How To Help With A Big Global Problem As A Technologist - Part 3

This is the third and final piece in a trilogy of posts on how you, as a smart technologist, can help address the global problem of climate change. For more background you should read the first post.

The idea is to apply the lessons, techniques and methodologies of startups and agile software development to help speed up the fixing of this big issue. Old systems work too slowly and we need to act fast.

Steps

These posts each address one of three steps:

  1. Understand
  2. Organise
  3. Amplify

Step 3 - Amplify

The final step is to use the amplifying power of technology to help people make the best decisions and nudge them in the right direction. Software has a huge magnifying effect and can scale the impact of a small group by many orders of magnitude. We need to start a revolution, not rearrange the deckchairs!

Technology

Software is a crucial enabler for all areas of climate change action 1. So what technology should we use to build it and how can we best use this technology to achieve the greatest effect?

Web

The web is the most open platform on the (also open) internet. It can be tempting to write native applications but if these are for a proprietary store then you are beholden to the owners. If you build on someone else’s garden you have to play by their (often arbitrary and inconsistently applied) rules, even if they do have really nice walls. This advice also applies to social media content silos that aim for the same sort of lock-in.

If you don’t require any features of native applications then it is a good idea to build your project as a Progressive Web App (PWA), targeting browsers. Not only does this free you from the whims of faceless tech companies but it also lets you target multiple platforms with much less effort.

Sometimes the limits of proprietary platforms guide your thinking and you miss solutions because they can’t be done. However, it’s still a bad idea to over-generalise a solution and it’s better to target a specific problem first, even if the platform has few limits. Sometimes too much choice is a bad thing but that is not a good reason to limit the possibilities, just remember to remain focussed.

You don’t even have to stick to the web. You could take a step back and build your things on the internet.

IoT

The Internet of Things (IoT) allows your project to interact with the physical world. You can measure and control almost anything with some cheap hardware and basic electronics knowledge. If you have the skills then share them but don’t forget to remind people of the importance of safety and security when dealing with embedded hardware.

Why not get hold of a Raspberry Pi, Arduino, ESP8266/ESP32 or z-wave sensor and use it to measure environmental data. You could log electricity usage, air quality / pollution levels, temperature, humidity, light levels and much more. These data-sets can be very useful in planning and making better decisions if they are interpreted correctly. Perhaps you could help people use their heating or air-conditioning more efficiently.

If it’s too much work then you could join an existing project and help out. Even testing and writing documentation is very useful if you can’t make software or solder components.

For inspiration of open source hardware projects take a look at Home Assistant and Open Energy Monitor. There is a lot of software involved in hardware these days so don’t be put off if you know little about electronics.

Open

It’s important to ensure that the technology you choose for your project is open source and cross-platform. This helps you target more users and engage a larger community.

If you decide to release your project as an open source endeavour then this is even better. See the previous post for more on the benefits of this.

Openness can apply to both software and hardware. The most popular technology platforms are open and normally free too. It is difficult to build an open project on a closed or costly platform.

Imagination

A project needs to be interesting if it is to capture the imagination of people. You need to inspire, excite or amuse, but it needn’t be a virtual or physical product. It could be content or just an idea (or meme).

One such incident that captured the imagination of the public and also raised awareness of the problems in the ocean and arctic regions was the naming of the research vessel now known as the RRS Sir David Attenborough.

There was an online competition to name the vessel and the most popular entry was Boaty McBoatface, which is now the name of one of the submersibles on board.

Tools

There is a need in many industries for better tooling to help with monitoring and planning. Software is the most flexible tool we have and we can easily re-purpose tools designed for one thing to help in a different area.

One area of technology that pushes the limits of computation is the games industry. However, game engines don’t have to be used just for entertainment. Why not use the physics simulations to model how sunlight will fall on a building throughout the year to aid with planning solar panel installation or thermal management.

Why not build a “game” that models the physical systems of global warming and allows people to play with the inputs and see what happens. This would help educate the public about the consequences of inaction. For example, if Minecraft had an accurate portrayal of environmental conservation based on the laws of physics then it would be a more-effective teaching tool.

We can use software to monitor the energy consumption of appliances and switch them off when not in use or move consumption to greener power hours. For example, you can detect if computers have been left on overnight, sleep or hibernate them and start them up in the morning as if nothing had happened.

You could also move any expensive computation (e.g. virus scans and updates) to the early hours of the morning, where it will use lower-carbon power and, as another benefit, not impact anyone’s work. You can power up the machines just for these tasks and then put them to sleep again after.

There may be many high-tech options for Greenhouse Gas Reduction (GGR) but there are also some very low-tech methods. GGR is the process of actively removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and can be as simple as reforestation or making charcoal. It is not a substitute for emissions reduction but will be required in addition to cutting output.

You can read more about GGR in a recent joint report by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering (136 page full PDF report or 12 page PDF summary). Obviously, the high-tech options will require software. However, the low-tech options will still require software, even if indirectly. For example, there will be a need for software systems to administer incentives schemes, track progress, monitor, verify and encourage public support by reporting on the good work being done.

Conversations

We need to talk more and we need to amplify our conversations beyond the normal one-to-one. There are many platforms that allow a one-to-many broadcast and they are easier to access than ever. However, this creates a new problem of discovering the truth among the noise.

There is a common belief among technologists that if you build a platform then it will be used for good and problems will simply get solved. Unfortunately, this is not the case, as recent history has shown. Platforms can be subverted and it is not enough to simply let them run free and just hope for the best (or simply not care). The utopian ideal doesn’t match reality and a platform must be curated and moderated with careful thought.

The opposite of a broadcast could be called many-to-one and the closest thing we have to this is probably democracy. Some would argue that contemporary events have demonstrated how democracy in its current form has failed. This may be an exaggeration but undoubtedly the information flow in democracy has changed. It is now more of a many-to-many conversation and it is difficult to know what sort of propaganda is delivered via high-tech super-targeted advertising platforms.

Legislation will eventually catch up but there are also potential crowd-sourced technical solutions that can help with transparency and shine a light on these dark systems. We can also learn how to use these highly-targeted filters for good rather than for selfish purposes.

One of the dangers of using Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning tools to filter our view of the world is that we don’t know exactly how they work. The computers are simply given a goal, like a genie in a classic legend, and we may not get what we think we asked for. It is difficult to give requests to something that takes requirements so literally. We don’t want everything turning to gold, even if it is delicious.

An important aspect of conversations are network effects. Much like a dangerous thermal runaway, these can amplify a message if it has both share-appeal and if the nodes of the graph are well connected. Unfortunately, rumours, gossip and fake news lies are attractive to share. Perhaps we could build systems to encourage people to be more thoughtful or at least improve the connections for more-helpful content?

Employment

Who you choose to work for and what problems you choose to work on are very important. These choices are even more potent if the ideas of who to work for an what to work on can be amplified. Companies spend lots of money on marketing their green and social credentials. However, some Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is little more than green-wash. We need better tools and more open information to highlight what is real and what is just smoke and mirrors.

Recruitment agents and HR departments are inefficient and often error-prone. Hiring is an expensive exercise, particularly for high-skill staff. However, it is even more expensive to hire the wrong people, who can have a net-negative impact in the worst cases. There is opportunity for increased automation in this area, especially around contracts and time tracking. If any environmental incentives can be included at the same time as improving the process then it’s win-win.

What I tried to do with Cleanweb Jobs was streamline the process by directly connecting people and also include an environmental Unique Selling Point (USP). Another good example with a wider appeal is Tech For Good jobs. Being a good corporate steward can help attract the best staff, as most people like to have a purpose other than just getting paid.

Employment differs greatly between startups and large organisations. With Cleanweb we were more focussed on startups and academia but there are similar groups working with corporate enterprises, for example the crowd.

Thought Leadership

Industry can help form policy and guide or influence politics. Politicians like to appear to listen to business (even if their actions indicate otherwise). If enough small businesses coordinate then they could apply some pressure.

