Feedback Loops: The Power of Real-Time Information and Networked Devices

Recently, Wired published a great piece about “feedback loops” that struck a chord with us here at the Tendril design team, because it leverages two concepts that are at the core of what we do:

1). Using feedback loops to foster a sustained change in behavior; and,
2). Connecting and unlocking the value of information from devices connected to the emerging Internet of Things—a rapidly growing network of sensors and devices connected to the Internet. From our perspective, the intersection of these two things is already producing significant change in the energy industry.

Feedback Loops

A feedback loop essentially provides granular and real-time (or near real-time) information based on a person’s behavior, and then delivers actionable information for a person to change or modify their behavior, which can be incredibly impactful for behavioral improvements (an early example of this, cited in the Wired article is dynamic speed limit signs that flash your speed when it exceeds the posted limit). In other words, feedback loops don’t just provide information. Feedback loops display information in context to a person’s unique circumstance and can leverage other factors, like social norms. By doing so the information becomes actionable—so that you want to do something about your behavior.

To use the speeding example, all drivers have access to real-time information about how fast they are driving—they need only look at their speedometer. What the dynamic display speed limit sign does is put your speed in context—a context of other people seeing how fast you’re driving.

Thomas Goetz, the author of the article goes on to breakdown the four key elements to feedback loops:
• Evidence: An action needs to be recorded;
• Relevance: The data needs to be explained when delivered to the individual;
• Consequence: There needs to be an effect tied to the action; and
• Action: What this individual can do to change improve their behavior. This is where the “loop” comes in – when an individual takes action, they need to see the difference it makes immediately – the feedback.

Our team, tasked with designing compelling technology for consumers, has known for quite a while that this feedback process is critical to engaging people to take an active role in managing and persistently changing their energy use. In fact, this framework was part of the reason we acquired GroundedPower in October 2010 and developed Tendril Energize™, a suite of consumer engagement applications to monitor, analyze and improve energy usage behaviors.

This blog has talked about the behavioral science and analytics being used in Tendril Energize before and it’s been covered by others as well, most notably, George Musser at Scientific American.

Basically, Tendril Energize implements these four steps to create a feedback loop by providing actionable, contextual information. Our technology records energy activity at a device-level—like an appliance, ceiling fan, entertainment center or thermostat—(evidence); personalizes and delivers the information in real-time (relevance) in a context that’s meaningful to the energy user; explains the cost associated with the activity (consequence); and suggests ways consumers can save money by reducing energy use (action). The process then “loops” so the consumer sees the impact of their action—so they know for example that by leaving their A/C setting at a very cool temperature, even when they’re not home, they’re not likely to meet their energy savings goal

In addition, Tendril Energize provides a web portal that creates an online environment of active learning with social and expert support—including an “Ask an Expert” feature where consumers can receive advice on a specific issue or an answer about energy usage from our resident team of energy efficiency experts.

Internet of Things

The Wired article, however, goes on to note how this feedback loop is an important part of the Internet of Things—a network of formerly isolated, and some would say ‘dumb,’ devices that are increasingly becoming networked and as a result ‘smart.’ Our own experience is that by leveraging our SaaS-based platform, Tendril Connect ™, we are intelligently connecting and unlocking information in myriad of devices (in our case, things that use energy). This in turn, means the value of this info we can unlock has significant benefits to both utilities and consumers. Perhaps more impressive is that as the number of connected devices is expected to grow from about 2 billion in 2010 to 50 billion in 2020, an almost unbounded number of potential feedback loops exists for the everyday consumer.

The conversation around feedback loops and the Internet of Things is growing, and we’re excited to be on the front lines of this phenomenon.

Mike Bukhin, Senior Director and Architect, Consumer Product Group