08/07/2013 11:13 am ET Updated Oct 07, 2013

Change Your Behavior, Change Your City

From brand managers to consulting firms, policy makers to moms, many people are in the business of trying to get other people to change their behavior. This spans businesses, communities, governments, nonprofits and even our own households, where we experiment with the right mix of incentives to drive particular behaviors and gain positive outcomes.

There's a fancy name for this burgeoning field: behavioral economics. At its core, behavioral economics combines the study of traditional economic theory with realities of human psychology and behavior--ultimately trying to understand what motivates individuals, folks like you and me, to take certain actions or have certain behaviors, whether they're rational decisions or not.

Gaining a better understanding of these motivations allow us to use them, ideally, for the greater good. Described in Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's Nudge, incentives are particularly important for activities for which immediate benefits are not apparent, like health, where exercise and diets can take weeks/months/years to have their desired effects, and environmental actions, where it may be generations before we see the positive--or negative--effects of our actions.

At Recyclebank, we have learned a lot about what it takes to change behavior while partnering with communities across America to encourage its citizens to think twice about throwing something away. One way is through "gamifying" the process. Gamification techniques--like competition, rewards and recognition--have seen mass appeal in their applications to our everyday lives. Today, these techniques are being put into play across a broad range of efforts where it's important to increase individual engagement.

City governments have started applying gaming techniques to bridge the "us-them" gap between city and citizen, and to inspire collaboration toward tangible improvements in their communities and the personal lives of their citizens. The success of their efforts has been fueled by digital infrastructure innovations geared to engage and empower citizens to solve problems in their own backyard.

Here are four best practices for using gamification to increase ongoing civic engagement and drive positive consumer action:

1. Offer tangible individual AND community rewards

Points and public recognition are effective ways for changing behavior, but oftentimes you need more than that to create sustainable long-term engagement. Any effort is bound to gain broader engagement if the reward is tied to something meaningful for the individual in the real world. For example, a game designer came up with a clever way to get people to stop speeding--give out lottery tickets to drivers who have obeyed posted speed limits. On a national civic engagement level, the SC Johnson Green Choices Recycling Challenge galvanized communities in all 50 states to step up recycling and compete for a $100,000 sustainability grant. Participating communities and public officials used varying strategies to motivate residents of all ages to recycle more, including calls to action with local media, public banners and community events. To encourage its citizens to report on their recycling efforts, the city of Hutto, Texas, put a Kindle up for grabs. Citizens who reported at least three times were eligible to win.

2. Leverage social dynamics to spur collective action

We are social creatures who seek to bond with others. People want to feel they are a part of a team or community, and this provides a greater sense of ownership and accomplishment, and ultimately drives more action. Gamification strategies should enable participants to spread the word, to share their personal stories and collaborate online and offline with others in their community. During the last election we saw this at work with MTV's Fantasy Election '12, a fantasy football-meets-GOTV initiative that aimed to get citizens more involved by having them pick a team of candidates and test their political knowledge while "checking-in" to election events, such as the presidential debates.

3. Provide feedback and inspire competition

Feedback works in several ways as an incentive for encouraging behavior change. First, people are inspired and tend to exert more effort when they learn about the direct impact of their actions. Package this with an element of competition and you have a powerful motivational force. For instance, knowing that your community benefits measurably from your recycling actions pushes people to enhance their own recycling goals. A company successfully using incentives for motivation is Opower, which partners with utilities to educate people about their power use and compares customers' home energy usage to similar households in their program. Businesses in Rochester, Minn., that participated in a Conserve & Save program in 2012 led by local utilities and Opower earned rebates totaling more than $960,000and saved 22 million kWh, which is comparable to the average annual energy use of 2,600 homes in the city.

4. Add goals for people to work toward

Long before the Internet, governments were using some elements of gamification. The "I Voted" stickers handed out when you cast your ballot on Election Day are a reward in the form of public recognition for taking a civic action notorious for its low turnout. When gamification techniques scale with digital technologies, we see people getting even more engaged and working toward the goal of being an active participant in their community. At Recyclebank, our online community members ask, "what more can I do?" This initial action can be a gateway to deeper engagement and therefore more behavior change. So a good gamification strategy offers people a path to progress by providing additional goals and milestones.

I fundamentally believe that people want to make a difference in their communities, but many of us--myself included--often need some direction and a little nudge to take action. Gamification techniques are proving to be powerful tools to encourage participation in efforts that benefit both individuals and communities and help build smarter, cleaner and healthier cities and towns.