Startup changing behaviour

Behaviour Innovation is a Brisbane startup focused on behaviour change. They are a young team of psychological and behavioural scientists specialising in changing behaviour across whole populations. We talk to co-founder John Pickering about how Behaviour Innovation (BI) got started; how being based at The Precinct, Brisbane’s innovation hub in Fortitude Valley, helps their company thrive; and their ambitious plans for the future.

John explains the earliest roots of BI go back to The University of Queensland (UQ), where he and his co-founder, Jinny Hong, were members of the psychology department.

At the time the psychology group at UQ were doing research into parenting programs explains John.

“We were very fortunate to work for the group that developed the Triple P Positive Parenting Program, which is one of the most highly acclaimed, strongly supported and probably the best behavioural science commercialisation success story in Australia,” he says.

But John could see that there were broader applications of the approach to behaviour change beyond parenting programs.

“Triple P was about helping parents and children, but for me the challenge became more about how you achieve population-level behavioural change beyond parenting programs,” says John.

“Over the course of time we started to broaden our thinking out, and thought okay this is really something, this whole idea population level change, how can we adapt it for other issues that are out there facing society?” he says.

This way of thinking and the desire to achieve positive social outcomes by using innovation in behavioural science led to Jinny and John starting their own company, Behaviour Innovation, a couple of years ago.

BI’s first major project is in partnership with the Queensland Government and the Queensland CANEGROWERS organisation.

Project Cane Changer, as it is known, is an initiative designed to accelerate the adoption of best management farming practices of Queensland’s cane farmers in order to improve water quality running out to the Great Barrier Reef. The project’s main aim is to improve the way cane farmers are recognised for the changes they make on their farms and their contribution to protecting the Great Barrier Reef, rather than blaming them for harming it.

“The challenge is how do you do two things: firstly to understand the psyche of the cane farmer population of Queensland and identify, from a motivational point of view, what matters most to them; and two, to use this knowledge to improve the uptake of new farming practices that benefit the environment and the farmer” says John.

The project began a couple of years ago and is now halfway through.

“We are now at the mid-point of delivering the project and seeing some really good results with respect to the number of cane farmers adopting best management practices which are predictors of better water quality,” says John.

“The main thing for us, though, is that some of the negative attitudes towards farmers are declining and this process itself is catalysing further change,” Dr Pickering explains.

John says timing was the most important aspect in establishing Behaviour Innovation.

“Just as we were really getting going with this thinking about how you broaden population level behaviour change beyond Triple P, the Palaszczuk Government committed $90 million to protecting the Great Barrier Reef,” he says.

“It was the willingness of the State Government here in Queensland and CANEGROWERS to give this idea of a behavioural science approach to protecting the Reef a go that made it possible” says John.

“It all triangulated and we were able to get up off the ground this really big project that is now acting as an example of the change that can be achieved when you apply behavioural science at a population level,” he says.

“Timing made it possible, and the willingness to give it a go and jump through the unknown,” says John.

John is happy to admit that running BI has not been without its challenges.

“Being in the behavioural sciences, we don’t really have physical products, widgets or things that people can pick up and buy. What we have is our intellectual property, which looks very different to tech startups and the like. Everyone who walks past our office is clearly confused by what we’re doing in there all day,” says John.

But that doesn’t faze the team at BI, whom collectively have an average age of about 25, making them a company comprised entirely of millennials.

“We have a young group that’s trying to execute something that hasn’t quite been done before, the stakes are rather high, and there’s quite a lot of resource that’s required to make it all happen. It’s obviously got a risk profile attached to it,” he says.

“The work that we are doing is the kind of thing you could imagine big, well established firms to be tackling and we’re doing it as a startup, based in The Precinct with a bunch of younger people,” says John.

But John is confident that the age of his team also influences their thinking and appetite to innovate.

“We’re looking at the issues through the lens of the millennial generation and we think that provides some useful insights,” he says.

“Sometimes new and younger perspectives help spark that breakthrough.”

“But that’s not at the expense of the older generation,” he adds.

“We recently appointed a board comprised of people much wiser, smarter, and a touch older than us to guide our strategy and help give us direction. The blending of insights that come from baby boomers and millennials working together is something I cherish about working for BI,” Dr Pickering explains.

BI are based at The Precinct innovation hub, which was made possible by $6 million funding from the Advance Queensland initiative.

John made a conscious decision to base the team at The Precinct, knowing too well the influence environment has on behaviour.

“There is loads of literature in the psychological sciences that shows that your physical environment has a huge bearing on your livelihood,” explains John.

“So you really have a special opportunity in a place like The Precinct which is this fully decked out space in Fortitude Valley, an iconic part of Brisbane that is undergoing significant transformation also,” he says.

“You fill it with hardworking, clever people from all over Queensland who are figuring out ways to do things differently, combine it with the support of the State Government who is determined to make innovation a continuing agenda item for the future, and you have something pretty remarkable”.

“You’ve got this melting pot of an environment that you just don’t get anywhere else,” he says.

John’s vision for the future of BI is to expand beyond Queensland and Australia, while maintaining a reputation for being able to understand and pull apart the reasons why people think and behave as they do.

“If we can grow this model here in Brisbane and export it, this psychological intellectual property process, to not only benefit the state but places elsewhere I think that would be something we would consider success,” he says.

John is confident the solutions BI creates are reasonably future proof, and when you think about the global challenges that the future could hold, being able to influence the attitudes and behaviour of people to create positive change will be valuable.

“It doesn’t matter if it is an environmental problem like climate change, a social issue like bullying, a health related issue, or any kind of large scale issue, at the end of the day it typically boils down to the attitudes and behaviour of people that are at the core of whatever the challenge is,” says John.

“Having a business that exists to understand why people do what they do and how to positively influence that behaviour is probably something that is not going to go out of fashion, and certainly not going to decline in its necessity,” he says.

When it is put like that, the future looks promising for the Brisbane startup.

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Last updated 18 Jul, 2018
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