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From Scarce Resources to Intelligent Design

Design-thinking, Economics, Health, decision making, resources

Image by Flickr user Wee Sen Goh; used under Creative Commons Attribution licence

As an Economics student, I have long been familiar with the concept of “scarce resources”. The central question of economic theory is, how should individuals, firms and society best allocate resources that are in short supply? One of the first lessons any Economics student has to encounter is recognising what these “scarce resources” are. We learn that there is a shortage of workers, land, capital and even time. However, until only recently, students were rarely taught about what is arguably the most important resource of all: mental resource.

In my final year of university, I read the work of Harvard behavioural economist, Sendhil Mullainathan and came across the concept of ‘mental bandwidth’. Mullainathan argues that scarcity in resources such as time and money require us to make tradeoffs but that making these tradeoffs in turn depletes our mental resources. If mental resources are scarce then our ability to think effectively is impaired and we are less able to make good choices. Thus, we cannot always be rational decision makers. The concept of scarce mental resource is powerful in indicating the problems with assumption of ‘a rational decision-maker’. I discovered the world of Behavioural Economics, which eventually brought me to the Behavioural Design Lab, at the Design Council.

Last summer, I interned at the Behavioural Design Lab and it was one of the most dynamic and creative workplaces I have experienced. The Lab aims to bring together design with behavioural science research to solve complex issues in various organisations. The main project I worked on with the team was “Design for Care”. Here, the aim was to use behavioural science and economics to design products, services and processes, which improve decision-making and aide collaboration in the social care sector. We used research to understand what drives decisions made by individuals for their social care. I also worked on a project which examined how an organisation could best convey large amounts of information on their website, while still keeping browsers engaged.

The most valuable lesson from my time was learning the importance of bringing together behavioural science and design. If mental resources are limited then as individuals we cannot always be rational and make the best choices. But understanding what drives people’s decisions, and designing better systems on the basis of this understanding, can really improve the choices we make. This insight helped to shape my thinking when conducting research for my Masters dissertation on empathy and patient decision-making.

My time at the Behavioural Design Lab was a brilliant learning experience and I was fortunate enough to work alongside a team of some very smart and creative people.

Disha Mitra recently graduated from the MSc Economics at the University of Warwick

© 2015 Warwick Business School and the Design Council