Data is a crucial component to research climate and nature. We know how supercomputers are utilized to create climate and weather models. But when we want to get people to make their consumption and daily life more sustainable, we also need micro-level data.
People must be able to see their 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 macro-level factors, and people must know how they can act better.
We can now get some estimates, 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 in our living area. 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 would start collecting all this data today, and not all people are interested in doing it. But an increasing amount of data is available to individuals to use. More people are interested in this and are willing to change their behaviour and consumption habits to make more deliberate choices.
Governments, cities, enterprises and international organizations use a lot of data to make operations, infrastructure, and financial initiatives more ecological and sustainable. But as I wrote earlier about how smart city projects often overlook people, sustainability projects also overlook individuals, not helping them understand the consequences of their actions and not giving facts they could use to change their behaviour.
We can compare this to the wearable devices market. Healthcare organizations and researchers have collected health and biometric data for a long time. Still, wearable devices have enabled people to get their personal health and wellness data and 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, commuting, and free-time activities impact the environment, climate, and living area. In that case, we start to understand the load we create and how to change our habits much better. It is not rocket science to get this kind of data. It is not only about our impact, but we can also use this data to live healthier lives. The main challenge relates to usability. Most data is available, but it must be easily utilized by ordinary people. For example, what is the best time and route to take a walk or run to get less air pollution to our lungs?
Nokia’s CEO Pekka Lundmark published an article on how technology would impact our perception of the world around us. He uses 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 individual citizens and how they 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 the 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, e.g. modifying bus routes based on needs.
These decentralized infrastructure solutions are linked to the need to have local and personal level data, payments (e.g., buying and selling electricity), and smart applications. These decentralized solutions also need more accurate local-level data to predict needs and behaviour.
Many apps and web services already try to estimate the impact of some individual activities (e.g. a flight from Singapore to Los Angeles or driving 50 km with a diesel car) and pay to compensate for the impact (e.g. planting trees to offset your flight). However, it is strange that there are fewer tools to collect all this data for individuals. We also need better tools to utilize and understand this data and live more sustainably. 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 with deliberate choices.
Most people want to do good, but it must be easy enough to do. 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 also mean that 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 a more sustainable lifestyle.