Change Maker: Umar Taj uses behavioural science to help businesses and customers make better choices
At the entrance to Warwick Business School lies Britain’s best roundabout. In the spring, students from around the globe can be spotted snapping selfies in front of its vibrant yellow daffodils.
During the summer, the photograph-hunters are replaced by insects and birds seeking refuge amongst an oasis of wildflowers.
That commitment to beauty and biodiversity captured the imagination of The Roundabout Society, which named the junction as its Roundabout of the Year for 2023.
What better sight to inspire delegates from a ground maintenance company who were aiming to avoid going round in circles as they arrived for an eco-friendly Nudgeathon event?
They were set a challenge to look beyond landscaping and consider environmental sustainability from a different perspective, then nudge their franchise owners and customers to do the same.
“We typically focus on complex or wicked problems, so there is no easy solution,” says Dr Umar Taj, an Associate Professor of Behavioural Science at WBS who founded Nudgeathon in 2015.
The events he leads help participants to understand the subconscious biases that shape their decisions and build an environment where they can make better choices.
“It really helps to brainstorm a problem using evidence-based insights from behavioural science,” says Umar.
“There are multiple stakeholders involved, so we can feed in all those different perspectives
“That helps us to build a shared understanding and ownership of the challenge, so we can identify the right problem and drill down to solve it together.”
Umar was born and raised with three older sisters in Islamabad in Pakistan. Rather than follow his father into the family business, he decided to forge his own path.
He considered becoming an architect, before deciding to pursue his passion for maths as an actuary by studying Mathematics, Operational Research, Statistics, and Economics at the University of Warwick. It was here that he developed in an interest in behavioural science and nudge theory.
“Moving to England was a big culture shock,” says Umar. “I had never met so many people from so many different parts of the world – it was a big adventure.
“It really stood out for me how small changes in the way choices are presented affects what we do. I have always had this curiosity about human behaviour and finding out how our decisions are so easily influenced was fascinating.
“I also liked the fact that there is a quantitative element to behavioural science, the rigour of showing whether something works.”
Umar’s PhD at WBS focussed on applying behavioural science to the real world, creating a computer game to explore antibiotic adherence and different ways to ensure that patients completed a course of treatment to slow the spread of drug-resistant superbugs.
That work provided the springboard for Nudgeathon.
“I was teaching students the theory, but they had no chance to apply it,” said Umar.
“The idea was to give them the opportunity to apply what they had learned to a social challenge and see if it made an impact. My PhD supervisor said go for it and it has been amazing to see it grow.”
WBS nudges at work around the world
As behavioural science grew in influence, so did Umar’s work. He created Pakistan’s first behavioural science lab and moved into international development.
He used behavioural science to help the United Nations to recruit vulnerable youths to vocational training programmes, steering them away from violent gangs and terrorist organisations.
Working with the World Bank, he also tested the use of virtual reality headsets to expose people to ethnically diverse groups and develop social cohesion.
Umar’s pioneering Nudgeathon project has run events with universities and organisations in Sweden, China, Australia, Mexico, and Kuwait.
“We did one in South Africa with the Western Cape Government to reduce violence in schools and we had teachers, students, behavioural scientists and Government policymakers working on ideas over two days.”
“That was really good, as they set aside a big budget to test the ideas we generated.”
Nudgeathon is part of the award-winning Custom Executive Education portfolio at WBS.
The bespoke courses were ranked second in the UK and 17th globally in the Financial Times Executive Education Ranking 2023, making WBS the fastest rising school in the UK.
That upwards trajectory was fuelled by outstanding client satisfaction ratings, with many saying they intended to access further courses at WBS in future.
“Nudgeathon is a new way of building stakeholder engagement and co-creating solutions for complex policy challenges,” says Umar. “It presents a real opportunity.
“But it’s not just about solving one wicked problem. We are teaching participants new skills and knowledge. Many report back that they have used those insights to tackle other issues.
“I’m lucky in the opportunities I have been given in life. I want to use them to make a difference and help others do the same.”
It is an ethos that lies at the heart of Executive Education, empowering business leaders and helping them to blossom – much like the flowers on that roundabout a stone’s throw away.
Umar Taj is the founder of Nudgeathon and Associate Professor of Behavioural Science at Warwick Business School.
This article features in Core 12. Core magazine is the Change Maker's manual published by Warwick Business School.
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