Denis Hayes: Nudging people to take the stairs

The Bullitt Center's "irresistible stairway." Bullitt Center photo.
The Bullitt Center’s “irresistible stairway.”
Bullitt Center photo.

How do you get people to take the stairs instead of the elevator? Denis Hayes suggests designing buildings so the stairs are the obvious choice.

If the first thing you see when you walk in the door is an open, welcoming stairway, you are more likely to walk up the stairs. If the stairway is buried in the back hallway and the elevator is prominent, you are more likely to use the elevator.

Denis Hayes was the national coordinator for the first Earth Day in 1970. He is now president and CEO of the Bullitt Foundation in Seattle, which funds innovative approaches to environmental problems.

Hayes’s new office is housed in the Bullitt Center, which the foundation’s website trumpets as “The Greenest Commercial Building in the World.” The goal of the building is “to drive change in the marketplace faster and further by showing what’s possible today.” The six-story building, which opened in 2013, houses the foundation along with a variety of public, private and nonprofit tenants.

The Bullitt Center’s front door leads into a light-filled stairwell surrounded by glass walls with views of downtown Seattle. It is fondly known as the “irresistible stairway.”

Hayes said the stair placement uses principles in Nudge, by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein. He was speaking at the second annual Urban Forest Symposium in Seattle.

Nudge talks about designing “choice architecture” to help us make decisions that are beneficial to us and to society. I found the book fascinating: self-defined libertarians set forth a provocative approach to a better society.

Thaler and Sunstein describe how nudges could work to encourage retirement investing, improve health and help save the planet. To reduce climate change, they argue for cap-and-trade systems, which depend on the market, rather than command-and-control regulation. Instead of forcing people and industries to do a certain behavior, imposing a tax gives them the choice to pollute if they pay for it.

The Ambient Orb glows red or green, depending on energy use.
The Ambient Orb glows red or green, depending on energy use.

They also suggest better feedback about how to save the planet. For example, when Southern California Edison used emails and text messages to tell people about their energy use, it had no impact. Then they gave people an Ambient Orb, a small ball that glows red when they are using lots of energy but green when they are using little energy.

The orb reminds me of the Orgasmatron in Woody Allen’s movie Sleeper. When Woody held the glowing orb in his hands, he—well, you know. I still remember the look on his face.

With the Ambient Orb in their homes, people reduced their energy use in peak periods by 40 percent: a great success. I wonder about the long-term effectiveness: will people learn to tune it out over time? But for now, it’s working to save energy.

What ways can you think of to use a nudge with your audience?

Ed. note: In honor of my 10th anniversary in business, I am updating and reposting some of the posts from my (now-defunct) Sage Enviro blog to make it easier for people to find them.