Harnessing Self-Interest

Late last year I gave a presentation at Ignite Berlin. Due to a technical glitch, several of the presentations (including mine) weren’t recorded, and so couldn’t appear on their website. So I’ve finally gotten around to writing up my notes. This is not so much what I did say, as what I wish I’d said. The Ignite format (20 slides, automatically advancing every 15 seconds) is tough, and I missed a key point quite early that left me slightly off-track for the rest of it.

IGNBLN4_002Big charities have big goals. Lots of people believe in those goals, and support those charities.

IGNBLN4_003But let’s say you care about a different issue, like, say how badly maintained the streets in your city are — lots of potholes, broken streetlights etc.

It’s a problem that affects everyone, but it’s not a sexy issue. People care about the specific problems that directly addict them, but it’s hard to get them care about the bigger issue, and very few people are going to be willing to donate time or even money to doing anything about it.

So, what do you do?

The standard approach is to try to make more people care.

IGNBLN4_004Chances are you don’t have many friends who are supermodels, or rock stars, who you can persuade to promote your cause.

IGNBLN4_005You thought about making a super-viral video that gets a gazillion people interested, but replicating that seems about as likely as winning the lottery, and if you’re successful you’re a little worried that you might end up having a very public nervous breakdown.

IGNBLN4_006With some creativity and guerrilla action you might draw some press attention. But although public shaming can be fun and sometimes quite effective, this approach doesn’t scale very well, and isn’t very sustainable,

IGNBLN4_007So traditionally small charities and NGOs end up working super-hard for a long time to try to make people care, and end up very slowly make barely perceptible change.

But there’s another approach.

IGNBLN4_008And that’s to not try to get people to care about the wider issue at all. Instead of complaining that people are selfish, and only care about the problems that affect them, and instead of trying to turn them into your vision of what a better citizen should be, you work with what you’ve got.

IGNBLN4_009And that’s generally people who fear that trying to report a broken streetlight is like stepping into a Kafka novel, and who suspect that even if they successfully navigate their way through the Byzantine bureaucracy, their complaint is going to end up in a circular file somewhere.

IGNBLN4_010So you put your efforts into addressing those issues.

First, you make it super-easy for people to report the problems that affect them.

This doesn’t mean educating them in what sorts of problems need to be sent to which division of the local municipality, and which go to central government etc. Most people don’t want to know that sort of thing, and they shouldn’t need to know.

IGNBLN4_011Just make it so they can simply click on a map, describe the problem (and upload a photo if they have one), and you take care of turning that into an official report in the right format that gets sent to the correct person in the correct department of the correct organisation.

IGNBLN4_013Then, you make all the problems public, so that everyone can actually see whether government is doing their job or not. Then you publish some statistics comparing how all the different cities in your county are doing, to add some competitiveness on top of the embarrassment.

Tada! You’ve successfully taken all that individual self interest, and harnessed it to make your city better for everyone.

IGNBLN4_014And you prominently publish updates to show that things do get fixed this way, so that people realise they can make things happen after all.

Because what we often see as apathy is really just learned helplessness. People feel powerless because they don’t believe they can make a difference.

And the best way to change that is not to argue with them, or try to educate them in elaborate theories of change. It’s to simply show them that they do actually have power. That what they do can have an effect, not only for themselves but for people around them. That simply by clicking on a map on a webpage, they can get the broken streetlight at the bottom of their road fixed.

IGNBLN4_016Then you build another one that tries to do the same for another problematic area.

IGNBLN4_017Or for easier access to government information.

IGNBLN4_018Or for tracking what laws politicians are passing, and holding them to account for it.

IGNBLN4_019Gradually people to come to realise that there are lots of ways they can get involved civically, and become more engaged in their society. And they can do all this without having to join any movements or commit to any grand ideals, other than simply trying to make the world a better place for themselves and for others.

IGNBLN4_021And then you can encourage people all around the world to do likewise…

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