Building the Internet of (Sustainable) Things

This morning I went to Challenge.gov’s 3rd anniversary celebration, at which they accepted this year’s Innovations in American Government Award from the Asch Center. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend included, in her list of awesome things to come out of federal challenges, “clothing that tells you about the quality of the air you’re breathing—how cool is that?” That’s a paraphrase from memory, but she definitely said it was “cool.”

Though she didn’t call them out by name, she was referring to Conscious Clothing, winners of HHS and EPA’s My Air, My Health challenge. I was lucky enough to work on that challenge as a fellow. Like Townsend, I thought their prototype for air-and-heart-rate-sensing athletic clothing was pretty cool. It represents a type of environmental communication that may work better than the well-designed but overwhelming explanations I discussed yesterday.

Conscious Clothing demo

The Conscious Clothing designers demo their prototype to the EPA Innovation Team at the HHS HealthDataPalooza 2013. Dustin Renwick, model/guinea pig.

Instead of a storm surge of information on every conceivable aspect of climate change, Conscious Clothing tells you about your immediate environment. This is a particularly exciting aspect of the much-vaunted Internet of Things. We can make invisible, long-term problems into immediate and concrete ones. We can make opportunities to be part of the solution salient and bite-sized.  Salience is a big deal, psychologically—things that are right in front of us are easier to think about, and easier to deal with.

Other recent technologies that follow this same strategy include Air Quality Egg, Kill-a-Watt, and Opower’s smart thermostats. All have measurable effects on people’s willingness and ability to save energy—Opower in particular gets its products into the homes of people who aren’t green geeks, who just want to save money on their electric bills. This is an underrated, but extraordinarily effective, form of communication.

I’d like to see more devices and apps that embed environmental information in the everyday world, rather than lumping it all together in dedicated blogs and museum exhibits. Walk past a LEED-certified building and learn about its innovative green roof. Buy garden seeds and get suggestions for how to avoid run-off pollution in your garden. As augmented reality improves and more Things get on the internet, we could make environmental problems as easy to see as potholes, and chances to help just as easy to spot.

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