Sunday, December 13, 2009

Public good provision and behavioral research

While the negotiators gather in Copenhagen to get an agreement on a global policy of climate change, it is time to reflect on some insights what leads to behavioral change. Increasingly there are insights from behavioral studies that can help to increase provision to public goods such as energy conservation. In Peterson et al. (2007) [International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 8(1): 16-33] the researchers organized a competition in energy savings among dormitories. They find that this reduced the energy use significantly, especially when the dormitories got high resolution feedback on the energy use. People like competition, especially they like to win a competition. Thus creating a competition in meeting environmental goals may be effective and cost effective means to stimulate a behavioral change.
Another study shows that providing individual energy users accurate information on their energy use in relation to the average energy use in the community [Schultz et al. (2007) Psychological Science 18(5): 429-434]. People who used more than the average energy amount, reduced their energy use, but those who used less energy than average increased their energy use. This last effect disappeared when participants received a smiley face when they got the same information on energy use together with a smiley face :-) on the lower energy use than the average in their neighborhood.
These two examples show that stimulation of behavioral change is not neccesarily dependent on economic incentives or formal regulation. People like to do meet social norms and if we frame behavioral change as something desirable in a community of "polluters" we can expect a reduction of pollution if accurate and relevant information is provided on your pollution level compared to others.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Climate Policy from the bottom up

In a few weeks world leaders, NGOs and scientists gather in Copenhagen for the UN Climate Change conference. Already is clear the no effective agreement will be signed. One may get quite depressed by the inability of world leaders to come to an agreement on such an important policy problem during the last 15 years. But what if they would make an agreement. Will a signature change the way people make decisions and use energy? What will happen with those who do not follow the agreement? Although top-down policy may be perceived as effectient, we may doubt whether they are effective.
Besides trying to make agreements at the global level, we should focus more on bottom-up opportunities. Thomas Dietz et al. show that in 10 years time more than 7% of US emissions can be reduced if we put more effort in stimulating adaoption of new technologies. There are many local initiatives which we need to stimulate, such as a carbon tax in British Colombia, and one of my neighbors has solar power now and put a sign in her garden: Solar Power? We did!
There are many opportunities at local and regional levels which lead to reduction of emissions and are beneficial for local populations: independence of energy, health benefits due to more exercises and local food products, clean air, etc. Such local initiatives tailored to the local conditions may stimulate a larger movement to derive coordination and support from the federal level. Many communities may experience that climate policy is beneficial anyway since it lead to cleaner air and less dependence of energy.
Hence a policentric perspective of climate change policy is needed with more explicit focus on local initiatives and innovation than current policies.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Nobel recognition for the study of institutional diversity


We are very excited that our colleague Lin Ostrom receives the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. This is a tremendous recognition for the hard interdisciplinary and multi-method endevour she and her husband Vincent have pioneered during the last 40+ years to study institutions and governance. She has been a role model in many ways, for interdisciplinary research, for woman in science, and for academic scholarship in general.
Her findings have important consequences for governance of public goods and common pool resources. Frequently blue print thinking by officials is dominating the policy debate while her research shows the importance of involvement of local stakeholders, experimentation and crafting incentive structures that match the social and ecological characteristics of the problem. Let's hope that this international recognition have some impact on governance in practice.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Individual Property Rights as Panaceas

In the editorial of Science (14 August) Akin Mabogunje, chairman of the Foundation for Development and Environmental Initiatives, proudly discussed the progress made in land reform in Africa, Nigeria in particular. Using "the best available science and technologies not only from the natural sciences and engineering, but also from the social sciences", communal land is not split up in individual properties to "bring them into the mainstream of the growing market economy".
This sounds wonderful if if such land reform would help the people. But individual property rights to land are no garantee for economic advancement as implicated. In fact land reform is creating many problems since these institutional arrangements do not fit with the temperal and spatial use of the land. Traditionally people could adapt to spatial variability in rainfall by moving their livestock to other areas. This might be challenging if land is privately owned. Actually, in Kenia there has been such a landreform in the past and now they are trying to include the informal practices back into the laws (what about people who use the land to pass with the livestock from point A to point B). Other problems are caused by the allocation of land rights, where surprisingly those who allocated the land receive more land rights.
In a time where we expect dramatic changes in ecosystems because of climate change, we need to develop institutional arrangements that fit with the social and ecological dynamics. 3 weeks before this editorial Elinor Ostrom presented in the same journal an updated version of her framework to study the complexity of social-ecological systems. If only practitioners really would pay attention to the best available science, we may avoid tragedies waiting to happen by applying simplistic ideas on governance as blue prints.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Paul Romer sheds light on rules and development

