Creating Feedback Loops in the Built Environment
At a recent event held by the Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, Peter Graf, the Chief Sustainability Officer of SAP, voiced his concern about the future of sustainability. One of the biggest challenges to sustainability, he said, was not just our infrastructure, our software or our materials – but rather the habits of the end users of that infrastructure, software and materials.
He told a compelling story about a recent meeting he attended on sustainable energy use. The meeting lasted more than an hour and at the end, as they left the room, no one turned off the lights.
A lot of the most advanced sustainability projects in the world are focused on using high-tech-post-consumer materials, green-driven design strategies, disruptive models of urban mobility – but while we try to make our systems more foolproof, we can’t forget that we are, ourselves, the fools. Perhaps there is nothing more powerful in the struggle for energy conservation than this one simple statement:
When you leave a room, turn off the light.
How can we change our own habits? How can we retrain ourselves to be more sustainable?
bi·o·feed·back: The use of electronic monitoring of an automatic bodily function to train someone to acquire voluntary control of that function.When I think about this topic I think about the field of biofeedback. Simply by showing a patient a monitor of the activity in their body’s systems, a patient can alter the activity of those same systems. Biofeedback helps patients overcome pain, anxiety, hyper-tension, paralysis, and the list goes on.
Why not take the lessons from the field of biofeedback and apply them to the built environment?
Certainly, there have been efforts to create smart monitoring systems for homes and buildings. Many utility companies have created their own monitoring systems, and there are consumer-level solutions now on the market. But these tools, which are almost always sold as elective and costly add-ons, have not seen the penetration needed to make big changes in behavior.
While visiting Toronto this week to scout locations and themes for Meeting of the Minds 2013, we visited the offices of Zerofootprint. This is a company, I believe, that is doing everything right in the field of smart monitoring.
Zerofootprint has developed the algorithm and the interface that is missing in the electricity, gas and water systems of our buildings. Their tools allow users to benchmark their past usage and compete with themselves to bring down their consumption (and their utility bills).
Zerofootprint’s monitoring tools give users second-by-second analysis of their consumption. When we – one-by-one – turned off the lights in the board room we sat in, each change immediately registered on their monitoring screen. We found that we were able to reduce, by half, the energy consumption of their offices merely by turning off all of the lights in the board room.
After the demonstration we only turned a few of the lights back on. Who needs them?
Maybe the biggest challenge to curbing consumer consumption is the opacity of the usage. People want to conserve energy – if anything, they certainly want to lower their costs – but how can they lower something they can’t see? Or, more accurately in the case of utility bills, they see over a month after they have already used it?
The key here, to me, is the rate of monitoring that is made possible by Zerofootprint. Being able to immediately see the impact of your habits allows you to better understand which habits you should keep, and which habits you should alter. And that is what’s needed to take sustainability to the next level.
I have a favorite saying that I affectionally stole from our co-founder, Gordon Feller, and it is this: In order to create smart cities we must first create smart citizens. No where does this ring more true than in the world of consumer consumption. We can all become smarter if we give ourselves the tools we need to better understand the choices – and habits – we make.
Leave your comment below, or reply to others.
Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.
Read more from MeetingoftheMinds.org
Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
Accenture analysts recently released a report calling for cities to take the lead in creating coordinated, “orchestrated” mobility ecosystems. Limiting shared services to routes that connect people with mass transit would be one way to deploy human-driven services now and to prepare for driverless service in the future. Services and schedules can be linked at the backend, and operators can, for example, automatically send more shared vehicles to a train station when the train has more passengers than usual, or tell the shared vehicles to wait for a train that is running late.
Managing urban congestion and mobility comes down to the matter of managing space. Cities are characterized by defined and restricted residential, commercial, and transportation spaces. Private autos are the most inefficient use of transportation space, and mass transit represents the most efficient use of transportation space. Getting more people out of private cars, and into shared feeder routes to and from mass transit modes is the most promising way to reduce auto traffic. Computer models show that it can be done, and we don’t need autonomous vehicles to realize the benefits of shared mobility.
The role of government, and the planning community, is perhaps to facilitate these kinds of partnerships and make it easier for serendipity to occur. While many cities mandate a portion of the development budget toward art, this will not necessarily result in an ongoing benefit to the arts community as in most cases the budget is used for public art projects versus creating opportunities for cultural programming.
Rather than relying solely on this mandate, planners might want to consider educating developers with examples and case studies about the myriad ways that artists can participate in the development process. Likewise, outreach and education for the arts community about what role they can play in projects may stimulate a dialogue that can yield great results. In this sense, the planning community can be an invaluable translator in helping all parties to discover a richer, more inspiring, common language.
While the outlook for the environment may often seem bleak, there are many proven methods already available for cities to make their energy systems and other infrastructure not only more sustainable, but cheaper and more resilient at the same time. This confluence of benefits will drive investments in clean, efficient energy, transportation, and water infrastructure that will enable cities to realize their sustainability goals.
Given that many of the policy mechanisms that impact cities’ ability to boost sustainability are implemented at the state or federal level, municipalities should look to their own operations to implement change. Cities can lead as a major market player, for example, by converting their own fleets to zero emission electric vehicles, investing in more robust and efficient water facilities, procuring clean power, and requiring municipal buildings to be LEED certified.