When it comes to solving a big problem like climate change, where do you start? ASU researchers have created eEcosphere, a sustainability-focused social media application and service.
By Erin Barton
July 11, 2014
How do you solve a problem as big as climate change? On the one hand, you need information. What is climate change? What causes it? And perhaps the most pressing and overwhelming question, what can be done about it and what are people willing to do? Information, although necessary to address these questions, is not enough to solve the problem. You have to share the information with the world at large and get people to use it. That is where things get tricky.
For one thing, you need people to work together. This might seem simple compared to finding out how to solve climate change, but it’s not as straightforward as you might think. There have been many more failed attempts at mitigating climate change than successful ones, despite the presence of data and experts. Trust, it turns out, is the linchpin.
“Trust is perhaps more important than just having knowledge and information,” says George Basile, a professor in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University. “If you don't have trust in the system, then people don't work together. If you do have trust, you can find out—together—about the facts and actions needed.”
This idea is one of the inspirations that drive eEcosphere, a sustainability-focused social media application and service created by Basile and Andrew Krause. Krause recently received a Master’s degree from the School of Sustainability. While a student at ASU, he received an Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative award, which provided him with funding, office space and mentoring to help him launch his venture.
By combining a social media platform with sustainability science, Krause hopes his users will produce and disseminate more potent sustainability ideas.
“We’re trying to make the whole thing more personal,” he says.
eEcosphere is made up of two parts: a service and a phone-based app. “The service runs in the cloud, keeps track of people’s content that they submit, and allows our experts to submit content,” Krause says.
The app functions similar to many other social media sites. Users create a profile and then can start sharing ideas and pictures, posting comments, and interacting with the community. They can browse through ideas for living more sustainably that are posted by other users, post ideas of their own, or engage in sustainability challenges posted by experts.
“The whole purpose of the entire thing is to help people connect with new ideas to adopt into their lifestyle that help them live more sustainably,” says Krause.
With “green” brands, sustainability initiatives, and conflicting information abounding, making informed decisions about sustainability–ones that are actually relevant to your life–can be difficult. Trying to pick and choose between so many “green” actions can be so frustrating that many people simply give up.
eEcosphere breaks down massive amounts of data by dividing the task amongst its many users and sustainability experts. Each user can spend more time taking action and less time trying to figure out what actions to take.
“Our experts go out and find ways to address those [sustainability problems] through your everyday choices. And we turn that into a conversation that's interactive and with each step recommending an idea for future adoption,” Krause says.
These manageable actions can then be shared between friends, or users can suggest their own ideas in the idea exchange. The profiles are linked to the users’ Facebook accounts, capitalizing on large, pre-existing peer networks to spread.
“The heart of eEcosphere,” says Basile, is integrating “the collaborative nature, the sharing nature, the crowd-sourcing nature, and the best sustainability framework together to create novel pathways to act in a more sustainable way.”
eEcosphere is informed by a large body of research, largely conducted by ASU scientists.
“My involvement has really been around bringing the research activity that I have been involved with–and a number of faculty members at ASU, and around the globe, actually–in reframing sustainability as a decision challenge. The reframing takes sustainability out of the realm of being just a set of enormous problems that are out there in terms of environment and social issues and brings it home to us as individual people making better decisions,” says Basile, who is also a senior sustainability scientist at ASU’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. “We wanted to bring that—the lessons from that research and the empowerment of that research—to the marketplace, to individuals.”
Eric Hekler is an assistant professor in the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion. He studies how to get people to change their behavior. One of his findings–that behavior change comes about most readily when people take small steps–has been an important building block of eEcosphere. Hence, none of the suggestions or ideas in presented by the experts on eEcosphere require huge changes on the user’s part. Nor do they push the big picture into the user’s face.
“We go out and identify the key areas of importance based the latest research,” explains Krause. “And then our experts go out and find ways to address those through your everyday choices.”
The eEcosphere team aims to change the idea that being sustainable means going out of your way to do something. Instead, Basile says, it’s about showing people “how to do what they want to do, but just to do it more effectively and more sustainably.”
Marco Janssen is another one of the ASU faculty members that contributed to the research behind the app. An associate professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Janssen is working on an NSF-funded project that asks similar questions to those that eEcosphere is trying to address. Namely, how can people work together to solve big problems?
“Our research is focused on how people solve collective action problems,” says Janssen. These are problems in which an action is beneficial to the group, but not necessarily to the individual.
“An example related to sustainability is that you may want to have people recycling, and it's costly [for the individual] to recycle but it might benefit the group. So it would be good if everybody recycled but it's kind of difficult to contribute,” he says.
Janssen’s research team focuses on how to apply the lessons learned from successful collective action problem-solving in small-scale, traditional communities to large-scale problems that are present in urban settings.
Peer pressure is one powerful motivator. Janssen referenced an ongoing study that examines how people’s voting behavior affects the voting behavior of their friends. The results so far indicate that when people see on social media sites that their friends are voting, they are themselves more likely to vote.
Peer pressure can be especially powerful when combined with trust-based relationships. As Basile mentions, trust is an important factor in motivating cooperation. Janssen says that it is one of the factors that creates successful problem solving in traditional communities. People often are born and die in these communities, and the populations are usually fairly small. These factors make it easier for trust relationships to develop. However, fewer and fewer people are living in these types of communities. Cities—huge, anonymous, and filled with people coming and going from all walks of life—are becoming the global norm.
“In the context of urbanized settings, if you are interacting with strangers the whole time its more difficult to build up trust,” Janssen says.
“An app may provide information about what others are doing and may help you find you’re not the only one who's doing this,” he adds. “And so, and if you hear some new ideas of what might help you to reach your sustainability goals and you find the people who are like you, you may be more likely to trust that kind of information because you find it through people who are like you.”
eEcosphere creates a community of like-minded individuals where trust relationships can be formed more easily and information flows more smoothly between individuals. But it is not aiming to create just any community. Krause wants to focus what he calls “advocates.” These are highly motivated individuals who are willing to use their time and energy to lead the way for their less sustainability-minded peers.
“We suspect that how change happens is that it starts with a few highly motivated individuals using their time and energy to evangelize what they think are good ideas. And through that, and through the fact that we help them connect those ideas to their existing social network, we don't particularly need to motivate the lesser motivated friends of theirs,” he says.
In short, the app is aimed at budding (and established) sustainability leaders, particularly those in the up-and-coming, Internet-savvy Millennial generation. This fits in well with the 21st century leadership paradigm that Krause and Basile have been promoting. They have written several articles on modern leadership skills and promotion that have been published on websites such as GreenBiz.com and Sustainable Brands. Most of these focus on how sustainability principles can be woven into leadership positions and skills, and how Millennials can drive this change.
According to Basile, sustainability is a “leadership challenge, because once you start talking about sustainability not as an esoteric subject but as a human endeavor, leadership becomes very important.”
Basile tries to teach extensive leadership skills in his classes at ASU’s School of Sustainability. They are a particular focus in the Master’s program he helped develop, the Executive Master’s for Sustainability Leadership.
The school’s hands-on style of teaching facilitates this, according to Basile. Built into the school’s curriculum is the idea that sustainability is not simply a theoretical pursuit, but an experiential one that requires going out and engaging, and often leading, businesses and communities in sustainability issues.
“The laboratory for sustainability knowledge is the real world. That's where we go out and do our experiments. That's where we go out and find what works. It's one of the greatest challenges of the field of sustainability because the real world is a complex place,” says Basile.
While both academics and the Edson program provided Krause an environment to foster leadership acumen, it was working with other students, trying to help them address their own goals and communicate their ideas, which provided the real motivation and leadership behind eEcosphere.
“I think you have to learn how to be a leader through trial and error, a little bit, and just concerted effort,” he says. “More than anything I learned those leadership skills through peers, and trying to motivate people to either join me or to achieve their own ambitions.”
The eEcosphere app is available for free in the Apple App store.