David McWilliams: If Finland can eliminate homelessness, so can we

Housing NGOs could work with builders to identify refurbishment opportunities

  Rough calculation: there are 6,317 homeless adults  nationwide and   around 183,000 vacant properties. Photograph: Artur Widak/Getty

Rough calculation: there are 6,317 homeless adults nationwide and around 183,000 vacant properties. Photograph: Artur Widak/Getty

When describing social and behavioural change, probably the finest, and certainly most thoughtful, Irish economist of his generation, Eric Lonergan, speaks of a concept called “extreme positive incentives for change”, or Epic for short. The nub of the idea is if we want to change something, we need to put in place extreme, not modest, incentives for people to change their behaviour. Lonergan argues, with ample evidence of success, that this works across a variety of areas, from adoption and pricing of solar power in Japan to the take up of electric vehicles in China and Scandinavia.

The notion rests on two simple observations about human behaviour. The first is that we respond far better to positive incentives than negative ones. Anyone who has ever managed a team of people will know that encouragement is far more motivational than punishment. The second plank of Epic, which Lonergan outlines with Corinne Sawers in a forthcoming book, Supercharge Me, is that when it comes to incentives we are far more motivated by really big incentives, than moderate ones. For example, if people are going to change their behaviour, they are much more likely to do so if the incentive is a 40 per cent price saving, rather than a 4 per cent one.

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