Context Architecture and Sustainability, with Reshma Tonse & Prakash Sharma

Reshma and Prakash are co-founders of 1001 Stories, a Bangalore-based multidisciplinary consultancy that uses behavioural science to build better communities, organisations and teams. They also helped create Now! Fest, the Diversifi network and the Behavioural Science Club. It goes without saying they’re among the most interesting people in behavioural science today and we hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as we had fun doing it.

Behaven — Hi Reshma and Prakash, it’s so nice to talk to you today! First, can you tell us more about your area of expertise and about a 1001 Stories?

Prakash Sharma: The company was put together by three young, foolish people (laughs). We had been working for more than ten years in advertising, marketing and management and realised that the projects we were given were not always framed properly.

For example, companies would use ads to do all sorts of things, like fighting obesity amongst kids. Is that a solution? We realised that was only a solution because someone suggested to make ads to address this. Such a decision would then be followed by: which agency should make the ad? Should we go for funny or educational ads? But the real questions they should be asking are: why exactly are kids getting obese? Why are they not eating healthily? Is it because their parents don’t care?

Reshma Tonse: Coming from advertising, you realise that we look for solutions to problems in creativity and in creative problem solving. Not even in the ads per se, but in the way we build the brand and the communication strategy. Brand managers and marketers believe they’ve figured out the problem, and that the solution is advertising. The solution is always advertising for them. You tell people what to do, and hopefully that should lead to some kind of change. But what happened for us was that we realised that the solution can actually come from anywhere, and it might not be advertising. 

And the real problem is not finding the solution. The problem is identifying the problem. That was the genesis of 1001 stories. There are a number of solutions to a problem but first, let's look at the problem itself. When people come to us, they think they already know what the problem is, and they want solutions. But we tell them to take a step back to try to understand the problem together, and maybe find new perspectives, before looking for solutions. I think that’s where our expertise really comes in.

And generally the problem is human behaviour. So we decided to look at that problem from an individual perspective, from a motivation perspective and from a cultural and normative perspective, because these are what drive people to do the things that they do.

Prakash: The first thing we offer is deep consumer insights research. Marketers, advertisers or product managers are a very homogeneous group. They are similarly minded and that skews their perception of the world, and the results that they expect. Additionally, research actually starts suffering when it becomes one more job that they have to do. 

The second thing we offer is behavioural solutions.

How do you convince clients to review the whole thing and maybe look for a different type of solution?

Reshma: Oh, well, sometimes we don't (laughs).

Prakash: It’s been a journey for us. We've been talking about this since 2012, but the company was created in 2016. In 2016, we went to a particular company to advice on what they should do and which business model they should experiment with. It was not even a pitch. We simply realised this was something that could work for them. It was backed up by data and insight. They loved it, they enjoyed the discussion and then nothing happened. No cost, no discussion. So we wondered what went wrong. It's not that they didn't understand it. It's not that they didn't enjoy. They understood it all. At different points in our career, things like this have repeated themselves from time to time. And each experience teaches you something. 

We realised that the most important thing is understanding the incentives of the person you are dealing with. You have to have a larger vision, and zoom out to understand who's heading the cause. And then, it becomes easier to find ways to align people.

Reshma: It’s always about incentives. That’s the reason we go back to the problem. If you cannot align on what the problem is, then you cannot bring change. And sometimes it is detrimental to decision makers to accept a problem in the first place.

For example, we worked on a waste management project to bring down the amount of waste that was generated in the city. You would think that waste reduction is a common goal. Everyone talks about the fact that Bangalore has a waste management issue. Landfills are filling up by the day, lots of landfills have been abandoned because they cannot be filled anymore. The neighbouring districts and the villages around have begun to complain that this is affecting the soil and air quality around. The people who live around the landfills understand the problem. The municipality understands the problem. The city people understand the problem. These are educated, conscious people who understand sustainability and health issues. So why is something as simple as waste segregation such an issue? Why is it that a change isn't happening?

We broke it up into different stakeholders in the municipality, the trash collectors, the sweepers, and the people themselves. And we realised that the problem of trash in the city doesn't begin with trash itself. The problem is not trash. The problem is cleanliness. Cleanliness in itself has completely different connotations and completely different meanings for different people.

For the woman of the house, cleanliness is a ritual. There's a certain amount of sanctity surrounding a new day. The woman needs to be washed, and the house needs to be cleaned first thing in the morning. Only then can prayers happen. It cannot be done in a dirty house. So for this woman, cleanliness has nothing to do with hygiene, it has to do with purity. For the house to be pure, the garbage needs to be out. Because of that the woman is not going to look at her trash or separate it, not because it's unhygienic or dirty but because it's impure.

