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Take a look at the slides from the event here.

On 22 July, Nesta’s CEO Ravi Gurumurthy spoke to Professor Dame Theresa Marteau DBE, Director of the Behaviour and Health Research Unit at the University of Cambridge, about changing behaviour at scale and to what extent the environment around us can impact our health behaviours.

During this hour-long discussion, Marteau spoke about her work on changing the four sets of behaviours - smoking, diet, alcohol consumption and physical activity - that contribute to shorter lives and poorer health. Studies show that communicating risk information, such as public awareness campaigns or personalised genetic tests, proves insufficient at changing behaviour at scale.

“Environments have a much larger impact on our behaviour than any intention to change our behaviours...it’s too hard to swim against the tide”

There are three main sets of effective interventions to change behaviour, for which the evidence is strongest; the first is fiscal or economic interventions, such as taxation; the second most effective is restricting marketing activities; and the third set is availability, which involves removing products and activities that harm health and replacing them with those that don’t. Marteau believes that fiscal/economic, marketing and availability interventions are all necessary to make an impact on population health, but few of these policies appear.

The Lancet Commission report on The Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition and Climate Change identified three barriers to changing the behaviour of policymakers: inadequate political leadership and governance to enact policies; strong opposition to policies by powerful commercial interests; and lack of demand for policy action by the public.

“Generally, populations are happy to be given information, but are far less happy to be given policy interventions, such as taxes and changing availability.”

Supermarkets and restaurants are just as resistant and in the newest National Food policy, led by businessman Henry Dimbleby, retailers are calling for regulation, rather than voluntary agreements, to ensure a level playing field.

But when it comes to big societal issues, such as obesity levels in children or reaching net zero, Marteau believes that in order to change behaviours, there needs to be a better articulated roadmap - one that engages the public, policymakers and industries to all work together for a healthier population.

Nesta Talks to… will be going on a break for the summer and will return in September. In the meantime, you can watch some of our previous events.