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Web 2.0, Ubiquity, Sustainability and Consumer Rights
Alex Steffen, 7 Jul 08

Ubiquity and sustainability could turbocharge each other. Ubiquity enables revealed backstories, observed flows and shared services, making it easier to live well at a minimum of expense and ecological impact. Sustainability, particularly in the form of compact urbanism with bright green innovation, concentrates human interactions with each other and networked systems, making it easier to suffuse daily life with the sort of intelligence that allows data to be gathered, shared and connected. The Net and the public square, as Castells wrote, are symbiants.

That symbiosis makes informatics -- the understanding of how people use technology to interact with information -- a critical field in sustainable design. And if you're looking to get a nice, quick taste of the cutting edge of informatics, I really enjoyed Matt Jones and Tom Coates' presentation, Polite, Pertinent and Pretty, (tho' I describe below why there's a fourth P they missed).

In a talk exploring their own work, Matt and Tom look at the proliferation of data sources in our lives: personal sensors, direct reporting, environmental sensors, bureaucratic files, attention records, networked objects, and "ambient information" about our daily habits, etc. Because these sources can be connected into a web of data though services and APIs and "in this connected space, every piece of data you can open up can be combined with everything that already exists," there are phenomenal opportunities available to help people understand their lives and choices in new and empowering ways. There are also unprecedented ways for businesses and governments to invade our privacy, to spy on us, to dominate public data for private gain, and generally make life worse -- perhaps dramatically worse.

How do we make sure that the systems we're building and supporting increase openness, choice and citizen empowerment? Enter the three P's:

Politeness, in this context, means not only aware of the social niceties, but a radical bias towards openness, or as Adam Greenfield says, "Ubiquitous systems must contain provisions for immediate and transparent querying of their ownership, use, capabilities, etc."

Pertinence essentially contains the expectation that the user gets the truth, the useful truth and the truth in time to matter: that the choices we make are informed by the best possible understanding of the situation, and that the evolution of that understanding ought to be up to us to shape. [I'm wildly extrapolating on their argument here.]

Prettiness is not only about the aesthetics of the user experience (though I'd argue those are not in any way trivial, and that Bucky was right about beauty), but even more so, about the crafting of user experiences that allow people to meaningfully engage with masses of data and complex systems in ways that are simple and compelling (for instance, through good visualizations). Playful and pleasing ways of making visible the invisible, of revealing what's going on a large scale, behind the scenes, over time.

The importance of these three qualities shines through especially bright when we begin to think about the spread of product-service systems and product loops through our lives.

PSS offer enormous potential sustainability benefts. Indeed, I'd argue that it will be impossible to deliver sustainable prosperity without the widespread adoption of shared/sharing systems. But they can also have a real downside, for PSS rely on a more intimate connection with their users, and where that intimacy is not backed by protected relationships, real disaster can result.

Consider ZipCar's takeover of FlexCar, for example. Many FlexCar users made serious life decisions -- about whether to own a car and where to live, for instance -- based in some large part on the availability of FlexCars in their lives. When ZipCar began making arbitrary changes to the means and extent of that availability (removing cars, raising rates, changing policies) without any warning or discussion whatsoever, former FlexCar customers (who had treated FlexCar as much as a community as a business) realized that they in fact were not community members in any meaningful way, and that their involvement with car-sharing was unprotected by any meaningful ownership or rights.

So, I would add a fourth P, "Protection."

If we are going to interact with companies in intimate ways -- in ways that impact our deepest life choices -- those interactions ought not only to be held to a higher standard of transparency and public accountability; they ought to be safe-guarded in formal ways as well by having corporate decision-making structures that protect the user rights of the people involved.

Some of these protections might involve legislation and regulation; legally protecting users' privacy and data ownership, for instance. Some might involve business ethics, codes of practice and certification systems enforced by NGOs. Some might involve new forms of corporate chartering and governance. Some might involve actual ownership by and participation of the users themselves.

Because all commerce involves power and money, creating a marketplace expectation of protection will not be painless. It'll take a consumer rights movement to make this happen. PSS companies which refuse to do business in an appropriate manner ought to be not just avoided, but identified and penalized. As much energy ought to go into weeding out bad PSS as rewarding good ones, especially now, when the concept is just taking root, and the market could easily adjust to an expectation of privacy abuse and exploitation.

What's at stake, after all, is how we'll live in a bright green future, and whether the creation of sustainable prosperity will support individual liberties, protect privacy, guard the commons, promote social mobility, shrink the gap between rich and poor and make our lives more beautiful... or, whether we'll be selling out our democratic and economic rights in the name of a better future.

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Clever, interesting post, and I could not agree more with you about the necessity of shared systems for sustainable prosperity.

But it seems that you're trying to turn businesses into non-businesses. I see your point on community-oriented businesses having a responsibility to their users, but taking your example, what exactly would you propose that ZipCar do with rarely used, unprofitable cars? If you make them keep those cars in the fleet, you are effectively penalizing other users of the system. New cars won't go in to other higher-demand locations as quickly, if at all. If that's not the prescription, then are we to just recommend a better community buy-in process? Then roughly what we're asking a company like ZipCar to be is a public transportation service, and I'm sure you've sat in on a meeting to close a bus line or two at some point. Those situations are nightmares for both the service provider and user. At least in the example you cite, it seems the answer you are posing is more rigidity, but that seems to dim car-sharing's future, not brighten it.

