Data is a crucial component to research climate and nature. Supercomputers are utilized to make climate and weather models. But we also need micro-level data to get people to change their consumption habits and adopt sustainable lifestyles. People must be able to see their personal influence on the environment, their health, and the ecosystems around them. This personal level is mandatory to get people to understand the consequences of their actions. It is not enough to talk about the macro-level factors – people must know how they can act better, and that what they’re doing is making a difference.
We can already get some estimates on things such as how much electricity we use, the carbon emission of our cars or flights, the environmental load of some products we buy, and the level of air pollution where we live. These help estimate the impact of our activities on the environment and climate. But in most cases, this is still very fragmented information. Most people cannot systematically collect this kind of data, compare the impact of different daily choices, and get the ‘big picture’ data to understand the total impact of their activities on the environment.
It is not realistic that people could start collecting all this data today – and not all people are interested in doing it. But many are. Increasing amounts of data is available to individuals to use. And more people are interested in this, and are willing to make more deliberate choices to change their behavior and consumption habits to adopt sustainable lifestyles.
Many projects overlook people
Governments, cities, enterprises, and international organizations need and use a lot of data to make operations, infrastructure, and financial intensives more ecological and sustainable. But just as smart city projects often overlook people, sustainability projects often do the same by not helping individuals understand the consequences of their actions, and not giving them facts they could use to change their behavior.
Take wearable devices, for example. Healthcare organizations and researchers have collected health and biometric data for a long time, but wearable devices have enabled people to not only acquire their personal health and wellness data, but also utilize it to live healthier and better. We have similar opportunities with sustainable lifestyles.
We can start with simple things. Suppose we can get systematic data on how our home energy consumption, food, commutes and free-time activities impact the environment, climate, and our living area. With that data, we start to understand the load we create and how to change our habits for the better. Getting this kind of data is not rocket science – the main challenge is making it easy enough to be utilized by ordinary people. This kind of data could serve to not only assess our environmental impact and live more sustainable lifestyles, but also help us live healthier. For example, this data could advise us on the best time and route to take a walk or run when the air quality is at acceptable levels.
Nokia CEO Pekka Lundmark published an article on how technology would impact our perception of the world around us. He offers an example of how next-generation connectivity will fully unlock smart public transport networks, precision mining, widespread vertical farming, zero-defect manufacturing, extensive installation and predictive maintenance of bullet trains, solar farms and dynamic energy grids. These are all great visions and examples, but we must not only think about the macro-level (i.e. how networks and infrastructure work). We must also remember how individual citizens can use all this technology and connectivity in their lives.
A more decentralized world
Decentralization is an important mega-trend. But decentralization is not only about blockchain, decentralized finance, or content ownership. We also see signs of decentralization in energy production, electricity grids, logistics and transportation. For example, solar panels and wind turbines at home can produce power for a household and contribute extra energy to the grid. Smart transportation utilizes local data and decisions, such as modifying bus routes based on demand.
These decentralized infrastructure solutions are linked to the need to have local and personal level data, payment (e.g., buying and selling electricity), and smart applications. These decentralized solutions also need much more accurate local-level data to predict needs and behavior.
There are so many apps and web services that already try to estimate the impact of some individual activities (e.g. flying from Singapore to Los Angeles, or driving 50 km in a diesel car) and how to compensate for the impact (for example, planting trees to compensate for your flight). However, it is strange that there are few tools to collect all this data together for individuals. We need better tools to utilize and understand this data and to live more sustainable lifestyles. It cannot be that the only way to make something better is to pay for some new trees.
We must make it easier for people to live a more sustainable and healthier life via deliberate choices. Most people want to do good, but it must be easy. One problem with climate policies is that many people feel they only offer restrictions, taxes, and intimidation. If we can empower people to know better and make better choices, it would make people feel more liberated; they can feel happier when they make the right choices. Data and better tools to understand consequences and find better actions are essential in creating more sustainable lifestyles.