A few years ago, the City of Milpitas had a litter problem. A once-clean section of town had become an eyesore because people had stopped using the trash cans. There were cigarette butts, beer bottles, chocolate wrappers, newspapers and other trash littering the streets.
Obviously, the sanitation department was concerned, so they sought ways to clean up the city. One idea was to double the littering fine from 25 dollars to 50 dollars for each offense. They tried this, but it had little effect. Another approach was to increase the number of litter-agents who patrolled the area. This was more of the same, that is, another “punish the litterer” solution, and it, too, had little impact on the problem.
Then somebody asked the following question:
“What if our trash cans paid people money when they put their trash in? We could put an electronic sensing device on each can as well as a coin-return mechanism. Whenever a person put trash in the can, it would pay him $10.”
The idea, to say the least, whacked everyone’s thinking. The problem had been changed from a “punish the litterer” one to one of “reward the law abider.” The idea had one glaring fault, however; if the city implemented the idea, it would go bankrupt. Half of the United States would come to use the trash cans!
Fortunately, the people who were listening to this idea didn’t evaluate it based on its practical merits. Instead, they used it as a stepping stone and asked themselves: “What other ways are there in which we can reward people for putting their refuse in the trash cans?” This question lead to the following solution.
The sanitation department developed electronic trash cans which had a sensing unit on the top that would detect when a piece of refuse had been deposited. This would activate a tape-recorder that would play a recording of a joke. In other words, joke-telling trash cans! Different trash cans told different kinds of jokes (some told bad puns while others told shaggy dog stories and still others told snappy one-liners) and soon developed reputations. The jokes were changed every two weeks. As a result, people went out of their way to put their trash in the trash cans, and the town became clean once again.