Sharing in a changing climate

Every month, a social research agency conducts a public opinion survey on 30,000 UK households. As part of this households are asked about what issues they think are the most important; things such as crime, unemployment, inequality, public health etc. Climate change has ranked so consistently low on these surveys that they don’t bother asking any more.

On first glance, it would appear that most people don’t care about our changing climate.

Yet, that’s simply not true. Many people care deeply, but fleetingly – in the same way they may consider their own mortality before getting back to thinking about what to have for tea. And others care, but fail to change their behaviour in a way that’s proportionate to their concerns. Certainly that’s my unhappy stomping ground.

Besides, what choices do we really have? Even the most progressive, large organisations have been glacial to move towards any real form of sustainability. For many years we have struggled with the Frankenstein-like task of stitching ‘sustainability’ onto existing business and economic models and the results, I think, speak for themselves.

That the Collaborative Economy presents us with an opportunity – in Napster-like ways – to disrupt and evolve toward something more sustainable is a compelling idea. Looking out to a future filled with opportunities to reconfigure how we produce, consume and dispose of the things we want and need to live, work and play.

Whether the journey toward sustainability is short or long, it will be punctuated with a good degree of turbulence, disruption and some largely unpredictable events. How we deal with those events and what role communities, collaboration and technology play may set the framework and tone for how that future evolves. Crises and disruption to our entrenched living patterns present ripe opportunities for innovation and space for adopting new behaviours and practices.

No-one is immune from the impact of erratic and extreme weather events. And if we accept that these events are going to increase in frequency, we must draw the conclusion that emergency state and government resources may be drawn more thinly over time.

Across the world, there is a fairly well organised state and international infrastructure for dealing with emergencies, involving everyone from the Disaster Emergency Committee, the UN, central and local government and municipalities, not for profit organisations and of course, the military. There is a clear reason why we need this kind of state emergency response; I’m not suggesting that we don’t.

But through the rise of open data and mass participation in platforms that share location, identity and inventory, we are creating a new kind of mesh; a social and technological infrastructure that could considerably strengthen our ability to respond to unpredictable events.

In the last few years we have seen a sharp rise in the number of tools and crowdsourcing platforms and open source sensor networks that are focused on observing, predicting or responding to extreme events:

  • Apps like Shake Alert, which emits a minute warning that an earthquake is coming
  • Rio’s sensor network, which measures rainfall outside the city and can predict flooding
  • Open Source sensor software Arduino which is being used to crowd-source weather and pollution data
  • Propeller Health, which is using Asthma sensors on inhalers to crowd-source pollution hotspots
  • Safecast, which was developed for crowdsourcing radiation levels in Japan

Increasingly we have the ability to deploy open source, distributed and networked sensors and devices for capturing and aggregating data that can help us manage our responses to extreme weather (and indeed, other kinds of) events.

Look at platforms like LocalMind and Foursquare. Today, I might be using them to find out whether there’s a free table at a bar or finding out what restaurant my friends are in. But these kind of social locative platforms present an infrastructure that could be life-saving in any kind of situation where you need to know where to go quickly to get out of trouble.  We know that in the wake of disruptive events and disasters, like bombings, riots etc., people now intuitively and instinctively take to technology to find out what’s happening, where to go and how to co-ordinate response efforts.

During the 2013 Bart Strike in San Francisco, ventures like Liquid Space and SideCar enabled people to quickly find alternative places to work, or alternatives to public transport, to mitigate the inconvenience of the strike. The strike was a minor inconvenience compared to the impact of a hurricane and flood but nevertheless, in both those instances, ventures decided waive their fees; as did AirBnB when 1,400 New York AirBnB hosts opened their doors to people who had been left homeless through Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

The impulse to help is not new. The matching of people’s offers of help and resources to on-the-ground need, in real time, is.

San Francisco has also seen the development of the Sharing Economy Emergency Preparedness Partnership  between the City of San Francisco and BayShare  who are tasked with preparing for disasters and other critical moments when government resources may be hard to obtain.

Perhaps an unsurprising partnership, given the presence of so many progressive innovators sitting on top of the San Andreas Fault, but this idea of sharing and networked platforms forming part of the responsive infrastructure in times of crisis is a model that could be replicated in every other major city - given the right leadership. 

This blog was originally published on Huffington Post UK. Read the original blog.

Photo Credit: opalpeterliu via Compfight cc, cropped


Helen Goulden

Helen Goulden

Helen Goulden

Executive Director, Innovation Lab

Helen was an Executive Director at Nesta and lead our Innovation Lab. The Lab’s mission is to support and scale innovation for the public good; working with partners to run innovation …

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