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Green (Fri)Day: Total Information Awareness

Dan Hill, living in Sydney, is the web editor of British magazine Monocle. He gave a fascinating talk at a conference called Interesting South last fall that he recently put up on his blog.

Dan Hill, living in Sydney, is the web editor of British magazine Monocle. He gave a fascinating talk at a conference called Interesting South last fall that he recently put up on his blog.

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He calls it “The Well Tempered Environment.” It’s a sketch of a “public dashboard” to gather and publish information about energy and resource use, to get people competing on a household, neighborhood, citywide, regional, even global level to use less.

We know that technologies that make information transparent and provide real-time feedback can shape behavior almost effortlessly –for example, wearing a pedometer makes you walk more . Hill’s idea applies this principle to environmental awareness. The talk included a half-dozen actual existing products along this line, and I’ve noticed a few more such ideas popping up elsewhere.

Hill’s examples included Wattson, a stylish gadget that monitors and shows your electricity use in watts or dollars, pounds, euro or yen,
Home Joule, a plug-in that monitors energy prices, MorePower, a real time monitor that displays energy use by appliance, Isave faucets with a digital readout of water use, PLOGG, a “smart meter” . Plug an appliance into it and it relays energy use info to your PC or server, and several prototypes from the Interactive Institute, a Swedish nonprofit covering design, art, and science, including a power cord that lights up to indicate intensity of energy use.

A similar idea was featured in our 50 Ways to Green Your Business issue in November: Fiat’s EcoDrive, developed by Microsoft, which records and analyzes car performance data, such as CO2 emissions and fuel consumption, using a USB key. (In Hill’s vision, a display next to the turn signals might alert other drivers to your efficiency, emissions, and fuel source.)

And actually closest to Hill’s idea is a Google project based in the UK that started this month, called the UK Carbon Footprint Project. Local government and nonprofits have supplied “layers” of info to Google Maps like local recycling participation rates, heat map images of famous buildings, nearest recycling locations, and predicted future weather under different carbon emission scenarios. The idea is that volunteers will use Google gadgets to calculate their carbon footprints, tracking the information on their iGoogle home pages and uploading the information to create community maps.

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A fundamental part of creating a sustainable economy, planet, and life involves information. This provides a huge, multidimensional business opportunity. Governments and consumers alike are encountering this problem–we don’t know if the fish we buy at the market was caught legally or by a pirate Chinese ship off the coast of Africa ; we don’t even know if it’s mercury-laden bluefin or safer yellowfin tuna. This is what Alex Steffen at Worldchanging calls “backstory”, and it’s very, very hard to do. In many areas, we need better ecological accounting practices, and better labels, systems, sensors, and censures, so people can have the opportunity to make the right choice.
In other areas, like with electricity and water use, the information is at our fingertips. The challenge is to get it even closer, under our noses, where we actually might act on it.

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