The original theory states that maintaining urban environments to prevent small crimes such as vandalism or public drinking will help to create an atmosphere of order. And most importantly, will prevent more serious crimes to happen.
Let me give you a specific example of New York City not all that long ago.
During the 1990's crime rates in New York dropped dramatically. Violent crimes went down by more than 56 percent in New York compared to 28 percent nation wide. That is of course a lot, how can crime rates drop so significantly in such a short amount of time?
Generally we would like to think that these changes can only happen because of harsh measures by the NYC police department. Such as tighter rules, more control, more arrests and so on. But in reality, it was much more simple than that.
Many people attributed these changes to specific policies introduced by former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Most importantly, one of his most prominent policies was the policing of low level crimes, which was also known as the "broken window approach".
Basically, by cleaning up the city, such as removing graffiti from subway trains and fixing "the broken windows" the city as a whole became more safe and violent crimes dropped as a result.
It was a controversial approach because instead of focusing on the big violent crimes, the city fixed all the small seemingly unimportant issues first.
Let me quote former Mayor Giuliani:
"Obviously murder and graffiti are two vastly different crimes. But they are part of the same continuum, and a climate that tolerates one is more likely to tolerate the other."
Essentially what that means is that your environment has a huge impact on the decisions you or other people make in it. If you see a house with a lot of broken windows, you are much more likely to break another window and break into the house. Even though, you might have no criminal intentions at all.
Let me give you another example that became the basis of the Broken Window Theory:
In 1969, Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford psychologist, conducted an experiment. He parked a car without license plates and with its hood up on a street in the Bronx and another in Palo Alto, California.
The car in the Bronx was attacked within 10 minutes of being there. The car in Palo Alto, however, remained intact for a week. So, Zimbardo himself smashed a window. Soon, passersby, “primarily respectable whites”, joined in the destruction of the car.
The Broken Window Theory is also present when talking about design or product development.
I just recently noticed this on a project I was working on. During the project we postponed a lot of small little things. "Let's do it later" we said. A classic mistake.
As a result, we as a team felt increasingly less motivated to work on this particular project. I felt that everything was falling apart, I wasn't happy with it but I couldn't tell what it is that bothered me so much.
That made me think of the Broken Window Theory. So we took one day to fix all the broken windows. Focus on the small details, clean up some code, fix all the seemingly small and unimportant details.
After that day I started to appreciate the project again. It's almost like it transformed, even though we didn't really change anything big.
By fixing all the "broken windows" we were suddenly able to make good design decisions again. Our work became more focused and it gave us a positive push of motivation. On top of it, it prevented further "broken windows".
Essentially, by designing & fixing our environment we simply change the way we react to it. By looking at an abandoned house with lots of broken windows, I wouldn't feel too bad to smash another window with a stone just for fun. Even though, I don't have any bad intentions or see myself as a criminal. But the environment might be promoting such a behavior and sometimes even serves as a tipping point. And more often this happens completely subconsciously without us even noticing.
When working on a project, I always try to keep the Broken Window Theory in the back of my mind. Every time I'm stuck or feel unhappy about a project, I take a day or two to clean up all the little "unimportant" things.