Why behaviour change is critical in the race to 2030

Authors: Nina Jatana, Liam Clifford
  • Reading time: 5 min.
  • Posted on: August 13, 2021

2030 has been identified as a key date for everyone to work towards — a crucial point for us to slow, halt, and possibly even turn around the damage that we’ve already done. To make the progress we need, people must work together on a scale we’ve not seen before. But wide-scale, systemic change isn’t the only way we can have an impact.


Our world is in trouble. Despite decades of concerted effort, the global society is in disarray — the climate crisis and now the worsening pandemic threaten to undo decades of progress we’ve achieved in crucial areas such as in poverty reduction.

We only need to look at the world around us to see the scale of the problem. Economic disparity and healthcare gaps continue to increase. Catastrophic natural events once few and far between are becoming more frequent, impacting marginalised communities with the least resources to combat them. Species are disappearing at 100 times the normal rate — we’re entering a sixth mass extinction event, with humanity as the principal cause.

Each issue has a direct impact on one another — climate change impacts economics, which impacts social issues, which impact healthcare gaps, and on and on the cycle goes.

So, the scale of the problem is slightly dizzying, but there is a global response. Officially coming into play in 2016, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a set of 17 universal targets covering broad aspects of society that, taken together, have the best potential for creating a fairer, better world in the next ten or so years. 

2030 has been identified as a key date for everyone to work towards — a crucial point for us to slow, halt, and possibly even turn around the damage that we’ve already done.  It’s up to each nation, organisation and individual to choose how they approach those objectives.

To make the progress we need, people must work together on a scale we’ve not seen before. As it stands, we’re unlikely to hit the majority of those targets. Top-level policy is slow to adapt, issues get politicised and social divisions trip up progress at every turn.

But wide-scale, systemic change isn’t the only way we can have an impact. We can drive meaningful improvements in the everyday lives of people — and behaviour change can play a key role in helping us get there


The SDGs are not without issue. A key challenge of the framework is simply wrapping our heads around it. Even rendered down into 17 goals, the complexity can feel extreme. Some goals feel easier to understand than others — our aim of limiting global warming, for example, can be understood by both governments and businesses by saying “we need to drop the global temperature increase by x degrees”. Other goals, like creating a sustainable model for agriculture for example, can be more complicated to verbalise, and therefore harder to communicate.

Socio-economic, environmental and political contexts vary drastically around the world. Each country has their own unique set of priorities, and benchmarking changes against wide averages can mask important failings — a country’s general economic output can increase, but could push a greater proportion of their population into poverty.

Worse yet, some targets appear at first glance to contradict one another, leading them to be easily dismissed, politically-speaking. For instance, lower- and middle-income nations are tasked with improving their economy to support more workers and reduce poverty — which often goes hand in hand with increased consumption and energy use. At the same time, they’re tasked with creating a more sustainable consumption model. Without changing what society looks like at an individual level, we risk simply trading one issue for another. Some issues get prioritised over others.

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a watershed global occasion. Despite wiping out nearly three decades of improvements in the lives of some of the poorest and most vulnerable communities in the world, it has also thrown into stark relief the growing global inequalities between and within countries — leading to a newfound global appetite to address the issues in both developed and developing countries. 

It’s key that we capitalise on that momentum now to make real progress.


The reality is that to achieve the ambitious goals we’ve set, we really do need to create change at every level of society, from policy to individual choices.

The UN Development Programme has for the past several years invested heavily into designing behaviour change policies and testing them with national-level experiments. In the UK, David Cameron’s Government set up the  Behavioural Insights Unit —also known as the ‘Nudge Unit’, after the term was coined by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their seminal book Nudge

They suggest that rather than being rational actors,  individuals are in-fact most influenced through subtle interventions and messages in their environment to ‘nudge’ them into changing their behaviour. This is in contrast to more direct strategies such as education, legislation and enforcement tactics.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve seen that rapid behaviour change is possible in a short space of time — masks, social distancing and more hand-washing becoming commonplace, for example — when the messaging was clear, accessible and continuous. Even turns of phrase and technical language (‘R number’, ‘quarantine’, and ‘firebreak’, to name a few) were rapidly able to enter the public consciousness and change behaviours.

Previously, we saw the introduction of nutritional information on packaged food, with a colour-coding system tying it visually and emotionally to the issues of obesity, heart disease and other non-communicable diseases. We’re discovering now that it has led to tangible improvements in people’s buying habits, particularly for children and among lower-income families. The technique works in practice.

People need to feel emotionally engaged and ready to make small changes in their lives that add up to a massive impact.

Ultimately, we need the behaviour shifts we make to be holistic and intersectional, and that means a deep understanding of the contexts you’re working in, connecting dots and understanding relationships between actions and perceptions. A narrative that engages people emotionally and sets us on the path to better without relying on force.


That model of holistic, behavioural change is how we at Shape History approach our work as an organisation. 

As a dedicated agency for social impact, we’re committed to working on the changes that will make a difference. We’ve adopted the SDGs as our guiding star, helping us understand the end goal that we’re contributing to whenever we work with our partners.

The challenges we face are formidable — but when we think about them in terms of behavioural change and break them down into smaller actions and movements, we believe that any organisation, big or small, can create meaningful impact. Every campaign has an impact, and we’re here to drive it.