had their sights on the cyborg-like relationship we have with our smartphones a couple decades later. What kind of a way of life these first behaviours would eventually lead simply to didn’t matter. What mattered was that that machine, that lightbulb, that modem, and every small steps that followed, made those peoples’ lifes a little bit easier, more convenient, or in another way humanly more pleasing, in that moment.

Developing a climate neutral way of life is a fundamental change of a similar order, and for the population at large, climate neutrality will similarly be an emerging property: the outcome of their choices, rather than the goal of their choices. This is the only way forward is to influence group behaviour for climate change.

The solution: Make sustainable choices more desirable.

Hence to motivate people for climate action, we shouldn’t put too much of our collective creative energy into convincing people of the larger goal and building up their motivation to contribute to climate action, and put nearly all of it into simply designing those incrementally better everyday choices. If we want to design for genuine behaviour change, it means innovating on sustainable products, services and behaviours, so that they’re increasingly convenient or in many other possible ways the more fulfilling choice.

Tesla doesn’t want you to drive electric for the environment, but because they offer an exciting driving experience. Beyond Meat doesn’t want you to go vegan on your hamburgers, they want you to eat the juiciest hamburger in the world, which happen to be vegan.

That requires above all ruthless, methodical empathy for those humans whose behaviours and choices we want to change. Don’t wash away their anxieties, comforts, pains and deep-rooted human needs and desires in service of climate neutrality – start with them. In fact, I’d put it even stronger:

The only way to achieve climate neutrality in time is to be ruthlessly empathetic with the people whose behaviour we need to change.


Tim Versnel

Tim is a Behavioural Design Lead at SUE. In his spare time, he’s a councillor for the Dutch Liberal Party at the City of Rotterdam
He recently co-authored a book with Klaas Dijkhoff, Group Chairman of the Dutch Liberal, in which they plead for an optimistic renaissance based on the fresh liberal concept.

He will talk about designing for Behavioural Change at Behavioural Design Week between April 19th and April 23rd.

Photo by Markus Spiske

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