Partnering Nudge Theory and SMART City Technology

Posted on August 20, 2019
Partnering Nudge Theory and SMART City Technology

“Nudge theory” grew out of in-depth research into decision making and human behaviour. It was popularized just over 10 years ago in a book by two American scholars called Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness.

A “nudge” is a subtle, indirect method of influencing the behavior and decision-making of groups of people. The practice has been widely influential in law, economics and politics on a global scale. Nudge theory is especially applicable to SMART cities. Data is gathered and analyzed from people’s smartphones and other devices, and is used for optimization of resources, planning and other purposes. This data is ideal to inform nudge initiatives.

The great thing about nudging is that it is an alternative to heavy-handed legislation and by-law enforcement, and in many cases works better and for less cost. However, for some people the use of complex algorithms for nudging is problematic from a legal and ethical perspective.

For instance, in areas where the nightlife can get rowdy, sensors can pick up the emotional states of people and predict if a disturbance is about to occur. Adjusting and tinting street lighting has been shown to “nudge” pedestrians to take different routes and to calm emotions.

In 2015, Ontario launched the Behavioural Insights Unit (BUI) to promote the use of nudge in government and public services. It’s official role is to “utilize cutting-edge behavioural sciences knowledge and methodology to provide effective solutions across different policy areas in the Ontario government, and with broader public sector partners.” This will certainly include plans for SMART city locations.

The intention is to use behavioral science interventions following guidelines of honesty and fairness. Implementations for SMART cities are inevitable given the wealth of data that is gathered from electronic devices. It is a chance to enable people to make better choices for themselves and society without being compelled through legal regulations and enforcement.


The topic of this article forms part of the curriculum for the Schulich ExecEd program SMART Cities Leadership (starting Oct. 7, 2019). This one-of-a-kind SMART Cities Leadership program will close that gap by pulling back the curtain and comprehensively addressing the art and science of SMART implementation.