The simpler way to do waste segregation would be to have separate dustbins. But the visual of two dustbins in the house tells the homeowners that there is more waste in their house and makes them feel even more impure. A lot of Indian houses have only one dustbin in their entire house. It's obviously inconvenient, but they're willing to put up with that inconvenience to have a visual imagery of only one dustbin. 

For trash collectors, cleanliness means work and effort, it has nothing to do with purity or hygiene. They work in areas that are strewn with garbage and close to open sewers. ‘Clean’ doesn't mean the same thing to them. 

The problem is not about waste management or landfills per se. The problem is that people don't have the same vocabulary or the same language. So everyone's working towards the same goals, but everyone has completely different definitions. This means that first you have to align them on the same language and then build a cause. Otherwise it won’t work. And that’s why you need to come back to the problem.

Because of this separation between what's happening in and outside the home, do people even care about what's happening in the streets?

Reshma: The urban landfills are very, very far away. Actually it’s very similar and connected to problems of fundraising for charity. Imagine a charity comes to help panhandlers in your area, to get them off the streets and help them get jobs. Even though it's a local problem, you're less likely to actually give to that charity because the problem is visible. You see it every day, and you're accustomed to believing that this problem can’t be changed.

Whereas if you’re aware of a problem to do with children in Africa, you don’t see it happening and you can have hope that your contributions will help solve the problem. You can even receive emails and data about the impact of your contribution without actually seeing the change. It’s adding filters to the way that we look at and understand the world, and to the way that we understand what we're really doing. 

It can seem like a contradiction because I’m saying that it’s important to localise the problem, but when you localise the problem, people don't see it. It's all about how much change you can see. 

Prakash: Put a huge garbage dump in the middle of a city centre, and tell people that this is the amount of trash that they are throwing in their own city every day. Let people see the visual. It's about getting people to measure, and give them a sense of what is happening.

One big challenge with sustainability is how do we measure it? Numbers, ratios, proportions - they just break it down for us. But how am I going to measure my own impact on the environment? And what can I do to do my part? 

Reshma: There is never just one change in the system. One change brings in a cycle of different changes that affect people in different ways, good or bad. By looking beyond the immediate change, we will figure out whether our ideas are actually sustainable and good for the environment. 

Take the Kyoto Protocol for example. By introducing carbon credits, they turned it into a currency. It doesn't help solve the problem. Our measurement tools are completely screwed up. 

But that's an interesting thing that Prakash keeps talking about: for people to come and measure their carbon footprint in the first place, they have to be committed to the cause. And then there's another problem with the commitment to a sustainable life. In itself, that commitment gives you a certain amount of pleasure and a certain validation. But soon enough that breaks into a very chaotic cycle of guilt, because you're never able to actually do 100%. 

Prakash: You can tie that to religion in a way. Being religious means being honest, pure, and moral all the time. It's not possible. I am going to be bad sometimes, I’ll have loss and grief too. If you're not going to allow me the possibility to sin, you're messing it up for me. I am a human. There needs to be a system in place where I can confess my sins and reset myself. I can still try to be a better person tomorrow.

Reshma: The path to being an environmentalist cannot be ridden with hardship for oneself, like living with guilt all the time. If we want to encourage more people to do this, then it's okay to go wrong sometimes. Dedicate one task or just one element of your life to environmentalism, and do it 30% of the time. It's just 30% but it’s still more than it was yesterday.

It's very unfortunate that the idea of trying to do something for the planet, for the people or for your children is badly perceived. People consider that you’re sitting on a high horse and that they need to bring you down. 

Prakash: Nobody likes that. Judging others cannot be a way of getting people on your side. That’s true for both sides.

That's a very interesting parallel. It’s true that with sustainability, there is no place where you can go and confess that you failed, where you can meet people and talk about your struggles. There’s no space for mistakes.

Reshma: Sure religion is about a common love for a God or a belief, but it is also very strongly rooted in community and being there for each other. And allows you to be in a spectrum. If you look at different generations in a religious family, you might have very conservative grandparents, but less strict parents and even more relaxed children, who only celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas. But you still belong and celebrate each other in that community. 

There is no environmental community right now, there is mainly judgement. You have to allow people to make mistakes and to indulge once in a while.

Prakash: Sustainability has to be something tied down to society in itself, the way religion, spirituality is tied down to society, to family. Everybody has a ritual to follow, whether it is going to the temple or mosque once a week, or to the pub with your buddy if you're an atheist. You have to tie sustainability to that. What is that system going to be? That’s where we need consensus as people and society. The word ‘sustainable’ in itself means that you need something which can be done over generations, over thousands of years. Otherwise, 40 years from today, we’ll have the same conversations. Because it cannot be solved just through a single effort. It's a way of living.

What have you learned from working on sustainability projects?

