Monday, June 18, 2012

Hacking Sustainability: Part 2

Information + Choice + Feedback:
The basic idea is familiar: i.e., putting that smart phone in our pocket to work to help us calibrate and understand a range of inter-connected variables related to our mobility choices. An app to handle not one but two sets of related challenges: personal and environmental.

The  app we are looking for will function both (a) as a world-level performer of the now more familiar on-line traffic information systems that can help us make better travel choices, and, in addition and in parallel, (b) as a personal feedback system which will permit us to understand certain key implications of those specific choices. Including not only where we chose to  travel, when and how -- but also the health, economics and environmental impacts of our choices, both on ourselves personally  and if possible on the community as a whole. Think of such an app as a mobility/health  feedback kit in our pocket.  Where can we find this app?

There are of course literally thousands of travel apps out there today, of various intentions, designs and quality, a number of them really excellent and more coming on every day. But where are the ones that also provide user feedback and decision criteria on (a) those specific mobility choices with reference to (b) their impacts on our health, environment, economics? Do you know of such an app? If so please share your information with us so that we all can have a look and learn from good examples?

To do the full job, these healthy/mobility  apps would have to provide all the more usual functions of the full range of mobility choices open to each of us, in that place and at that time. For starters both the phone and the database behind the algorithm know who you are, where you are, the exact time, and if we are lucky to a certain extent your historic transport preferences. On that base you then tap in your desired destination and desired time or conditions of transit (either right now or scheduled at some future time as you prefer). Your app will then query the database and present what it guesses are your likely preferences, stacked and presented to you in the order that the database knows you usually prefer -- as well as the by now pretty usual range of information on likely time in transit, perhaps time of arrival, out-of-pocket costs, carbon impacts, etc., etc. Handy stuff and pretty well served by many apps of the better apps already out there doing the job in different places.

But that's just the first layer. However before we get to the second layer, a few quick words about the challenge of sustainability on our benighted wheezing planet.

At the heart of the move to sustainability, in all senses, is the idea that we, one by one, are going to have to change our behavior in a number of ways and replace many old habits, some bad, with ones that may benefit us, both personally and collectively Now we are not taking about "behavior modification" at the hands of some dark government agency or merciless Soviet doctor/scientist sitting at a threatening console controlling electrodes attached to our who-knows-where parts. But rather as something to support a personal willingness of our part to change, if only a bit, simply because we understand that this or that decision and action will be to our personal benefit. And perhaps, -- why not?, -- beneficial in some way to society as a whole. We are talking about creative circumstances where people change because they want to -- not because they are forced to.

Now back to that app. What I want it to tell me is, for example, if I walk or bike on my next trip, or hop into my car, what will be the specific personal health impacts of my choice. And if possible not simply in the frame of calories burned, but also against the backdrop of a more personalized health database/app. (Apps and programs like Retrofit and Lose it come to mind.)

Ditto for the financial impacts (on my purse and that of the community as a whole), the effect on traffic, the environmental impacts, etc. And so on down the mobility choice chain.

Our good app might at the end of each week/month present us with a summary of the various key implications of our aggregate mobility choices over that period.

Finally, our good app will have to be open and programmable so that it can be easily and legally adapted to work in different places.

To conclude for now: The idea behind this kind of "behavior modification" is that we open up this kind of tool and use it, not because we HAVE to -- but because we figure it is in our interest to do so. And of course once we get the habit, we just do it without really thinking about it, as a reflex, not as a decision. And in the process we have moved up the effectiveness scale from active to passive reactions, the latter being far more powerful. and just the kind of thing that is needed to get us on the path to sustainability.  One good trip at a time.

Now, where is that app we should be looking at?

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