Action and Trade

Modern Strategies

We actually know enough by now to build the bridge from knowledge to action in order to advance the conversion to a sustainable society by using less resources. Nudges, transformational products, disruptive methods and even info apps and self-measuring tools offer a wide range of strategies to foster change. Do they facilitate the transformation through playful approaches or are they nothing but nice gimmicks with rebound effects? Here are the pros and cons as well as several practical tips from Ilona Koglin.

Translated from the German by Svenja Thiel, Oradjeha Tanshi, Jennifer Vardaro, Melissa Kaiden, Vanessa Waigum, Nicole Wieden, Kerstin Rosero, Armin Deiri, Fenja Behrmann

Hopes are high: nice catchwords such as transformational products, disruptive technologies and Suffizienzinnovationen (a German concept of innovations that help us to consume less without feeling deprived) can easily evoke the good feeling of being proactive through the use of technological innovations. But does this lead to a truly sustainable society – or just to aimless agitating?

In light of climate change, the growing world population and the insufficient availability of resources, it is obvious that we need to cut down a bit. However, while studies have already shown that this ‘cut down’ would by no means be a regressive sacrifice of enjoyment, but could rather increase the quality of life if well applied, we are still struggling – as individuals and as society – to get from knowledge to action.

Would it not be wonderful if there were someone or something to change us from thinking to acting in our own best interest? Barack Obama, David Cameron and Angela Merkel each have established a team of advisors whose only task is the so-called nudging, i.e. they think about how to nudge citizens towards more environmentally friendly and healthy behaviour, without additional laws and regulations.

Nudging citizens is already common practice in the US and the UK. There, printers and photocopiers use both sides of a page by default. Californian communities inform their citizens about their electricity consumption in comparison to their neighbours and economical households are rewarded with a smiley face, according to Bayerischer Rundfunk (Bavarian Broadcasting, BR). 

Some think that the smiley face is a good idea, while others think of it as paternalistic treatment of the populace and improper manipulation. Either way, it is working. The citizens of Spain, for example, do not have a choice in this matter. They are automatically registered as organ donors at birth, unless they do not wish to be, in which case they actively take their names off the list. They are being nudged. In Germany, the situation is reversed and the percentage of people owning an organ-donor card is not even half as high as in Spain. The Chinese government is one step ahead of the curve.

In October 2015, China introduced the so-called Citizen Score, which evaluates individuals according to their social life, purchases and social media activities. With an exceptionally high score, it is easier to receive entry permits to Singapore or rare visas for journeys abroad. The behaviour of one’s friends also contributes to the final score. Until now, Chinese citizens have been allowed to choose whether they would like to be evaluated. By 2020, the score is supposed to be compulsory. High account balances and the purchase of certain products are great ways to enhance one’s reputation, whereas dissident remarks or video games result in a lower score. All data can be viewed by everyone. That way, China hopes to increase social pressure and to prevent people from breaking out of the system.?

Martin Burckhardt created such a world in his novel Score, a world without violence, environmental pollution and injustice. It is a world full of happiness, where everyone is granted an unconditional basic income. Beyond that, however, lies “the zone”.

Depending on the kind of nudging, one has to criticise the violation of privacy as well as the fact that the citizens may not decide whether or not they would like to be nudged in the right direction. If you mentally replace this politically enforced nudging by a self-imposed “actually convert good resolutions into reality”-programme, it can serve as a catalyst for our collective lack of action. This would be a catalyst that our ignorant mentality of keeping our possessions together apparently desperately needs.

Quite a few scientist, engineers, inventors, entrepreneurs, designers and programmers have already thought about this. A great variety of apps, tools, gadgets and smart products have recently emerged, with the aim of finally making us to actually take actions.

Realising the Need for Action

But let’s go back to the beginning: how, when and why do people actually change their behaviour? In the 1970s, a Professor of Psychology by the name of James O. Prochaska dealt with the subject of cancer prevention and developed a model on how and when people change their problematic behaviour. The result was the so-called transtheoretical model (TTM). Increasing awareness of the problem is one of the cognitive and affective processes that evoke a willingness to change. Or, simply put: people that recognise the negative effects of their actions can be the first step to make a difference in the future.

This is certainly a reason why self-tracking via apps, gadgets and wearables is not just a temporary fad, but a major trend. A growing number of people are tracking themselves and their behaviour, meeting in Quantified Self groups3 or finding like-minded individuals in respective communities – regardless of the concerns expressed by specialists in data protection about the collection of personal data everywhere. There are already health insurance companies and insurance policies that reward self-tracked good behaviour with bonuses and reductions in contribution fees.