Reshma: With sustainability, the question is: do I talk to people who have already bought into this life and show them more ways to live this life or do I convince others? Because it's a commitment. It's a lifestyle. It is about using less resources, and reusing and restoring older things. It's about consumerism, and about growing your own food. It's so many different things altogether. It’s not just about some life choices, it affects the way you spend money and your time. It affects the way you look at time in the first place. You cannot live a rushed life and commit to an entire lifestyle of sustainability. Sustainable doesn't allow for that. It needs you to be mindful of your consumption and you're consuming everything, all the time. 

We're still working on understanding what the best driver is in the first place, and what the barriers are, beyond what’s obvious. We've been trying to influence these choices by making people feel guilty. But that's not going to work. We need people to identify with a mindful life. Only then will they be able to sustain their habits. Sustainability will have to become something that people enjoy doing, because they enjoy being mindful of their consumption. Having this mindfulness as a global tradition, as a global culture would be so beautiful.

Prakash: We need to put all of the solutions together, otherwise it won’t work. We should be trying to bring sustainability in the same way that we messed up the planet. Tiny things. I threw a cigarette butt there. You threw one extra can out there. They all added up to mess up the planet. In the same way, we have to do a lot ‘tiny changes’ to have a cumulative big impact.

What behavioural change process do you use in your work?

Prakash: Our process is Context Architecture. But the way we got there was very experimental. Trials and errors, our own experiences, our previous careers, all the books we read led us to the realisation that all knowledge in the world of sociology and psychology comes from a very, very Western centric approach. Right now there isn't a Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indian, Vietnamese, African or Latin American point of view. That not to say that everything’s wrong. It’s just to say that it needs to be updated as you move along. 

Going back to waste segregation, I'm sure you have no issues to touch and segregate your waste. It might disgust you because it is dirty, but it won’t make you feel impure. And these are two different emotions. If I come down to solving this problem in India only with a behavioural bias based framework, it won’t work, I’ll have to add something more because ‘impure’ is what we Indians add to this equation.

We need to understand biases and heuristics but they're only one part of a larger picture. You also have to understand the cultural context. For instance, when working on a project on food, it is important to ask yourselves: did this community suffer famines in the past? Have grandparents and parents faced severe shortages or a very bad economy when they grew up? If a society grows in a particular way, it changes the way people approach food habits, and the way that we need to look at it.

Reshma: Behaviour means reaction to context. Your behaviour is defined by the context. So we first understand the context and then look at the way that the human is behaving. That is our guiding light. We look at it from the point of view of linguistics, of history, of culture, the of social norms and the rituals.

Prakash: There is a lot of literature being read, not just academic papers. We end up reading about mythology, history or language. Because we are a country of diverse languages, we look at how people address particular things. Is it with sarcasm? What are the common phrases used? There’s also collective history, shared memory. Shared memory changes the way we behave as a society.

When we researched dirt and waste, one of the first things we did was to look at the mythology. And we realised that one of the first time that dirt, or something disgusting or impure was mentioned in the Indian mythology, is in a story where this God, the supreme Lord, is resting and realises that his earwax is turning into a powerful demon who then goes around messing the entire world. What’s the meaning of that? 

So when we say that Context Architecture is our approach, we literally look at all the items that are adding to the context. Typically, we approach biases and heuristics almost at the end. Never at the beginning. 

That’s very interesting! We’re already coming to our last question. Do you have any suggestions of books or papers that we could share? 

Prakash: A book you could look at is ‘The Geography of Thought’ by Richard Nisbett. Some people don't agree with him, but I think it’s pretty spot on. It helps you understand that different cultures are built differently. The languages that we use, the religions all shaped people and cultures differently. Because sustainability is a global thing, we need to have that nuanced understanding.

Reshma: Because sustainability is such a lifestyle problem, it's very important to understand the culture of a place to understand how to create a new lifestyle and how to slowly let it trickle into people's lives. 

Prakash: There’s ‘Filters against Folly’ by Garrett Hardin, which makes you think about the effect of growth and economy on ecology in the long run once you understand what Garett calls “Ecolacy”. This book will not give you a straight, direct answer to reach sustainability, but it will train your brain to think in a new way.

There’s also Jared Diamond’s book ‘Collapse’ in which he is basically asking the question: what was that man who was chopping the last tree on Easter Island thinking? It makes you think that maybe it makes sense to involve kids in schools in workshops that would simulate a desolate wasteland, with pollution everywhere, over the years. As they grow up, they might tie that to the way society exists.

I would basically recommend any book which takes a larger perspective on history, because with sustainability, we are talking about something much larger than our tiny lives.


The Geography of Thought, by Richard Nisbett
Filters against Folly, by Garrett Hardin
Collapse, by Jared Diamond