In a great talk, economist Paul Romer proposes an interesting idea to create places of innovation and development. By the creation of charter cities, who have specifically defined rules and goals, new cities can be created where motivated people can move to that like to work and live in those cities. The idea is inspired by the rapid economic development in China where special districts were created that acted as catelyzers for growth. From experimental work we know that higher levels of cooperation can be derived if people can self select into groups, especially if groups differ in their rules. For example, public good experiments where participants could chose between a group with costly punishment and a group without costly punishment, led to an increasing number of participants chosing the group with the costly punishment option, although it was not used that frequently (G├╝rek et al. 2006. Science 312: 60–61). An open question remains whether we are able to create successfully such charter cities. Was the success in China based on their cultural background and the centrally led nation? Will copying the idea of charter cities to other regions in the world be great opportunities for corruption of a few elite? It is an interesting idea worth to explore more.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Governing the digital commons


Yochai Benkler wrote the wonderful book "The Wealth of Networks" which discusses various consequences of the increasing use of internet and other digital processes in economic development, creative production and politics. In the past mass media was controlled by a few people who could control the signal. Now everybody can express their opinions and contribute to cultural production. This leads obviously to conflicts in how to organize this, especially in the protection of copyrights and intellectual property.
The fact that many voices can be heard does not mean that every voice is heard. Search machines filter the internet, and we see the phenomena that a few blogs (not this one :-)), websites or youtube videos (e.g. Susan Boyle) become very popular, while most are not consumed. This leads me to wonder how this affect opinion formation and politics. Is the polarization and populism in politics in different regions in the world affected by this digital involvement? Those who are talented in creating effective sound bites instead of content (e.g. Geert Wilders in the Netherlands) might get more attention, but those with a more nuanced story are clicked away. Due to the reinforcing effects of networks is web based politics really contributing to a sustained democratic system? What the book of Benkler shows is that the internet revolutions provide many opportunities to study institutional diversity in progress.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Good intensions

Giving aid is a difficult dilemma. A Samaritan's dilemma. There are different ways to help the poor in developing countries. Beyond Good Intensions provides a series of videos from aid projects all over the world to find out what works and what does not. It also provide an option to discuss the problem of aid giving and voluntering on their website. What these videos show is that most successful cases have strong roots in the local community (what they want and can do) instead of providing volunteer holidays for youngsters with good intensions. Providing technical knowledge and facilitating that local communities can self-organize might often be the best help.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Institutional context and how good people turn evil


Philip Zimbardo, an emeritus professor of social psychology from Stanford University, did in the early seventies a famous experiment where a group of young men randomly were assigned to be prisoner or guard. The Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), as it is known know, was cancelled after a week when a collegue of Zimbardo who saw the consequences of the experiments intervened. Zimbardo became part of the experiments where some "guards" were abusing "prisoners". The original intension of the experiment was to understand how context affect behavior, a line of work in psychology which was inspired by the question how ordinary citizens could turn to evil in World War 2. The SPE provides a clear example where context turn good people into evil.
Zimbardo wrote The Lucifer Effect based on his experiences with the SPE and other research he did like the prisoner abuse and torture in Abo Ghraib. As in the case of Abo Ghraib the first response of officials is that it is an isolated incident from bad people. Zimbardo shows convincingly that lack of oversight of higher autorities provide the conditions that people reveal their dark side of personalities. Due to lack of correcting autorities guards did what they thought was right "I only followed orders" "I needed to prepare the prisoners to confess", etc.
The facinating book of Zimbardo relates to one of the key findings from the study of institutional diversity, the importance of monitoring and enforcement. Due lack of oversight by their superiors and lack of correcting actions, hence ineffective monitoring, abuse escalated from small violations to enduring torture. That's why the Bush administration and not the guards are responsible for the prisoner abuse and torture in Abo Ghraib.
The role of autority in action arena in many contexts, from prisons to many other organizations, is therefore key. Besides being aware of the special position of autority and its affect of other actors in the action situation, it is important to think about how autority can be corrected. Hence the need for different levels of checks and balances.