Solving Social Problems: Why Technology Alone is Insufficient

Behavioral economist Sendhil Mullainathan’s 2009 TEDtalk deals with the seeming inefficiency of social change. A problem is recognized, solutions are hypothesized, tested, refined, produced, and distributed, but the problem doesn’t disappear. Why? In a nutshell, because our behavior is governed by mental mapping that doesn’t always adapt to the context at hand. Journalist and author Laurence Gonzales explores this conundrum at length in Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. People who perish in survival situations often behave in what are deemed to be irrational ways, but the science shows that it is rarely irrational behavior that kills them; in fact, their rationale might be entirely in keeping with the biological and behavioral mechanisms that have developed over millennia and, individually, from personal experience. The real problem occurs when these mechanisms do not align with the context at hand.

The point of all of this can be found in the difficulty of completing what Mullainathan calls the “Last Mile” of social change. It isn’t enough to solve a problem, or even to make the solution widely available. Our behavior must change to incorporate new solutions, which means the brain must rewire itself in a sense to make sense of a new “normal.” A better understanding of precisely—scientifically—why people behave the way they do, and what is required for them to change their behavior, will in my opinion be a crucial skill for the next generation of urban planners.

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