Posted by: Alexis Madrigal on 7 Jul 08

Car-sharing is probably a dead letter anyway. If no one can afford the gas, then no one can afford the vehicle sharing, either.

Today I dropped off my girlfriend's car at a garage for some minor repairs, and walked the five miles home through rural Connecticut. The route was mostly downhill, mostly rural highway (US and CT state routes), and the shoulders were mostly overgrown with jewelweed and poison ivy.

There were no pedestrian amenities, no shoulder in many places, numerous blind curves that were dangerous to pedestrians, and very little shade. I saw two other walkers for the entire trip; most vehicles were pick-ups and SUVs common to rural areas.

All the same, I was greeted with your four P's: drivers gave me plenty of latitude on the road, and didn't unexpectedly swerve into my pedestrian space, nor did they kick up a lot of road-grit at me, nor did they make me deal with the backwash air flows of their vehicles. Several vehicles' drivers made eye contact, and two slowed down enough to ask if I was all right in the hot sun. No one offered to give us a lift. Prettiness — well, I learned that the road is quite nice if you're in an air conditioned vehicle, but not so nice at a walker's pace; poison ivy, narrow shoulders, and dangerous speeds definitely try one's patience. All the same, with a modicum of work it could be a very pleasant walk indeed.

Most of my fourth P, Protection, came from the courtesy of the other drivers on the public thoroughfare, the recognition of my rights as a human being out walking his dog, and an awareness from the other drivers that I was without shelter. That they watched out for me had more to do with my survival than anything else.

Posted by: Andrew Watt on 8 Jul 08

I agree that the relationship between citizens and corporations is likely to change, as we become more intimate with each other (the relationships between corporations have also become more intimate: witness the tight corporate intermingling between UPS and its larger customers described in Friedman's The World is Flat), but I would suggest that in the context of Zipcar and Flexcar, Flexcar was actually the party guilty of insufficient responsibility to their customers. They expanded rapidly into an unprofitable SoCal market in order to stake out their turf against Zipcar. That kind of speculative business decision may make sense if you're a venture capitalist (you may win big a small percentage of the time) but it's not a good way to build a relationship. For a relationship, you'd really need to focus on sustainable (that is, stable, slow growing, long term) business plans, which are hard to come by these days, unless you happen to work for Warren Buffet.

If what you want is a respectful relationship between the citizen/customer and the companies that they do business with, I think you'd be better off advocating for cooperatives. Victoria and Vancouver, BC both have co-op car shares (see and respectively).

Unfortunately, my personal experiences with co-ops (excluding financial co-ops like credit unions and the Vanguard mutual funds) have led me to conclude that the extra administrative overhead, and lack of business sense that frequently accompany the cooperative ownership/operation structure is unfortunately often not worth it. Which is too bad.

Posted by: Zane Selvans on 8 Jul 08

Before killing troll posts;) there is a good reading about zero pollution :

The OneCATs

In respect to the emerging markets of rapidly growing countries, the need for an ultra efficient car with minimum Carbon Dioxide emission is vitally important in view of the current global climatic concerns.

Almost all the car manufacturers have been seeking for such vehicles. Renault has developed the Logan, a hardy but conventional car, for a price of € 5,000 in Romania and € 7,500 in Europe..

Such a car must be able to run economically and efficiently without contributing towards any polluting factors in over populated and heavily polluted cities.

Based on its Industrialisation Concept and using its knowledge base, MDI initiated Research into an extremely fuel-efficient, utilitarian, Clean Car with following salient features:
- Zero pollution in urban areas when running only on compressed air.
- Very low consumption and negligible pollution in rural areas running on compressed air with an additional energy source.

Posted by: alex on 9 Jul 08

I would appreciate it if people would stop using the word sustainable. Sustainable refers to a rate. If you consume more than the rate of production, you consume a resource. If you consume less than the rate of production, you build a reserve.

Take a woodlot for example. If you have three acres of woodlot, it can sustain cutting two cords per year. Significantly less than that is not sustainable because the woods become overgrown and production drops. More than that in the woods become too thin to support that level of harvest. if you were describing a woodlot as sustainable, you would say that a sustainable rate of production would be 2 chords per three acres.

now if one talks about sustainable urban environment, that's more complicated because you have so many inputs but it can still be characterized in terms of population. An urban environment requires ?? megawatts of electricity in order to sustain a population of ?? hundred thousand.

using sustainable without quantification is removing the power of the word and replacing it with an empty space leaving the reader hungry for meaning.

Tackling this topic head-on would also be good for the environmental movement. It would remove the weasel words of green wash and force people to really specify what they are talking about so that the reader can judge whether or not it has value.

Posted by: country mouse on 13 Jul 08

I built mashup at Mashed 08 a few weeks ago that was designed to make the invisible visible: Carbon Goggles, visualising real world carbon emission data by overlaying it on virtual objects in Second Life. Inspired by a comment by Gavin Starks that climate change would be much easier to solve if you could see carbon dioxide. You might not be able to in real life, but you now can in Second Life:

Posted by: Jim Purbrick on 15 Jul 08



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