The Centre for Conscious Design

No Such Thing as A Neutral Design. Nudging in the Built Environment

Can we become more conscious about creating a ‘choice architecture’ in urban environments that nudge people to make healthier choices?

Nudging Around Us 

We live in the world of ‘nudging’. Most of us experience ‘nudging’ every day in the context of marketing, social media or public policies and in the built environment, whether we are aware of it or not. 

Sidewalk Labs’ Quayside project shed light not only on the problem of data harvesting but also on the potential risk of influencing human behaviour in the city space. 

The Quayside was a smart city proposal for Toronto, run by Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary company of Google focused on urban innovation through technology. Sidewalk Labs intended to develop affordable housing, effective transport, heated and illuminated sidewalks, public Wi-Fi, and a myriad of cameras and sensors to monitor traffic and street life.1 

In May this year, the company announced they would not pursue the project anymore.2 It is unclear whether the growing critique against the project contributed to its end. The community members, technologists and business owners, who formed the #BlockSidewalk campaign, were pointing out the lack of transparency on data ownership and management systems, and the risk of privacy breaches.3 More interestingly, the project critic and venture capitalist Roger McNamee, warned that Google could use data to make behavioral predictions and sell them to marketers.4 He described the current practices of Google Maps, as an example: “Google also accepts payment from merchants in exchange for routing potential customers past their location. Consumers are not aware that Google may route them suboptimally due to load balancing or commercial considerations.”5 

Similar actions have been carried out for instance, in case of the popular AR game Pokémon Go. Restaurants paid the game owners for locating Pokemon close to their establishments in order to lure unaware players for a meal.6

Shoshana Zuboff presents a bigger picture in regard to such practices in her recent book ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’. She points out how all the digital infrastructure including our phones and laptops is being used in order to “nudge and tune and herd our behaviour towards guaranteed outcomes’.7 The problem is that most of us are not conscious about it. 

Behavioural Economics,  Decision Making and Nudge Theory.

Behavioral economics arose in the second half of the twentieth century by integrating insights from economics and social and cognitive sciences.8  It has become increasingly influential9 in understanding and engineering environments that shift human behaviour towards being more sustainable and positive.10 

Behavioural economists assume that people, irrespectively of their age and intelligence, “are rather myopic with respect to what is best for them”11 and “make poor and rash decisions, even though it is clear there are better options that will improve long-term outcomes.”12 The theory of operant or instrumental conditioning, the process of associative learning through which reinforcement or punishment are used to modulate the occurrence of a behaviour in future, is also adopted. Such a view challenges the idea that humans possess autonomy of thought and it stresses the importance of environmental influences on human behaviour and decision making processes, i.e compliance with certain social standards.13  

Our salience bias, an example of cognitive bias, predisposes us to focus on features which are more prominent or emotionally striking, i.e. we might feel attracted by an intense smell of unhealthy food and as a result we ignore its negative effects on our health. 

People are more likely to behave in an irrational manner under conditions of greater pressure, uncertainty, distraction or fatigue.14  Regardless, deciding is tiring. What to eat for breakfast, what to wear, how to get to work — all these considerations deplete our already limited mental energy and information processing capability.15 The more choices we make daily, the harder each of them becomes for our brain. Eventually we experience so-called decision fatigue, which leads to poor decisions.16 

Aware of our limitations in regards to decision-making, behavioural economist Richard Thaler and legal scholar Cass Sunstein coined the ‘nudge theory’. A nudge is a way of influencing human behaviour. According to this approach, choices should be engineered in such a manner that individuals, always free to choose, feel inclined towards the choices which benefit them. Thaler and Sunstein explain: “To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.”17 

Shaping Our Choices: Number, Salience and Defaults. 

Nudges are aspects of ‘choice architecture’ which is “the organization of the context in which people make decisions.”18   Our decisions can be influenced by the number of choices we are given, the manner in which they are presented and the “default” option.

Awareness of choice, at best, provides us with a sense of control and autonomy; at worst, it overwhelms us. Various studies have demonstrated that people, when confronted with too many choices, are less motivated to choose at all and they feel less satisfied with their choice once it is made.19,20 The well-known ‘jam study’ i.e. has demonstrated that consumers were more likely to purchase a jar of jam, when they could choose from 6 flavours instead of 24.21

A common ‘choice architecture’ strategy is to limit the number of options and thus reduce cognitive overload. 

