Cape Town: Nudges to Save Water

Cape Town, South Africa, home to 3.4 million residents, could soon be the first major city in the world to run out of water—a day that’s been dubbed ‘Day Zero.’   Day Zero could happen as early as mid-July if there’s no significant rain, and residents will have to travel to one of the city’s 200 collections points to receive their daily ration of 25 litres per person. 


While the city has taken some steps to better manage water use, they are increasingly looking toward behavioural economics to find a solution.  The city has collaborated with the University of Cape Town to develop nudges aimed at encouraging individuals to reduce their water use.  The research has identified several types of nudges including social norms, real-time feedback, and social recognition that they believe will be most effective. 


In order to challenge the current social norms around water use, the city has developed a water map by which it identifies homes and businesses that do/do not comply with set targets.  While concerns over backlash against non-compliant households have raised issues around the appropriate channels and end-users to communicate this information, research demonstrates that combining behavioural interventions with traditional measures [restrictions or penalties] can be highly effective in the short-term. 


In addition, Cape Town is offering real-time feedback regarding the daily water level in dams.  This is particularly motivating when feedback is framed in reference to Day Zero [critical level at 13.5%] and coupled with water saving tips.  The Water Tracker designed by eighty20 is a great example of this. 


Lastly, Cape Town must expand social recognition efforts.  Being recognized for hard work or achievements makes us feel good.  This prize doesn’t necessarily even have to be monetary; written or verbal recognition can be enough.  Of the nine nudges tested in this research, social recognition proved to be the most successful; households who reduced consumption by 10% were featured on the city’s webpage. 


Cape Town now faces a challenging situation that will require multi-faceted approach to solve, but the solutions or nudges suggested can be applied to healthcare.  How can we challenge social norms around prescribing antibiotics or even challenge prescribing opioids to combat the epidemic in the United States?  What are creative approaches to giving clinicians feedback in real-time as with HCV campaigns in Australia?  What ways can we incentivise good work and good behaviour beyond financial motivators?