sandra-richterFirst off, what is a “marketing scientist”?

I was in need of a term for what I do. I’m trying to use technology to look at questions our society wants answered. I come into the science world with a marketing perspective. I’m a marketing scientist.

Does marketing need a more scientific grounding?

It’s the other way around. Science needs marketing. Marketers are very human-centred – they try to understand the user, they try to understand the market and they do market research. Science lacks that a little bit.

Your research is focused on something called “persuasion profiling” and how it can be used to encourage more sustainable choices when it comes to urban transportation. Can you break it down for us?

We look at persuasion and how to change behaviour. Around 2002, the term “persuasive technology” was coined by B.J. Fogg. I thought there was a perspective missing – target marketing.

Google has all our data and knows exactly who we are, so why not leverage that in a good way for behaviour change? That’s persuasion profiling. I try to change people’s opinions about and behaviours towards cars or bikes, movement in general and healthy living.

Is “persuasive technology” just another word for what’s popularly known as “gamification”? I have a feeling you must be sick of that term already.  

I don’t love the term gamification. When I came to the Media Lab a lot of people were like, “Great, if you bike longer or bike more we’ll give you a coffee at Starbucks” and they would “gamify” the whole thing. But it’s more complex than that.

Persuasive technology is very subtle and it comes from a psychological point of view, so it’s sometimes hard to describe. But if I say it’s a little bit like gamification then it makes it easier to understand.

That said, I don’t think persuasive technology is the right word, either. I’m going to be sitting down with Kevin Slevin, one of the professors at the Media Lab, to try to find a new term for the whole thing.

Spike is an app created by Richter and meant as an add on for bike share programs to promote social biking.

Spike is an app prototype that Richter worked on in collaboration with Yael Alkalay and Vadik Bakman for her MIT Media Lab Thesis. The app is meant as an add-on for bike share programs to promote social biking.

What are some persuasion profiling strategies? Can you give us an example?

There are a lot of persuasive strategies out there. The most popular are self-monitoring, rewards, competition and collaboration. You see who responds to rewards, who responds to collaboration, etc.

For example, the Austrian Institute of Technology approached me and said, “We need to figure out how to make a multi-model trip recommendation engine,” which is basically Google Maps, but they wanted the application to promote electric car-share systems.

I used persuasion profiling to figure out what type of people are lead users. The young entrepreneur is more likely to take an electric car than the mom with three kids, for example. Then we defined what types of young entrepreneurs there are.

So how does technology change the way we navigate a city?

Scientists can very exactly see all the mobility patterns of people. There are sensors in our phones and in the environment. We can react to that and make smarter bus schedules, tell people to take different routes if there’s traffic, and understand where we need to build schools and infrastructure.

For example, in Boston we have an application called “See Click Fix,” where users can take a picture of a pothole and send it to the city. Here you have automated data collection and you have crowd-sourced data.

Does that mean cities are getting smarter or are they just getting more digital?

They have the potential to be smart. We just had the head of the Smart City movement at IBM in the lab. I was amazed at how little they can do with the data they are collecting. They found out a lot about water quality or how much traffic there is but the information stays at the level of data collection.

Richter, along with Nan Zhao (pictured) and Ines Gaisset, is also involved in the creation of smart urban furniture at the MIT Media Lab. The benches are outfitted with solar panels to create charging and wifi stations for mobile devices.

Richter, along with Nan Zhao (pictured) and Ines Gaisset, is also involved in the creation of smart urban furniture at the MIT Media Lab. The benches are outfitted with solar panels to create charging and wifi stations for mobile devices.

You’re still a marketer as well as a scientist. How do you apply your work on persuasion profiling to brands?

Right now I’m in the academic field but I do work a little bit with the Media Lab sponsors. I just talked with Audi and State Farm Insurance Company and they want to know what they are going to do if people don’t have cars and use mobility-on-demand instead.

I also work a lot with Volkswagen. They want to know how people will interact with cars in the future. Will Volkswagen be a platform? A service? I try to figure out how these brands can shift themselves in an agile way to become platform- or service-centred brands. The brand relationship changes when they are offering services and on-demand goods rather than ownership.

A lot of your work revolves around mobility and travel. With the rise of bike sharing and car sharing and hospitality networks like AirBnB, do you think that travel will become more social?

With air travel I’m not sure, but with cars it’s definitely going in a more social direction. We have more car sharing in general, but also more peer-to-peer car-sharing programs. I would definitely enjoy more social aspects in all mobility modes.

There is a lot of work that needs to be done to make biking more social. That doesn’t mean slapping a social network on it, but creating the awareness that you can bike together.

In Europe people bike together all the time, and it makes biking safer and more fun. I would love to propose to make two bike lanes next to each other. Cars have two, three, four lanes next to each other. Why don’t we do that for bikes?

A lot of the time we lose the childishness of biking. If you observe kids biking they have so much fun. Why do we get so serious about travel? Why can’t we find a way of making it fun and juvenile again?