But self-tracking does not only focus on health and fitness. There is also a wide range of tools and applications available in the area of environmental protection. By using the online resource calculator of the Wuppertal Institute, you can determine how many resources are required for the production, use and disposal of all the things you need for your daily lifestyle, i.e. how heavy your personal ecological rucksack is. However, the Leafully app has specialised in the tracking of energy consumption and the GiveO2 app in mobility habits. In doing so, all of these apps reveal what this actually means for the environment.

Ecological self-tracking is also becoming more important for companies. The Effizienz-Agentur NRW (German efficieny agency) offers Eco-Cockpit, a tool to balance CO2 which can be used to determine product-, process- and site-related emissions.

Use the scope for action

However, knowing that action is necessary does not mean that it takes place. As the 2013 Nature Awareness Study of the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation and the Federal Ministry for the Environment shows, 95 percent of the interviewees think that people should only use nature in such a way that future generations can also use it to the same extent. But when it comes to personal commitment, it seems that many people simply do not know how they can accomplish this.

At least apps could help the 46 million smartphone owners in Germany directly at the supermarket shelves to make the world more environmentally friendly by practising ethical consumption. Of course it helps if apps like Erntefrisch / Seasons (freshly picked), Saisonkalender (seasonal calender), iVeg or Zu gut für die Tonne (too good for the bin) get people to buy more local and plant-based foods and to throw less of it away. After all, according to the Rat für Nachhaltige Entwicklung, (German council for sustainable development), our diet is responsible for about 15 percent of the emissions of climate-damaging gases in Germany.

The same applies to applications like Codecheck. With these tools, you can simply scan the barcode of a product and it will immediately show you not only how healthy it is, but partly also how environmentally friendly it is. Such apps are available for a wide variety of industries: for example, the Ecogator app evaluates in cooperation with the Eco Top Ten platform of the Institute for Applied Ecology electrical appliances via barcode scanning. The E-Schrott (electronic scrap) app shows where to dispose of old appliances.

The Siegel-Check (label check) app made by NABU provides information about the meaning of food labels and the ToxFox app by BUND reveals whether cosmetics contain any hormonally active chemicals. For purchasing fish in an ethically correct manner, there are even two apps – one by World Wildlife Fund and the other one by Greenpeace. This is also the case regarding fair trade clothing. Now, with so many apps, one would expect quite a large scope of action for Average Joe and Ordinary Jane in order to begin improving the world.

Force of Habit

However, as everyone knows, the path that starts with giving something a try and that ultimately leads to a permanent change in behaviour, is a long and oftentimes arduous one. To actually keep going, an enormous amount of motivation and stamina is required of all those who are not very keen on smart technologies which ease the strain (for example smart houses, electronic devices, cars or apps such as 'Green Power Battery Saver' that are fully automatic and supposed to guarantee energy efficiency without any further action).

There have already been studies on this in several fields and there are high hopes about the topic of gamification. This is the idea: design your path towards the objective of a permanent behavioural change as if it was an entertaining, exciting game – and instantly, a lot more people will stick to their goal. Because of the fact that this idea already works quite well in practice, game elements have now become firm components of almost any app. Green Plaza, for example, includes quiz games and the app 'A Glass of Water' motivates car drivers to drive as calmly and evenly as possible in order to prevent a digital glass of water from slopping over – this is supposed to incidentally ensure environmentally friendly driving. The users of the app EcoChallenge and Ecotastic can take up weekly challenges which are intended to create fun, excitement and a change of routine. 

At the same time, rewards (for example vouchers in Ecotastic) as well as being proud of personal progress, will enhance motivation to keep going. This is why these apps often do not only include a progress bar that shows the status of one's personal development (this bar can be uploaded to social media sites) but also the so-called concept of 'social gaming': The OroEco app, for example, offers, in addition to the function of calculating one's carbon footprint, the function of self-analysis as well as the progress bar and the possibility of entering a sort of competition in the online community: fellow users compete against each other to save the world, in a manner of speaking.

Disruptive technologies

But are all of these fancy, funny, helpful or even entertaining tools and apps sufficient? 

There are apps which (in whatever manner) ease the necessary relinquishment and restriction. But for people who are already well-intentioned and motivated about environmental protection in first place, these apps are not actually smart, right?

Wouldn't it be more intelligent if we lived in a less resource-consuming way but just as comfortably? In any case, this suggestion is what motivates the advocates of so-called 'disruptive innovations' – meaning ideas and inventions that enable completely new behaviours and attitudes. The economist and entrepreneur Günter Faltin even moves up a notch and demands what he calls Suffizienzinnovation ('sufficiency-oriented innovation') of the present generation of entrepreneurs. In this context, the risk researcher Ortwin Renn and the sociologist Harald Welzer refer to “transformative products” in the factory issue Trans-Form.

