Many of the complex issues the world is facing today concern us all, in one way or another. They are the global phenomena caused locally. They are the ‘wicked’ problems, deeply ingrained in systems involving diverse people with countless motivations. What they all have in common is that solving them requires collective action; despite people being unequally responsible and impacted, everyone needs to do their bit to tackle these problems. Climate change, antimicrobial resistance and exploitation of natural resources are good examples. The question is, how to stop humans pursuing conflicting interests, only seeing the short-term and not acting for the common good?
The debate goes on about whether an individual’s actions can make a difference to issues like the climate crisis. It’s been described, among other things, as “liberalism’s most dangerous lie”. Others tout the knock-on effects of inspiring others and changing what’s ‘normal’ as the key ways that individuals can make a difference. Yet the latter can be more powerful than it first seems.
Inspiring people and shifting the dial on how they think about an issue can be a powerful social force. It has proven itself in industrial, social and environmental policy time after time. In 1989, due to an intersection of robust science, popular support and political will, the Montreal Protocol to ban the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) became the first universally ratified treaty in UN history. Now, three decades later, there is evidence that the ozone hole is closing, and more than half of this reversal is tied to the reduction in CFCs. It is probably one of the biggest successes of collective action on a political level - the world acting as one, on one of the most serious challenges at the time, despite geopolitical tensions and diverging world-views.
Collective action should not be seen as merely a sum of individuals doing things. It’s about communicating better, fostering empathy and mutual understanding, and learning from each other. Collective action, by definition, snowballs into something that is bigger than the sum of its parts.
Change for some can start with any spark, like the tool developed by researchers from Sri Lanka, the US, and Canada which “generates images that depict accurate, vivid, and personalised outcomes of climate change”. This won’t directly combat climate change, but it helps to communicate the long-term impact of people’s decisions on the climate, hopefully triggering people’s willingness to do something about the climate crisis.
There’s no telling how quickly a collective movement will snowball, or where this will come from. More often, it’s the movements that unite the social, personal and political that work the best. Recent protest movements - like Extinction Rebellion’s pursuit of a “movement that is participatory, decentralised, and inclusive” - are examples of bottom-up collective action enjoying some success. There’s also evidence of others learning from the ability of protesters in Hong Kong to persist despite being notionally leaderless.
Changes in attitudes towards urban air pollution, for example, are showing signs of bubbling into collective movements; more than half of people in the UK are concerned about the long-term impacts of air pollution, and roughly two-thirds are actively reducing their emissions. We’re starting to see examples of genuine and comprehensive collective action as attitudes, policies, industrial processes, protests and data all come together to build the momentum for change.
Helping others to change their behaviour is crucial to the growth of collective action. Sticking with the example of air pollution, the surge in citizens monitoring air quality is a good example of positive change. Portable air pollution sensors have become more affordable and enable people to collect hyperlocal data on pollution levels while they walk to school, ride a bike, or drive a car. While the latter may sound slightly ironic, placing sensors on public buses helps to generate new data while complementing existing data with fine-grained real-time information on air pollution.
Changes like this can accommodate more innovation, growing the snowball. The Centre for London’s hypothetical City Move scheme - where inner-city drivers are charged by the distance they drive and according to the level of air pollution at the time and the success of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), show that those schemes can genuinely drive behaviour change. An impact study of the ULEZ shows that the scheme has had a significant impact, both in terms of the average compliance rate (which increased from 61% to 77% over six months), and on air quality (with a 4% decrease in CO2 emissions, a 29% decrease in NO2 emissions, and decrease in NOx emissions by 31%).
Better data are spawning a host of products that lower the costs of reducing people’s emissions. Smartphone apps like Aircasting map air quality data and make it accessible to the public, LED wearables allow citizens to communicate the air pollution in real-time to fellow pedestrians or cyclists, and addresspollution.org reports on the air pollution around your home address. Individuals can make informed decisions on their cycle routes to work, or whether - like in Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia - it is safe to let their children play outside without a mask. These actions realise a community of those interested in improving the air they breathe; sharing data helps others to make better decisions, change their behaviour, or inspires them to do the same.
As momentum builds, we see other innovations that improve air quality - ones that require teams of people, creativity and larger investments of capital. Products like Active Air, Air Ink and Pluvo hope to make it easier for the purchase of shoes, printer ink, and advertising space to make small contributions to reducing air pollution. These products allow small and easy ‘behaviour hacks’ that counter the helplessness some may feel about changing their behaviour in the face of a seemingly insurmountable problem like fixing air quality. These are small pieces of a big puzzle (and they won’t deliver the change that’s needed on their own) but in a collective movement, every little action helps.
Seeing collective action this way is both positive and beneficial. It sees the best in small scale efforts to address our global ‘wicked’ problems and values the contributions that help to promote, campaign, communicate and ‘hack’ individual action. It also helps to highlight the tangential. The local hourly nitrogen dioxide concentrations that dropped by 20% was not the point of Extinction Rebellion’s protests in April this year, but reinforces to others that immediate improvements in air quality are possible.
There’s a clear disparity between the still prevalent, albeit changing focus on short-term benefit, and the long-lasting impact this way of thinking and organising has on future generations, particularly regarding environmental consequences. But changing attitudes and behaviour is related to shifting how the future is imagined. Nesta’s work on participatory futures focuses on systematically democratising this process by engaging communities to imagine and create their own snowballs of collective action.