Glowing orbs could change eco-behavior worldwide

Wired magazine has an interesting story about how manager Mark Martinez at Southern California Edison (SCE) got customers to reduce energy consumption by giving them Ambient Orbs. They’re small spheres that change colors in response to changing streams of data — first marketed to monitor the stock market (blue is good, red is panic). But Martinez configured the orbs to respond to data about electric rates for SCE customers. Normally the orbs emit a green glow, but when recipients see their orbs flashing red, they know it’s a good time to power down where possible (e.g., adjust the thermostat, turn off excess lights).

It’s an elegant way to make energy consumption visible. Without information overload. It’s in your peripheral vision. As the Wired article points out:

[T]he glowing sphere was less annoying and more persistent than a text alert. “It’s nonintrusive,” [Martinez] says. “It has a relatively benign effect. But when you suddenly see your ball flashing red, you notice.”

There’s already solid evidence that feedback mechanisms can change eco-behavior. Think about how hybrid-car owners become obsessed with the dashboard display showing an on-the-fly calculation of gas mileage. The result? They change the way they drive, specifically trying to maximize mileage. It becomes a game, an enjoyable challenge, complete with quantifiable personal bests.

Here’s an even wilder idea: How about making our energy use visible to everyone? Imagine if your daily consumption were part of your Facebook page — and broadcast to your friends by RSS feed. That would trigger what Ambient Devices CEO David Rose calls the sentinel effect: You’d work harder to conserve so you don’t look like a jackass in front of your peers.

This isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. The design firm DIY Kyoto (as in Kyoto Protocol) recently began selling a device called the Wattson, which not only shows your energy usage but can also transmit the data to a Web site, letting you compare yourself with other Wattson users worldwide.

Imagine energy orbs glowing on desktops all over the world. It could make a difference.

When your orb is glowing red, power down!
Ambient Orbs spark bright idea for cutting energy waste

Big challenge: Can we make being green convenient?

Futurists often compile a list of megatrends but it’s a mistake to view each megatrend in isolation. Life doesn’t work that way. So it was interesting to see futurist Andy Hines, at Social Technologies LLC, writing about the possible convergence of two megatrends: consumer convenience and “being green.”

The problem is that convenience (time-saving) is often at odds with the environment (think: over-packaged single servings of food, and taking the car instead of public transportation). Hines continues:

We suggest “congreenience” as a challenge to our innovative talents. How can we marry green and convenient? We see some early indicators toward congreenience from energy companies providing green power options that make the switch to green energy fairly painless. These are steps in the right direction, but still just baby steps.  

Sorry, but I don’t think the moniker “congreenience” will catch on. But I agree that this could be a powerful combination. People don’t like to make sacrifices, so anything that helps people “be green” without inconvenience will be a win-win situation.

Intelligence Briefs

An eclectic collection of discoveries:

It’s not easy being green. The race to adopt wind energy systems is being slowed by a shortage of wind turbines. And green-minded homeowners who install solar panels and other unaesthetic-but-eco-friendly features are getting flak from neighbors, homeowners associations and historic-preservation boards. The Wall Street Journal (9 July 2007 and 12 July 2007, subscription required)

Citizens of Eastern Europe have acquired (or reacquired) a taste for brands, rock bands and television programs of the Communist period. The craze is known by the German word Ostalgie (“nostalgia for the East”). The Chronicle of Higher Education (15 June 2007, subscription required)

A new majority (60%) of working moms in the U.S. would be happiest in part-time jobs, with fewer seeing full-time work as an ideal.Pew Research Center / The Washington Post (12 July 2007, registration required) 

McDonald’s Corp., in an energy-saving initiative, plans to use a new power-line networking system to more efficiently monitor and control fryers, grills, milk-shake machines, air conditioners and lights. The network, which uses the restaurant’s electrical wiring as a communications pathway, allows the devices to be programmed via the Internet to reduce energy usage during lulls in demand. press reports / Echelon Corp.

Intelligence Briefs

An eclectic collection of discoveries:

China’s smoggy capital city of Beijing adds 1,000 vehicles to its roads each dayThe Wall Street Journal (5 July 2007)

A competitive intelligence professional says he loves PowerPoint — “mainly due to the misuse of it.” He continues: “When presentations are made available on competitors’ Web sites after a financial call or large event, you can always find plenty of gems within the dense slides.” Dan McHugh

Office rents are skyrocketing across the U.S. and driving up business costs, because of a dearth of space in some major markets and deep-pocketed landlords who can afford to hold out for premium tenants. The Wall Street Journal (5 July 2007)

Here’s a collection of 250-plus online resources for competitive intelligence about the pharmaceutical and health care industries. Fuld & Co. (registration required)

Intelligence Briefs

Craigslist meets YouTube: lets individuals post homemade video commercials to sell goods & services. —

Tree-Nation is an ecological project with a focused objective: to plant 8 million trees in the Sahara to fight desertification. — Marcus P. Zillman

Tipping point: U.S. corporate spending on wireless voice & mobile data services will exceed business spending on all wireline voice & data services by 2010. — In-Stat /

India is one of the fastest-growing markets for the pharmaceutical industry, with huge potential. Several factors, including the acceptance of intellectual property rights, a robust economy and the country’s burgeoning health care needs, have contributed to accelerated growth in that country. — IMS Health

Competitive intelligence for law firms: A new version of the atVantage software has features intended to help law firms analyze growth opportunities, identify trends and evaluate competing firms. The “Firm Trends” feature gives users the ability to assess and track their market share of litigation for a particular client, market or industry. — LexisNexis