These products are new inventions which will allow people to forego certain material comforts without losing quality of life, thus significantly contributing to decarbonisation and dematerialisation.

A showcase project of this way of thinking certainly is the sharing economy. Even if carpool centres, car sharing and exchange platforms already existed before Web 2.0 was invented, exchanging, renting and sharing as an alternative model to common commercial practice was not successful until the Internet became social and mobile with the use of smartphones. And, of course, for the environment, it would be beneficial to follow this trend.

In the sharing economy, more environmentally-friendly actions are not only practical but also hip: whether cutting costs by not riding one’s own car via apps such as Mitfahrgelegenheit, BlaBlaCar or Flinc (ridesharing services), ordering a bike at the next train station via Call A Bike instead of hailing a taxi, or exchanging unused items via apps like Kleiderkreisel or Stuffle (German online second hand marketplaces), in this new world of co-consumption, Western civilisation is wasting less material and energy and leaving less waste behind.

At least in theory. Unfortunately, in practice such sufficiency-based innovations often result in rebound effects: the resources and waste saved by the use of more energy-efficient products or altered behaviour ultimately enable more consumption for more participants (see also factory magazine Rebound). “Though public transport and car sharing are trending in metropolitan areas and automobile fuel consumption is decreasing, total mobility consumption is increasing”, according to Renn. Additionally, sharing services such as Uber and AirBnb do not take the pressure off the environment: the more affordable taxi and accommodation services allow more frequent use as well as repeated and longer journeys. That is not what sufficient means.

Rebound and social courage

Is it really possible to transform a social and economic system, which for several centuries has been programmed to believe that ‘more and more’ has the same meaning as ‘better and better’, just through a few smartphone apps and social games?

What does it really mean that a tenth of the total energy demand in Germany is currently spent on running exactly those apps and gadgets which should motivate us to save energy? What is the effect of buying a new smartphone approximately every two years, if its construction required not only much energy but also raw commodities and employees often working under degrading conditions?

This is to say nothing of all the smart fridges, washing machines and cars which, due to the integrated IT, might become obsolescent ever more quickly in the future. Is it really worth it to create a ‘smart shower‘ 6 with sensors, CPU and a projector for visualizing digital information, the production and operation of which also requires resources - only to save a little water? A study project carried out by Folkwang University even won an economic award for its ‘Shower Calendar’. But is it really award-worthy because it is the most innovative thing we can think of to solve our problems?

According to estimates by the United Nations Organisation (UNO), the gigantic amount of electronic waste alone will increase from around 49 million tonnes per year worldwide (2012) to more than 65 million tonnes (2017). “Some people are afraid the Internet is developing so fast that climate protection cannot keep up with it”, states Professor Felix Ekardt, Director of the Research Unit Sustainability and Climate Policy, in an interview with weekly newspaper Die Zeit.

No, new technologies alone are certainly not enough to create sustainable change - however disruptive they may be.

Instead, we must realise that abstaining does not necessarily indicate a regression. A system betting on egotism and denying interpersonal relationships and solidarity will never lead to a real sustainable lifestyle, and nothing in this world works separately but everything is interconnected. In a world that awards prizes for digital shower calendars, we will need a lot of courage. In fact, the new behavioural patterns that we need to shape a real sustainable society and economy are far beyond what is currently generally accepted or even conceivable.

However, this realisation has already been embedded into the communities relating to the sharing and gift economy. On the one hand, a certain attitude is becoming prevalent that radically scrutinises the necessity of material possessions. On the other hand, a system of mutual support and generosity has been established, where only those who share their possessions with others are rewarded with recognition and status in this economy.

Hence, apps like Lifecycler and Do Me a Favour do not only target a different way of shopping, which means remaining in a very tight frame of ethical consumption. Instead, a practised generosity is the key principle: via these platforms, one can give away things, knowledge, time and space.

These people do not wait for something to be handed to them on a silver platter (e.g. an app) to lead them out of their comfort zone. They use The Age of Access and The Zero Marginal Cost Society, concepts developed by economist Jeremy Rifkin, and convert them into their own energy and economy revolution. The best example of this would probably be the 80 or so makers and climate activists who were tired of waiting for one climate summit after another. They met from August to September 2015 in a castle close to Paris to develop their own climate revolution in the run-up to the COP21 conference on climate change. The name of their own maker summit was POC21, because it was all about the ‘proof of concept’ of no fewer than twelve open source products – from wind turbines to mini farms8.

Once again, this demonstrates that technology and innovation are not necessarily good or bad – they are what we make out of them. Waiting until someone or something nudges us is simply not enough – and it’s no fun!

Ilona Koglin is a freelance journalist in Hamburg and writes reports for different media. She also supports companies, start-ups and creative freelancers in developing and realising shared visions on sustainability.

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