An Economist, a Development Practitioner and an Innovator walk into a bar…

After ordering a round of drinks the conversation turns to Universal Basic Income (UBI). The development practitioner believes UBI is a panacea to address job losses. The Economist disagrees because people are lazy, and most will squander free money. The Innovator wants more insights to form an opinion.

UNDP China’s answer is the research on “Behavioral Insights and Gamification for Informed UBI Design”.

We embarked on a research project with the Center for Policy Simulation, the China Institute for Income Distribution at the Beijing Normal University, a group of young innovators specializing in surveys, and a team of mobile game developers.

This pilot is designed to provide behavioral insights about regular people and their opinions on UBI, job security and the future of work, and their perspective of the future. The intention is not to advocate for or against UBI, but to glean culturally focused foresight.

The research marries behavioral insight and gamification. It uses behavioral insight to analyze UBI, and gamification as a tool to gather behavioral insights. What would you do with money received: as UBI allows you to live a basic life, and what impact will it have on your life choices?

Using behavioral insights for policy alternatives

Several initiatives  on social benefits have already been undertaken by governments and the private sector, in Finland, Kenya and Canada, including a pilot project from Y Combinator in California. They’ve achieved limited success. Some of these studies focused primarily on very specific groups, typically low-income or unemployed people, not capturing the “universal” aspect of UBI. Others lacked behavioral insights.

Gathering and utilizing behavioral insights is not an exact science – it is essentially attempting to identify why individuals react the way they do and predict how they might be nudged to change behaviors.

Effective behavioral insights on UBI is context and culture specific. Without this context, predictions on changes in the labor market, job losses to automation and artificial intelligence, and the extent to which UBI aligned policies can address these issues have the potential to be misleading at best. Yet there is sometimes a tendency to prescribe solutions to these emerging issues in a globally uniform manner, assuming that what works in one context can be applied to all others.

Will a Finn, Kenyan, and Chinese react the same to changing labor markets? Will they adapt and react to UBI similarly? This is a critical issue when providing policy advise. So, we need behavioral insights to guide our foresight and policy prescriptions.


Gamification as a tool to gather behavioral insights and data

Previously the China CO hosted roundtable discussions and published a whitepaper on UBI with academics and experts in the field. To build on this foundation and continue the study, we needed the views and insights from the people this policy could benefit.

This is no simple task, especially to get a representative sample size. To tackle this issue, we decided to gamify the survey. Running parallel rounds of survey, both gamification and traditional door-to-door. We obtained focused results as well as broader (and optimistically more inclusive) participation. This provided us the means to access more of the population through something that felt like an interactive mobile game instead of a “bland” survey. In the game you can choose different activities for your characters on randomized events. The game was played by 4400 people in 1 week, with close to 1000 people filling out their personal demographic data, which was optional. This was without publicizing the game.

Results and the path ahead

Now that the survey has been completed and the data is being analyzed, we are delving into the results and formulating our conclusions. If successful, this new modality of conducting gamified surveys could prove useful for other areas of study, adding to our toolkit for providing effective policy recommendations. One thing is already certain: behavioral insights are an essential element to guide foresight and policy making. This study for the first time has used behavioral insights explicitly to gain insights on UBI in China, and perhaps in the world. 


Authored by Mr. Devanand Ramiah, UNDP Deputy Resident Representative in China

UNDP Around the world

You are at UNDP China 
Go to UNDP Global