Skilled presentation makes some options more salient than others. Nudging strategies based on the saliency of choice prevail within a linguistic context – letters, public announcements and written application forms. The way the text is formatted affects the reader’s response. For instance, an extra sentence ‘9 out of 10 people in the country have already paid their taxes’, was added in the tax reminder letters sent to taxpayers in the UK. By reaffirming the social norm of paying taxes, this phrase strengthened the saliency of the act, and it led to increased tax collection in the UK by millions of pounds within a year.22,23

People are also more likely to choose a default option which demands no additional effort and action from a decision-maker. Especially when experiencing decision fatigue or time pressure due to an increased cognitive effort. Research has revealed that we choose a ‘default’ in instances when the difference between the choices is unclear or we lack knowledge to evaluate them.24 For example, a trial with 40,000 German households has shown that if people had to “opt-in” for green energy, only 7% decided for it.25 However, when renewable energy was set as the “default” option, the number of people choosing it rose tenfold (70%).26

No Such Thing as A Neutral Design.  Nudging Towards Healthier Choices.

Choice architecture refers to the skilful use of environmental cues that can alter people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options.27 Thaler and Sustein note that “there are many parallels between choice architecture and more traditional forms of architecture. A crucial parallel is that there is no such thing as a “neutral” design.”28

The manner space is designed determines our choices. Space has the potential of directing our behaviours towards healthier practices, hence it can play a significant role in the promotion of health and well-being. 

Nudging strategies have proved to be effective in fields such as marketing or public policy. Within the built environment, however, they have not been widely explored yet.


In the built environment, cognitive overload and its effect on decision making have been investigated on examples of wayfinding and spatial navigation.29 Especially large-scale, complex, multifunctional and multistorey buildings, such as airports, hospitals or shopping malls pose navigation problems.30,31 Limiting navigational choices is often recommended in order to improve people’s wayfinding ability. 

On one hand, having too many choices in the surrounding can be problematic, on the other hand too little choice often causes dissatisfaction.32 In an urban environment, people’s everyday physical activity can be hampered by a lack of choice in means of transport. How many transportation options do we have on a daily basis, when we move between specific locations in a city or between different levels in a building? If we inquire which of the available alternatives supports our health and well-being, we realise that the choice is very limited or non-existent. 

To design a healthier urban environment through choice, the following questions could be asked during the urban planning, architectural, ergonomic design process.

* Can one get to work or travel by: bicycle, walking, public transport, mixed transport or car only? 

* Does one have a choice between stairs or an elevator? 

* Does one have other possibilities for physical activities in a building?

* Can a person choose between a sitting and standing table while working?

Architects and planners do engage with such questions, however,  it rarely happens in a systematic manner and the answers are often compromised by other factors. 

Saliency. Stairs and Elevators. 

Saliency of choice in the built environment can be increased by factors such as visibility, accessibility, natural light, greenery, outdoor views and perceived appeal of design.

The Human Experience Lab at Perkins + Will investigated the frequency of staircase usage analyzing physical qualities in comparable buildings.33 It was revealed that stairs were four times more frequently used when they had access to natural light and outside views. If the stairs were additionally open to a shared space, their usage increased up to six times.

Staircases are frequently placed in the middle of a building due to various considerations: bearing structure, floorplan’s efficiency, fire and emergency regulations. As stairs also do not require access to natural light, daylight is often reserved for more prominent spaces. 

While positioning elevators in the most central, visible place in a high-rise building may be a reasonable choice, the same decision in mid-rise buildings, can negatively affect people’s physical activity. Giving elevators the best visibility, prompts people towards a short-term comfort instead of improving their physical health.

Furthermore, staircases in buildings are frequently designed to have a minimum necessary surface in order to maximize a rentable or saleable floor area. Under the pressure of maximizing profit per square meter/foot the value of staircases as attractive shared spaces that promote social interactions is being compromised. 

A fun experiment by Volkswagen increased stairs over escalator usage in a Stockholm metro station.34 The regular metro stairs were transformed into an interactive piano keyboard and played musical notes whenever pedestrians stepped onto them. The usage of the stairs increased by 66%.35  

The above mentioned studies and examples introduce the quality of human experience as an important design factor that should be taken into account apart from safety and efficiency.36 Spacious, attractive and well-positioned stairs can be an effective nudge towards physical activity and social encounters.


When we operate in ‘don’t make me think’ mode due to energy depletion or time pressure, we lean towards default choices. Designers can make the healthier choices more likely to become the default through skillful use of environmental cues. Most simply, by making the healthier choices more obvious, visible and accessible. 

If the stairs are the first thing we notice in a building, we are more likely to use them. If  a water dispenser is closer to our work station than a coffee machine, we might become more hydrated.  

A healthy default can be also considered at a city level. The well-known Danish urbanist Jan Gehl, when referring to cycling and walking, underlines that in a well-designed city physical activity is part of everyday life.37 To make sure that most of the city’s inhabitants move on a regular basis, the default means of transportation should encourage physical movement. In Copenhagen, for instance, 62% of the city’s inhabitants commute daily by bicycle, which is also a result of a long standing planning strategy of the city.38 


Many behavioural insights teams have been created around the world with the intent of improving government’s policies and supporting evidence-made decisions.39 Governments and public institutions including WHO are becoming increasingly aware that simply informing people doesn’t suffice to change human behaviour.40 

Nudging is a powerful technique that can effectively influence people’s behaviour in the built environment. The example of the Quayside project highlights risks of spatial nudging driven by commercial interests that often happens without our awareness. Nonetheless, nudging carries a great potential to improve human experience in physical space and the quality of our choices. It can play a significant role in the promotion of health strategies.  Buildings can provide spaces for restoration where we can slow down and regenerate from cognitive overload, as well as be designed to be easily navigable, and provide healthy default choices, such as taking the stairs. Thus, we can be more conscious about creating a ‘choice architecture’ in urban environments which nudge people to make healthier and more sustainable choices.


1  Hawkins, Andrew J. (2020). Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs shuts down Toronto smart city project. The high-tech ‘city-within-a-city’ drew criticism from local residents. The Verge online
2  Ling, Isabel. (2020). After Sidewalk Labs, the ‘techlash’ movement turns its eyes to contact tracing apps. CityMetric online.
3 Ibid.
4  Financial Post Staff. (2019). Google critic Roger McNamee urges Toronto to abandon ‘surveillance capitalism’ project Sidewalk Labs. Financial Post online.
5 Ibid.
6  Sidahmed, Mazin. (2016). Pokémon Go: Restaurants and bars cash in on Pokéstop locations. The Guardian online.
7  (2019). Age of Surveillance Capitalism: “We Thought We Were Searching Google, But Google Was Searching Us”. Democracy Now online.
8  Editorials. (2017). The rise of behavioural economics. Nature Human Behaviour
9 Ibid.
10 Reed et al. (2013). Behavioral Economics: A Tutorial for Behavior Analysts in Practice. Behavior Analysis in Practice.
11  Reed et al. (2013). Behavioral Economics: A Tutorial for Behavior Analysts in Practice. Behavior Analysis in Practice
12 Ibid.
13 Ibid.
14  Andreea Gradinaru (2014). The Contribution of Behavioral Economics in Explaining the Decisional Process. Procedia Economics and Finance.
15 Ibid.
16  Tierney, J. (2011). Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue? The New York Times Reprints.
17  Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. (2008). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press
18 Thaler, R. H.; Sunstein,C. R. (2008). Designing Better Choices. Los Angeles Times.
19  Johnson, Eric J.; Shu, S.B.; Dellaert, B.G.C.; Fox, C.; Goldstein, D.G.; Haeubl, G.; Larrick, R.P.; Payne, J.W.; Schkade, D.; Wansink, B.; Weber, E.U. (2012). Beyond Nudges: Tools of a choice architecture.
20  Iyengar, S.S.; Lepper, M.R. (2000). When choice is demotivating: can one desire too much of a good thing?. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
21 Ibid.
22 Ibid.
23  Tamsin Rutter. (2015). The rise of nudge – the unit helping politicians to fathom human behaviour. The Guardian.
24  Smith, N.C; Goldstein, D.; Johnson, E. (2013). Choice without awareness: Ethical and policy implications of defaults. Journal of Public Policy
25 Berger, S. (2015).The Power of the Nudge to Change Our Energy Future. Scientific American.
26 Ibid.
27  Thaler, R. H.; Sunstein,C. R. (2008). Designing Better Choices. Los Angeles Times.
28 Ibid.
29  Large body of work of Space Syntax Laboratory at The Bartlett, University College London.
30  Hölscher, C., Meilinger, T., Vrachliotis, G., Brösamle, M., & Knauff, M. (2006). Up the down staircase: next term Wayfinding strategies in multi-level buildings. Journal of Environmental Psychology
31  Dalton, R.C. ; Hölscher, Ch. (2017) Take One Building : Interdisciplinary Research Perspectives of the Seattle Central Library.
32  Schwartz, B. (2005) The paradox of choice. Ted Talks Global.
33  Baldwin, A.; Newby, D. (2018). Promoting Activity: How Design Choices Influence Physical Activity. Innovation Incubator Project Report. Perkins + Will.
34  Peeters, M.; Megens C.; van den Hoven, E.; Hummels, C.; Brombacher A. (2013). Social Stairs: Taking the Piano Staircase towards Long-Term Behavioral Change. Persuasive Technology
35 Ibid.
36 Ibid.
37 Jan Gehl. (2013). Lecture on Changing Mindsets about Urban Planning and Living. European Foundation Centre.
38 “Copenhagen Bicycle Account”. City of Copenhagen. July 2019. Archived from the original on 7 July 2019.
39  Editorials. (2017). The rise of behavioural economics. Nature Human Behaviour
40 Ibid.