Cookstoves, Cheeseburgers and Behaviour Change

I was inspired recently by a post I read on comparing the plight of a low-income Indian mother relying on a smoke-billowing cookstove to support her family, to the unhealthy diet, smoking habits and sedentary lifestyle that prevail in many developed nations. The post identifies the practice of human-centered design as a potential solution to these dilemmas. But first, a little context:


The Cookstove Dilemma:

The issue of cookstoves used in developing nations has attracted lots of attention in the past few years. In many parts of the world, low-income populations rely on open fires and traditional cookstoves that spew smoke and pollution throughout their homes. The smoke generated by this cooking method is seriously damaging to the women and children who inhale large amounts of it on a daily basis. The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves cites the following statistics related to the harmful nature of cookstoves:



Indoor air pollution is the fourth biggest health risk in the developing world

4 million

Number of people who die worldwide each year from exposure to cookstove smoke.

3 billion

Nearly half the people in the world use polluting, inefficient stoves to cook their food each day.

8 seconds

How often cookstove smoke claims a life.

 But wait, if cookstoves are so harmful and cause premature deaths in the family, why don’t people just switch to a cleaner cooking method? Therein lies the real dilemma; the same dilemma that so many of us in more developed parts of the world are faced with. The Indian mother who cooks on a smoky cookstove for her young children is following the lead of her own mother, and grandmother, and great-grandmother before her. How many of us have unhealthy habits that we inherited through lessons from our parents, our peers or other members of society? Eating too much processed food, smoking, drinking too much, too little exercise – these habits have become socially acceptable, and are, as a result, difficult to change.

While the statistics on cookstove mortality are troubling, the risk factors are even higher for a number of health-related issues that can be prevented through the choices we make on a daily basis. The World Health Organization (WHO) identified high blood pressure as the top global mortality risk factors, leading to nearly 8 million deaths per year. Tobacco is responsible for 6 million deaths; high blood glucose (diabetes), obesity, inactivity and high cholesterol round out the next highest risk factors globally.

So how can we make improvements to our lives and those of others around the world? Understanding the concepts behind behaviour change and human-centered design might help us frame the solutions.

Behaviour Change:

I’ve been reading about behaviour change lately as I try to live a more healthy, happy and productive life. Leo Babauta, a popular blogger and author on the subject of mindfulness and positive habit development, suggests setting small, easily achievable goals to build good habits. It takes daily practice to build habits, so starting with something that can be incorporated into your day with minimal effort is the first step to building a habit through positive reinforcement. For example, if you want to start eating healthier, set a goal to eat one healthy meal per week, or to buy healthier snack food like fruits, vegetables or nuts. By starting small, you will be successful, and you can build the habit up over time.

Human-Centered Design: 

In some circumstances, like the cookstove example, there may need to be some additional assistance to encourage behaviour change. IDEO, a global design consultancy widely regarded as one of the world’s most innovative companies, is a strong believer in the concept of human centered design. According to IDEO:

Human-centered design is a process that has been used for decades to create new solutions to design challenges. The process helps people hear the needs of the people and communities they’re designing for, create innovative approaches to meet these needs, and deliver solutions that work in specific cultural and economic contexts. Centered in optimism and embracing constraints and complexity, the HCD process helps users ask the right questions. Ultimately, it can increase the speed and effectiveness of implementing solutions that have an impact on the lives of the people these solutions were designed for. 


In my opinion, this kind of framework can be a powerful tool to understand the underlying cultural factors that influence harmful behaviour. Using the concepts of HCD, a number of organizations are seeking out solutions to not only bring cleaner, affordable cookstoves to at-risk communities, but also to understand and consider traditions and customs in bringing these solutions to market.

 Applying this approach to North American communities could uncover some unique methods for addressing health risks through diet and lifestyle, creating value for the healthier individuals, healthcare spending and the enterprising organizations that come up with the solutions.

What behaviours would you like to change for a long bottom line?



2 thoughts on “Cookstoves, Cheeseburgers and Behaviour Change

  1. Pingback: The Path of Least Resistance | Long Bottom Line

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