Can fun change behaviour for the better? Villiers Street is one of the busiest in London, a melting pot of city life including a vibrant nightlife, tourists, commuters, street sleepers and a sprinkling of residents. At night, McDonalds at the top of the street is the busiest in the UK. Villiers Street itself is a narrow thoroughfare where people don’t linger as it is dark and a bit gloomy. Litter abounds forcing the street to be cleaned seven times a day. Two thirds of people litter at night and more than half during the day, if you include dropped cigarette butts.

Can fun theory help stop littering in such a complex environment?

We're seeking to discover the answer to this by running Neat Streets; a six month social experiment in the street. Initial research discovered the problem is worst at night with young people the main culprits. Top of the litter list is cigarette butts, chewing gum and all forms of fast food debris.

We scoured the world for interventions that have worked elsewhere and are bringing them into the street. Independent observational researchers have been paid to watch what happens from the manic rush of the early morning commute through to the chaotic emptying of Heaven nightclub.

What have we tried and discovered?

We've started by creating playful bins that talk to people who use them. Initially these bins were quietly hidden into the typical street architecture being black and discrete. This massively underplayed their impact as people don’t tend to loiter to listen to conversational bins. A change of tact was required and a fluorescent yellow refurbishment makes the bins hard to avoid. Usage has increased but this has caused other problems as they now have to be emptied more frequently placing a greater burden on already busy street cleaners.

We quickly discovered that discretion and subtleness are not the way forward. We invited people to stick chewing gum onto a piece of artwork depicting the face of a famous past resident in the street. People who texted the name of the person stood to win a night in a 4 star hotel at the top of the street. The approach was well received but the execution was too complex and has now been simplified.

The simpler approaches have been the most impactful. Circling the mass of chewing gum on the street with chalk highlights a problem that typically goes unseen. Alongside this simple campaign we installed recycling points for chewing gum and had people on the street giving out containers in which to store used gum. This unified approach with a range of techniques appears to have had the most positive response and one that we will be replicating with cigarette butts.

    

Raising the issue of litter into the collective consciousness does seem to jolt people into action, but doing this within tight planning constraints is complex. At night it is virtually impossible when litter is just one of a number of social problems generated in the street. We toyed with the idea of creating complex bins that generated music and light to attract the attention of the drunken throng but concluded this was expensive, not replicable and more likely to be vandalised than used. Instead we have started conversations with the local police and businesses who deal with the problem every day and will be seeking to provide them with additional support to help cut litter.

It has been a fascinating start to the experiment. Early indications are that fun theory has its place but needs to be integrated into a wider strategy building on existing local initiatives and using a range of interventions.

One area where fun theory has been undoubtedly successful is raising the issue of litter up the public agenda. Events such as our litter flash mob have attracted high levels of interest and the approach we have taken has acted as a catalyst for significant media coverage and renewed political lobbying.

Watch the highlights: