Saturday, September 03, 2011

Zerofootprint: A Cool Approach to Sustainability

We’ve been exploring the area of sustainability a great deal lately. We have some new ideas for software Benetech could be developing. But, one of our core values is to see what’s already out there and to not duplicate great work already being done. That means we frequently run into cool projects (and mentally check the box: taken care of!).

In this exploration effort, thanks to John Danner, the incredibly connected entrepreneur who hangs his hat occasionally at the Haas Business School in Berkeley, I was able to meet Dr. Ron Dembo, founder of Zerofootprint. Ron showed me a brief demo at TED and we followed up with a more extensive demonstration more recently.

Zerofootprint is working to make a dent in minimizing climate change, by changing people’s behavior. And, it’s not clear that making the scientific case is sufficient for people to change. But the reality is that people don’t even need to buy the scientific case for climate change to take actions that address the issue: wouldn’t everybody like to save money on energy efficiency if it was painless or easy? But, we can approach human behavior change from a social perspective.

Zerofootprint shows what you can do with real data to influence meaningful social change. What blew my mind in the demonstration was how the Zerofootprint team took a metro area’s schools, and mashed the energy consumption data together with student census data to demonstrate how much the energy costs by dollar per student per year.

As a human, I zero in right away on the schools that are spending ten times as much per student as their most efficient comparable schools in the same neighborhood. Are they running the heat with the windows open during the winter? Are they using a boiler built in 1910? Do they leave the lights on in all the classrooms all night?

Shining a light on this issue, and making it easy to understand, is the first step on changing behavior. Zerofootprint supports the running of contests between schools (or whatever unit you want to pick). Suddenly, we have a tool to focus on the most wasteful schools, and to help all schools improve their energy efficiency.

Zerofootprint is an exciting social enterprise, and one I hope to see gain expanded adoption. It shows how crunching the numbers plus a great data visualization approach, offers a great example of how technology can really serve humanity!

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