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Sep 25, 2011

Towards Participatory Ecology


The environmental impact of non renewable energies, such as fossil and nuclear fuels, is becoming more and more dramatic. The heating of the atmosphere caused by these emissions is associated with more frequent extreme weather occurrences, such as periods of dryness alternated with floods and tempests. Climate disasters hit in particular developing countries, weaking their fragile economies, with socio-political implications that often extend to the rest of the world. To invert this trend, is not only important to foster research and investments on renewable resources and reduce energy waste: it is also fundamental to raise awareness among citizens and identify effective ways to foster sustainable behaviors, as well as to encourage community-based approaches.

Changing citizens’ behaviours, however, is not easy. In the last decades, this goal has been pursued mainly through environmental awareness campaigns carried out via traditional mass media such as newspapers, tv and radio. The effectiveness of these campaigns is difficult to estimate, however there is wide consensus that much more could be done in order to encourage people to reduce unsustainable consumption patterns and encouraging more sustainable lifestyles.

Social media and ubiquitous computing can offer potentially effective tools for addressing these challenges. As suggested by Stanford psychologist, B.J. Fogg,  social networks can facilitate “mass interpersonal persuasion” by leveraging six key components:

  • Persuasive experience: the experience is designed to change attitudes, behaviors or both.
  • Automated structure: digital technology structures the persuasive experience.
  • Social distribution: the persuasive experience is shared within the network of friends.
  • Rapid cycle: the persuasive experience can be rapidly disseminated from person to person.
  • Huge social graph: the persuasive experience can reach millions of individuals thanks to social ties and interactions.
  • Measured impact: the effects of persuasive experience can be objectively measured.

The persuasive potential of social networks can be used to promote (at least) three types of ecological behaviours: 

  1. Optimize energy use;
  2. Reduce emissions, in particular CO2;
  3. Increase adoption of renewable energy tecnologies.  

The result of this strategy, which I would define as “Participatory Ecology”, is the development of new ICT services and applications that aims at creating higher awareness about sustainability, promote collective participation in ecological protection, and provide citizens with new modalities of interaction with products and their environment.

The final goal of Participatory Ecology is to empower citizens to become agents of positive environmental change, by increasing their involvement in decision-making processes and enabling an open discussion with institutions. In addition to encouraging active participation, the mission of Participatory Ecology is to provide citizens with the opportunity of exchanging knowledge and ideas about environmental protection, allowing new paths for sharing collective interests.

Below I provide some examples of this concept.

More to explore

- Using social media to help people optimizing energy use: Former startup Greenbox has developed and demonstrated an integrated Internet service that lets a residential customer view, interpret, and act on their everyday utility service consumption and distributed generation behaviors. In a similar vein, Lucid Design Group's Web-based Building Dashboard Network enables users to view, compare and share building energy and water use information in a social networking environment. The dashboard also integrates with Facebook and Twitter to post updates to building profile pages and feeds, sparking energy use competitions among users.

- Using social media to foster emisson reduction: Ecorio is one of the winners of the USD $275.000 grand prize in the final round of the Google Android Developer Challenge. The mobile application is designed to track the user’s carbon footprint by keeping track of when he/she is moving in a car or a bus. The software displays a summary of activities and the current trip; in addition, Ecorio is able to automatically find the best transit routes the user could take for each trip, using Google Transit. These information can be used to change our bad transport habits: for each trip made by car, Ecorio provides tips and alternative suggestions to reach our destination and saving emissions. Needless to say, all tips provided can be shared with the members of the Ecorio community. Another interesting tool to reduce emission is CarCare, a mobile app that uses Gps technology to monitor fuel consumption and CO2 emissions generated by each trip. Finally, Zimride is a recent startup that is attempting to create a marketplace for drivers to sell empty seats in their car by matching them with passengers traveling along the same route. The company has an organization-based distribution approach with 100 large universities, companies, and event partners using, and paying for the service.

- Using social media to increase adoption of renewable energy tecnologies: RoofRay is a clever mashup that uses Google's satellite and aerial imagery to estimate how much efficiency the user can expect installing solar panels on the roof. Similar satellite-based applications are Sungevity and Global Solar Center.