Can behavioural science help us to reduce our impact on the climate? Lily Dempster, founder of the One Small Step app, wants to harness tech to make it simple and satisfying for people to adopt more sustainable habits.
Like many others, Lily’s climate journey began when she watched a film about the impacts of a warming planet. She was 19, studying law and heavily invested in pursuing a career in social justice when she realised that climate change was the biggest issue of her generation.
“I was terrified by the predicted climate impacts I was learning about, but also found it incredibly compelling,” she says. “There's so much complexity and difficulty in addressing the problem and so many areas that need attention, people, energy and money.”
And with that, she redirected her arts/law degree into studying environmental law and climate change policy.
After university, Lily had stints at GetUp, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and consulted for environmental NGOs and ethical businesses. You could say she’s approached the problem from all angles, gaining an understanding of the needs and challenges of a range of individuals and sectors.
Bringing together the threads of experience
Lily knew that changing social norms and behaviours was key to helping solve the climate crisis. Through her multidisciplinary background, she discovered a lot of emerging research on how to drive behaviour change en masse.
“There are fairly predictable patterns when it comes to the ways people make choices,” Lily says. “By using behavioural economics and psychology, I thought there was an opportunity to get people – particularly in wealthy countries, where a lot of high-emission products are consumed – to change what they do. It's a critical part of decarbonising and staying under 1.5 degrees of warming.”
Lily found that when one person made a small change, they usually didn’t perceive they were having much impact. But by mobilising larger groups of people, it was clear that the impact could be significant, rapid and, most importantly, socially contagious.
“There's a sizeable proportion of the community who are very motivated to address climate change and want to take practical action, but one of the big barriers is a lack of clarity for people around what's actually impactful, how to make changes or track their impact,” she says.
Using everyday tech to drive change
Lily took the learnings from behavioural science and started One Small Step, an app that makes it easy and rewarding for people to successfully adopt greener habits.
One Small Step addresses the major pain points of how to choose, make and track impactful change with the devices we’re already carrying in our back pockets. After all, as anyone trying to reach 10,000 steps a day knows, smartphones have revolutionised the way we measure our health and wellness – there’s no reason they can’t do the same for our climate impact. “An app is a great tool because of its immediacy and level of interactivity,” Lily says. “We all need reminders to do certain things and it's more fun and engaging this way. Plus the app supports you through habit coaching and short, fast modules which really work, since we know information-only campaigns aren’t nearly as effective when it comes to behaviour change.”
One Small Step is focused on coaching someone’s sustainability journey in a way that’s rewarding for their health, finances and environmental impact, with the added benefit of being able to showcase what collective actions actually amount to. “It's about making the actions easy for people and helping them understand the benefits and costs upfront, otherwise people typically tend to defer to the status quo, which is doing nothing,” Lily explains.
One Small Steps’s actions include investing in a cleaner future by divesting money from fossil fuels, which is also one of our key pillars at WorkforClimate.“Switching your bank or super fund is perceived as such a slog or a boring thing to do, but it's been one of our most popular programs and had a huge impact so far.” Lily says.
How One Small Step can help employees
With its new Enterprise product, One Small Step is working with organisations to give employees meaningful and measurable ways to reduce their emissions together as co-workers. For companies trading on their sustainability credentials, it can also help with talent acquisition and provide an ongoing way to engage with staff on the issue of climate action. Future Enterprise iterations will include ways to track average carbon emission projections on a department level, which could introduce a healthy layer of competition to the decarbonisation process – will HR or Finance reach net zero faster?
While individual action is important, Lily emphasises that One Small Step is just one part of a company’s larger climate action plan, and that the work of decarbonisation can’t be left up to employees alone. “One Small Step is perfect for businesses that are already doing work on decarbonisation and want to offer their staff tools to support greater buy-in,” says Lily. “It wouldn't make sense to have a tool like this when the organisation isn't making company-level decisions to decarbonise their operations.”
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