The Global Social Impact Practicum is a course led by Booth’s Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation and supported by Tata Trusts, one of Indias oldest and largest philanthropic organizations. Beginning with a site visit to India and culminating at the end of the Winter Quarter, students in the 2016–17 GSIP course worked with Tata Trusts on urban habitat projects, during which they examined the potential impact of entrepreneurship on waste management and developed a plan to get entrepreneurs interested in affordable housing, education, sanitation, and other basic services.

Here, Jing Chen, MBA 17, shares insights from her trip.

How often do you think about where you throw away trash? For those of us who grew up with trash bins and garbage trucks, the answer is probably not very often.

That is not the case in many cities in India, where sanitation is understood and practiced differently. In December 2016, 10 students in Booth’s Global Social Impact Practicum (GSIP) class traveled to Bhubaneswar, India, to study entrepreneurial interventions that could leverage private market forces to reduce the amount of waste in slums. Our project partner was Tata Trusts, one of India’s oldest and largest philanthropic organizations.

India, the second-most populated country in the world, generates tons of waste daily. Fueled by rapid economic development and urbanization, many cities lack proper waste management systems. For years, people have been throwing their garbage in alleyways, street corners, and vacant areas, creating costly health and environmental problems. Locals keep the inside of their houses clean, but they don’t mind waste outside their homes. They don’t care where their neighbors dump their trash, as long as it’s not in their own backyards. The Indian government has even started a public campaign to discourage littering and defecating in the open.

We quickly realized we were operating in a very different context. People in Bhubaneswar wouldn’t throw waste into trash bins simply because the government asked them to. Past experiments suggested that when new trash bins were placed in public areas, people started dumping garbage outside the bins. To avoid similar issues, we placed emphasis on how to actively encourage behavioral change.

One student with a passion for public health explained “nudging,” the idea of influencing people’s behavior by creating structures that work with our natural motivations. We also consulted a post-doctoral student from Booth’s Center for Decision Research. To successfully “nudge,” we needed to first understand why slum dwellers throw garbage away the way they do.

We visited four slums, chatted with slum dwellers about daily routines, and helped craft a survey that was administered by Tata Trusts. We learned some people don’t use bins because they’re not emptied often enough, and overflow causes smell and flies. That’s why they dump on the outskirts of the slum. While many complained about children getting sick and flooding due to blocked drains, their habits didn’t change. Many slum dwellers also didn’t know malaria is caused by mosquitoes and breeds in stagnant water.

Proposed Behavioral Nudges:

Based on our conversations with individuals living in Bhubaneswar’s slums, we developed four behavioral nudges:

  1. Create a consistent door-to-door trash collection service, so that slum dwellers develop new habits. In this system, waste pickers would routinely collect from the same slums instead of going to different places each day.
  2. Plant flowers or plants in spots where people dump waste to signify the space is not for trash.
  3. Give waste pickers a whistle so they can remind slum dwellers to take trash out as they arrive.
  4. Put up signs to show how dumping waste can lead to sickness and flooding.

In the end, we were proud to present Tata Trusts with tangible behavioral nudges to pilot in the future. We learned solutions involving human participation require careful consideration of the driving forces behind decision making. Only when we understand that can we nudge people toward the desired behaviors.