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Broken Windows and Staring Crows

Updated: Jul 30, 2020

My day has been made. With this news:

A startup called Crow-ded Cities from Netherlands won the Dutch Accenture Innovation Award this year. Their objective? To train crows to pick up cigarette butts in return for food.

This is amazing, at so many levels.

That we thought it would be easier to train crows to pick up what we throw, than train people not to throw in the first place, speaks so much about us as a society.

I am beginning to think, the cows that sit in the middle of the busiest roads in Bangalore are actually some intelligent startup's highly advanced way of making speeding cars slow down. 

Or the monkey that entered someone's house in my society last week and stole a box full of cookies (this is true, not making it up), was merely helping the residents stick to their diet and not cheat.

When and why did we give up on humans? Is that how hopeless we have become at following rules?

That we can be told that littering on roads is bad, that we know it is bad, and yet, we will keep on doing it, till a poor, hardworking crow intervenes and clears our mess?

Behavioural Science has an interesting theory called The Broken Window, for crime. Once a window is broken, anyone can put their hand in and steal. The original theory given in 1982 said that disorder and incivility in a neighbourhood leads to subsequent crimes. So, the New York Police took this head on and decided to kill all disorder, including minor offences with major punishments, so that order is restored and there is no broken window to tempt the criminals.

Now translate Broken Window to our lives.

Do people litter in Airports? Do people litter in Metro stations? No, because they are spotless and clean.

But we do on roads. If the road is already messy, it won't hurt if we add our litter too.

We go till near the garbage bin, but we see garbage strewn around and we think it's ok if we leave our mess there.

We know we should not Park at the wrong spot, but, if someone else does it, we can do it.

We can see that large sign saying No U-Turn and our brain is telling us not to do it. But in that one faltering moment, if we see the car ahead of us making that u-turn, we just know we are going to follow suit.

And so many more examples.

Knowing others are doing the same wrong thing as us, legitimizes the action for our heads.

The logical solution is, of course, a clean slate. 

A road that is spotless, a garbage bin with no spillovers.

A No-Parking sign with a single car planted there with huge locks on its wheels so people know that's what will happen to their cars if they park there.

A barricade at every U-turn.

Or a crow that can pick up your cigarette butts.

And given how hard it is to clean our slates, I am going to make my peace with crows doing our jobs. 


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