Creating and Implementing Ideas for a More Sustainable Future

This past weekend, I travelled to New York to support and chronicle, via Twitter (#Tendril), a hackathon graciously hosted by BMW and cosponsored by Tendril and AT&T. The hackathon was focused on development of apps, mobile apps and hacks that meld the smart car, the smart energy-efficient home and the smart mobile device. The whole experience was a wake up call for me, and for reasons I hadn’t anticipated.

As I planned my trip, I contacted my best friend of many decades who lives on Long Island Sound so we could get together while I was in New York. In the past, the trip into Manhattan from Long Island was a no-brainer — something neither of us gave much thought to. She just hopped in her car or on a train, and an hour later, we were reunited. This weekend, however, transportation – or the lack thereof – was quite a different story. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, train schedules were still disrupted, and gas rationing made driving difficult.

As she tried to figure out the best way to get into the city she commented that, for the first time, she really wished she had an electric car. I found that to be somewhat ironic because the hackathon I was attending revolved around the debut of BMW i car, the car that was “born” to be electric.

That’s when the light bulb went off in my head (a CFL, of course). This hackathon was about much more than just creating cool new ways to enable a digital lifestyle where car, home and mobile devices are connected and communicating in ways that make life easier. It was about leveraging technology and creativity to achieve greater sustainability – to find new ways to reduce carbon emissions.

When the hackathon kicked off Friday night, it became clear that Hurricane Sandy featured prominently in the hearts and minds of not only my best friend, but also all of the developers in attendance, most of whom were from the New York and New Jersey area. An organization called New York Tech Responds (#NYtechresponds) participated. They, along with fellow technologists from communities such as Hurricane Hackers and Crisis Commons, are focused on encouraging development of applications to help get the community back on its feet.

In addition to getting the area back to normal, it was clear that a broader, more far-reaching concern revolved around what many New York citizens like our participating developers, climate scientists and others fear will become the “new normal” – a normal characterized by an environment where global warming and rising sea levels may dramatically increase the serious weather events like Sandy.

Those in the room came by and large to look for ways to help stem the tide of increasing greenhouse emissions – to see what they could do to help. They pitched their concepts, brainstormed together and ultimately wound up collaborating as part of teams focused on bringing their 13 new ideas to life.

The developers’ concepts ranged from apps to encourage people to eat less meat (the livestock sector contributes to green house gas emissions) to apps that leverage geo-location tools, energy management tools and device control to automatically change settings in the home as the homeowner nears his or her house. There was an app to correlate locations and costs of EV charging stations, and there was an app to enable a virtual market for micro-farms aimed at connecting local, small farmers with buyers seeking locally grown produce (food with a smaller environmental impact). There was even an app to make it easier to donate to needy people and causes via mobile tools.

Tendril awarded a prize for the best “smart home” hack to a project called EcoSave that uses a web portal to visually portray energy consumption and information on how to learn more about green energy and make more sustainable choices. It melded the benefits of Tendril’s consumer engagement applications with social media and online information sources that provide important insights on the impact of energy consumption decisions and better energy efficiency choices can have on the way we shape the world of the future.

The EcoSave app is a great idea! And it opens the door to a question I’ve been wondering about lately. Many experts who study energy behavior believe that most people are motivated by money (savings) more than anything else when it comes to improving energy efficiency. But is that because money is truly the best motivator, or is it because it’s so hard to find a quick source of information on what your energy decisions mean to the environment? If people had fingertip access to information that showed them how adjusting their thermostat by two degrees can save 2000 lbs. of carbon dioxide (and $98) per year. If they knew that replacing one bulb with energy efficient bulbs could save half a ton of carbon dioxide emission over the life of the bulb – or that if every American did this, 500 million tons of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere can be prevented.

If everyone could do a quick “impact check” before making their energy consumption choices – or even their recycling, food consumption and other sustainability impact choices — would they change their behavior? Studies show that with little or no hardship and no major cash outlays, we could cut day-to-day emissions of CO2 in half—mainly by wasting less energy at home and on the highway. If people knew this, would it make a difference? Or are those who think that the only thing that will motivate people to cut energy use to a more sustainable level is higher taxes on fossil fuels?

What do you think?

Ginger Juhl

P.S. Many thanks to BMW, AT&T and all the men and women who showed up to help improve our planet through better use of our energy resources.