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Nudging Canadians Towards A Healthier, Happier Lifestyle

11/02/2015 04:27 EST | Updated 11/02/2016 05:12 EDT

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One of President Barack Obama's old college professors wrote a bestselling book -- Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness -- a few years ago on how to make the world a better place. His brilliant theory could be summed up through an incredibly simple example. Instead of trying to ban junk foods like pizza in school cafeterias and suffering the natural backlash of having millions of kids walking out and across the street in search of junk food elsewhere, what if we shrunk the size of every single pizza slice, across an entire nation, by just the tiniest amount? Kids (and adults) wouldn't even notice the difference and there would be no backlash whatsoever; meanwhile the public health impact, aggregated across a vast population, would be profound - just from reducing each junk food portion by a tiny 1 per cent!

"Nudge theory" is quickly becoming a favourite among policy makers around the world. Nowhere has it been tested more extensively than in Britain, where the work of a national nudge unit has been so effective, and has generated such amazing savings for the government, that the unit was recently spun off as a private business! In Washington, a brand new nudge unit was established in the White House earlier this year; and the Ontario government in its most recent budget announced the creation of a similar "behavioural insights" unit. Everyone, it seems, wants a slice of this amazing new discovery of how to trigger and support positive behaviour change more easily, more affordably and with much less backlash.

And now our country is about to rise to the top of that global wave of policy innovation by layering one of our special national addictions on top of nudge in a uniquely and creatively Canadian way. For years now we've had a special reputation as the world's most points-happy nation. We're so easily influenced in our everyday lives by the offers of loyalty points that we choose our airlines, our cereal, our cosmetics, our brands of vodka, our coffee shops, our credit cards and so much more simply by responding to an endless stream of tiny economic signals in the form of points and reward offers. We're known as the people who will drive across town for that double points bonus at the hardware store!

So what if we could harness this incredible national addiction for something good? What if we could take all the great nudge policy lessons from around the world, blend them with the awesome power of loyalty points and create the first national nudge rewards system? Could it work? Could we actually move the public policy needle faster and more cheaply this way, compared to the traditional ways we've been encouraging Canadians to quit smoking or save for retirement or pay our taxes on time or show up at a voting booth? We're about to find out -- and, based on some early trials over the past few years, there is plenty of optimism that it will all work beautifully, for everyone.

So here is what our government is about to start "serving" to our smartphones a few weeks from now (starting first with the lucky British Columbians, who always seem to be at the forefront of policy innovation): A simple, fun, free app, appropriately called Carrot, that will constantly tease us or nudge us about how to live healthier, better lives. It won't push us, it won't guilt us; it won't ask us to quit smoking or go get a flu shot or save some more money for retirement. It will simply nudge us, in a polite and very Canadian way, by asking us to take a short quiz about our smoking habits, or by asking us to look at a map and spot the nearest flu shot clinic, or even by asking us to watch a video about why we should save more for retirement. And every single time we do any of these things, every time we touch that little app on our phone, it will reward us with a few more of our favourite loyalty points -- whatever points we choose!

In fact the app will even earn us a bunch of points just for installing it on our phone; and it will earn us a bunch more points just for encouraging our friends to install it on their phones. It will be all about nudging us in a smart, rewarding way -- nudge us to get the app, nudge us to encourage others to get the app, nudge us to use the app in our everyday life! Because we're all so hooked on collecting our favourite points already, it will be tough to get tired of using Carrot. Every time we have a few spare moments, standing in line at the coffee shop or waiting for the bus, we'll be able to earn a few more points by taking another tiny quiz or reading another healthy recipe. Millions and millions of tiny steps instead of those grand old expensive, guilt-filled TV ad campaigns. Who would have imagined?!

The unstoppable nudge trend may have started elsewhere but we might be about to earn the bragging rights as the most innovative and creative nudge-nation in the world!

Andreas is the Founder and CEO of Social Change Rewards, the company behind the imminent launch of the Carrot Rewards app in Canada.

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