Hacking climate change

Climate change is one of the biggest issues facing the world in the coming decades. With melting ice sheets and rising sea levels, cities from London to Bangkok could be flooded.

The top-down approach of governments has so far failed to address this issue adaquately. Most people don’t seem to care enough. This apathy can be summed up in a question: how can an individual’s behaviour affect such a big issue so far in the future? Alongside this indifference lies an assumption that technology will provide the answers.

It is doubtful that technology alone can be the solution. If the Khazzoom-Brookes Postulate - increasing efficiency leads to an increase in demand - holds, then technology promises to contribute to the problem rather than the providing the answer.

Yet technology does have a role to play in influencing people’s attitudes to climate change. “Pervasive messaging” – technology which lets humans know what objects around us are doing - may help to change people’s behaviour. Will a greater awareness of the impact of the millions of small decisions we make every day help to overcome one of the world’s biggest problems?

Innovations such as Andy Stanford-Clark’s Twitter house, the Jawbone UP band and the Nest thermostat are early examples of how technology can be used to gather data showing how people use energy. We no longer have to rely on anecdotes or incomplete evidence. We have raw data, which can be used to highlight how an individual’s behaviour contributes to the global situation.

Of course, these new technologies and networks will reveal behaviour but can they change it? Can they highlight how and why the small changes I make to my behaviour, such as recycling or turning the thermostat down, might make a big difference in the context of climate change? Can they make climate change personal and current? Will there come a point where our impact on the environment, the consequences of our every action, can be measured, documented and fed back to us so that we feel it much as we feel the weather?

These questions have much to do with technology and whether inventions such as the Arduino and projects such as Homesense can make such predictions come to life for many people around the world.

The other question is about people and relationships. For most people, efficiency is not one of the most important aims in life. Behaviour is guided by other goals and emotions. Will these new technologies make it fun to track and share personal data? Will they help us to reshape the narratives about the world and our place in it? Will these feedback loops force us to hold ourselves accountable for our actions and their impact on the global climate?

There’s examples of encouraging competition about energy consumption between residents, such as Neighbourhood Scoreboards, in the real world. This approach could be so much more powerful in the online medium.