The current pope has also been very vocal in his positive environmental attitude. Religious groups can be an effective means of altering political and public opinion.

However, less-progressive religions may prove a hindrance. If the idea of global warming conflicts with your beliefs about the age of the earth then it is difficult to accept. If you think that the planet is only thousands of years old then ice core samples are tough to consider, so the conclusion may be rejected too.

The problem with these beliefs is that they are just that, beliefs. They have been etched in at a young age and are very hard to change. The less evidence the better when it comes to beliefs, in fact some of our strongest beliefs have no evidence. Science is not about belief. With science, you change your position based on the evidence available and there is overwhelming evidence for human made climate change.

The mind interprets a challenge to strongly held beliefs in the same way as a physical attack and will defend it in any way possible. We need to come up with better ways of engaging with others or at least finding solutions to the problem that don’t conflict with an irrational belief system.

Economics

Climate change inaction may be predominately a political problem but it is also an economic one. Revenue-neutral taxes could be implemented to include any externalised environmental costs into products and services but that may take time and will take will. However, there are still things that an environmentally and ethically minded investor or consumer can do.

Investor

Most people would not consider themselves investors. Yet many people have investments that they control, even if they don’t realise it.

You may have a pension or an ISA (or other savings wrapper) but do you know the details of the funds it is invested in? If your pension was set up by default (if you didn’t opt-out) then it will probably be a standard index fund (at least at the start of a tapered lifestyle profile).

You can easily change this to an ethical fund or one that invests in renewable energy and other “future world” sectors. Historically, some of these have even performed better than the default funds.

It would be a helpful and virtuous endeavour to build tools that allow people to pick the most ethical investments and put their savings to better use. This could be run as a commercial venture as long as the green credentials are not corrupted.

Consumer

The same principle of providing better information also applies to consumers. People want to know who to buy from and normally the main signal is price. If the price does not accurately reflect the true cost then this could be highlighted in other ways.

For example, you could make resources to help people pick an EV over an ICE vehicle and decide which EV to pick. The same applies to other products but people usually consider larger purchases in greater detail. Housing would be another good candidate.

Modern supply-chains are incredibly complex and could do with much greater transparency. Blockchain may be an over-hyped technology but it could see genuinely useful applications when applied to supply-chains. If the energy-wasting proof-of-work is abandoned and alternatives such as proof-of-state are used then the negative impacts won’t be as significant.

Longevity

One way to reduce environmental impact is to keep our products for longer and repair them rather than replace them. This is particularly significant in tech, where devices are getting less hackable and new models are pushed every year.

This effect is strange and likely artificial. The rate of genuine technological progress is slowing and devices can easily last longer. For example, processor speeds are not increasing at the rate they did a couple of decades ago.

We can address this in two ways and, as a technologist, you can help. The first is to teach the skills to repair and the second is to support older hardware.

You could help with The Restart Project and offer your skills to teach people how to repair their own kit. You can also encourage people to buy devices based on how repairable they are and on how committed the manufacturers are to supporting a long life, for example Fairphone.

You should make your software less demanding and test it on older devices. The downside of being able to push constant updates is that it is easy to ship a performance regression and not realise. If you test on older devices then you will notice these bugs earlier and this will result in a gain for users with newer devices too, such as by not draining their battery as much.

For example, there is no good reason not to support a device as old as a Nexus 5, even if Google don’t with Android updates. Earlier this year Netflix pushed an update that results in their app draining the battery a lot, even when not in use. This deserves a separate post but it is odd that neither Google nor Netflix have a business model that involves shipping as much hardware as possible. In fact, they would benefit from having as large a user-base as they can attract.

Actions

You can of course donate to relevant charities and political parties, not only with money but also with time and expertise. For example, you could donate to Friends of the Earth (international) or attend a hackathon event.

You may want to donate to or become a member of your local green party. There are also other ways to get involved directly, such as Citizens Climate Lobby (or CCL UK).

The most important action is to publish, share and talk about the issue. This could range from writing a blog to simply giving printouts to acquaintances. Keep the issue fresh on people’s minds and let them know that it is not under control. Action is required.