Creating Feedback Loops in the Built Environment

by Nov 7, 2012Smart Cities

Dave Hahn

Dave Hahn is the Director of Digital Strategy for Meeting of the Minds.


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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.

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