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Measuring, nudging and sharing: going green with new technologies

24th January 2018

Socrates Schouten from Waag Society introduces DSI4EU's Food, Environment and Climate Change cluster.

A healthy food system, a cleaner environment, and the containment of climate change - these are the key goals we will be pursuing through the environmental cluster of DSI4EU, the Digital Social Innovation project run by Waag Society and six European partners. What does digital social innovation for a better environment look like? This blog explores the world of green initiatives that build upon advances in digital technologies.

The ecological objective: keeping within the bounds

Ensuring environmental sustainability is one of the great challenges of the twenty-first century. Merely looking at the European Union, there is already a lot of work ahead. Soil quality deterioration is seen all across the continent; parts of Southern Europe face symptoms of desertification; ongoing urbanisation and increasing mobility are putting stress on local environments; biodiversity is in decline; and so forth. On top of this, of course, lies EU Member States’ commitments to the 2015 Paris Agreement to confine global warming to ‘well below’ a two degrees Celsius increase.

The global community has reached the point at which ecological transgressions have imperilled the lives of people and the sustainability of economies. As Oxford economist Kate Raworth outlines in her book Doughnut Economics, we need to leave behind an economic system that navigates solely towards financial growth and welfare as its main objectives. Instead, the main goal should be to have an economy that fits within ‘the doughnut’: a field described by two concentric rings, the inner of which represents the social ‘floor’ of human dignities, with the outer signifying the ecological ‘ceiling’ which humankind ought not to exceed. This eco-ceiling is also known as the set of nine ecological ‘Planetary Boundaries’.

Digital Social Innovation

The double objective of social enrichment and environmental restraint calls for a different innovation model from the one we’re accustomed to. This is where Digital Social Innovation (DSI) comes in. DSI is a field of growing interest and activity, through which communities use digital technologies to organise and work on shared concerns. In particular, these communities use open technologies such as open source software and small-scale fabrication machines.

In the latest phase of the DSI4EU project, we have defined six thematic ‘clusters’, one of which is ‘Food, Environment and Climate Change’, led by Waag Society. (For an overview of all clusters, click here.)

Over the next year and a half, the clusters will be mapping, profiling, connecting and supporting digital social innovations from the viewpoint of specific social objectives, instead of from a general ‘social tech’ interest. In this blog, we dive into the subject of sustainability.

 

Green strategies

The areas within this cluster encompass a diverse set of issues and strategies. One, for example, is the collective generation of knowledge about citizens’ sustainable strategies. Knowledge-sharing and comparison of eco-performance helps people to make environmentally beneficial decisions. The online platform Nudge maps clever community initiatives for greener behaviour in the Netherlands, while EnergyUse.eu is a space for sharing experiences on the energy consumption of typical appliances such as TVs and washing machines.

However, real awareness and agency do not come through the dissemination of knowledge alone. Knowledge also needs to be created - and one way of doing this, and of involving citizens, is through civic environmental monitoring. Through the projects ISPEX and HackAir, for example, communities carry out their own air quality measurements and share data to build collective and real-time knowledge of their environment. Similarly, Safecast and GammaSense let citizens measure radiation levels themselves, and Rainforest Connections (RFCx) transforms recycled cell-phones into solar-powered listening devices that can distantly monitor and pinpoint chainsaw activity.

Another strategy to generate involvement and know-how is by building collaborative organisations. Citizen food cooperatives are a useful example of this trend. More and more consumers feel the urge to learn about the origins of their food and buy produce from local farmers, whether because of concerns about health, transportation, or farming practices. Similarly, farmers can unite in farmers’ cooperatives to create better market conditions and find local markets. To that end, web and smartphone apps such as FoodSoft enable direct trade to be established between (local, organic) farms and consumers. In the cooperative, members determine what they consider to be good food and fair prices. They also establish lasting relationships with the supplying farmers and learn about their needs. This way, citizens and farmers prevent market forces from disrupting social ties between the farm and the household.

If we’re talking about marketplace innovation, the sharing economy must be discussed. Sharing platforms have the potential to increase resource efficiency by better distributing idle assets, such as in car sharing, lending of tools, swap shops, and second hand marketplaces. For example, the Dutch social platform Peerby has generated widespread interest in the possibility of goods-sharing of goods. Think of that moment when you need a sander, party tent, picnic cooler or hedge trimmer, but you were never persuaded to purchase one yourself. Peerby and similar apps allow neighbours to swiftly borrow such occasional necessities and in the process reduce material footprints. Early adopters and persistent users are often environmentally motivated to fulfil their needs using these platforms instead of buying new.

Join the movement!

Digital infrastructure not only enables the organisation of social, collective action on the scale needed for present-day challenges, but also sparks the creation of new kinds of goods and benefits that are generated by the users themselves. The possibilities for the ecological transition are particularly exciting, since sustainability requires a deep kind of behavioural change on the level of communities, not merely the individual. Over the next 18 months, the Food, Environment and Climate Change cluster will map and support the development of digital social innovations for a greener Europe.

If you’re working in this field, or just interested in it, make sure to get involved by connecting with us at contact@digitalsocial.eu, subscribing to the DSI4EU newsletter and making a profile at digitalsocial.eu!

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