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Are you using a feedback loop? You should be
The feedback loop is the missing link of environmental and social change. 

Let me explain. 

You want to reduce the pollution load getting into the great barrier reef. The pollution comes from fertilizer and soil runnoff from nearby sugar plantations. How do you know where the pollution is coming from?  Which areas are the hot zones of pollution? How are you going to signal to farmers are authorities what the pollution levels are, and when they reach ciritcal levels.

What you need is a feedback loop. It's a theory from cybernetics and systems theory. 

The easiest way to understand a feedback loop is to borrow the example from the Fitbit. The fitbit electronically measures the wearer's motion and feeds it back to the smart phone app. We are signalled through the day about how many steps we've taken. The data feeds into a system that communicates immediately to the indivual so the can change their behavior. There is a feedback loop of information between the person and the action.

You need two main things to make a feedback loop

1. Data: You need to measure your data continually, at all times 
2. Communication: You need to figure out how to communicate this data to the right people.

In order to make our Great Barrier Reef feedback loop come true ​, we could need to install a system that would sense pollution levels in the ocean. We could create a series of floating bouys that collected data and transmitted it through the mobile phone network to a server. That would solve the data part. We'd know all the time, in real-time, what the pollution levels are.

If you want to be really powerfully able to solve your problem, you need to be gathering the data back n realtime. You need to know what is going on, so you can be like a razor of strategy.

Bill Gates is devoted to measurement. In his 2013 annual letter for the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation opened with this:

“You can achieve amazing progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal. This may seem pretty basic, but it is amazing to me how often it is not done and how hard it is to get right.”

Hmm . . . it is amazing how often it is not done.

A well done feedback loop is a a perfect infrastructure for loading on gamifcation features such as color coding, star ratings, leaderboards and heat maps. You can learn more about these fun and effective techniques in my video course "Save the World with Gamification"

Check out my article on hardware hacking if you're interested in getting started building a feedback loop from electronic components.

You can learn more about systems theory though these books:
1. Thinking in Systems: A Primer, by Donatella H. Meadows

2. Systems Thinking For Social Change: A Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results

Do you know what the numbers are for the cause you are tryng to solve? How often is your data updated? Where is the data stores? Do you get a real-time feed? Are you able to react in response to this data?

I hope you do, but it's quite likely that you don't. They are popular in the heath sector (like Fitbits), but are rare in environmental causes.

With the growing technology in sensors, satellites, droners etc your own feedback loop might be just around the corner. 

Do you want to build a feedack loop? Post me a comment in the Facebook group and I'll help you brainstorm how to do it. I want to see environmental feedback loops all over the world! That's what we are going to need to save the planet. It's happening, check out this quote from the creator of Google Earth environment, we have a vision to deeply understand the earth from the data up.

"Well, you really want to know what our dream is? . . . Where everyone can know, using analysis on real-time data coming out of Earth Engine. [] it's like a living breathing dashboard for the planet"
- Rebecca Moore, Google Earth

Case studies

Energy monitoring devices 10% up

A review of 38 studies involving energy conservation showed that feedback about energy used reduced energy consumption by 10 %. (1)

Paper recycled 77% up
At a university, a feedback sign reporting quantities recycled  increased the quantity of paper recycled by 77%. (2)

Cans recycled 65% up
Signs above recycle bins providing feedback about the number of cans recycled during the previous week increased recycling 65%. (3)

Speening in School Zones 14% decrease
A display showing the driver’s speed while driving through school zones reduced speeds by 10%, an effect that lasted several miles down the road. (4)

Water usage 75% down
A design agency hooked an iPad to a tap and displayed real-time feedback on water usage to tap users.  Behaviors changed dramatically and water usage dropped by 75%. (5)

Walking with a fitbit 15% increase
When a  Fitbit was introduced to a group of women in a study, their exercise increased by 38 minutes per week and they added an average of 789 steps to their existing 6,000 steps. (6)


1. Darby, S. (2001). Making it obvious: Designing feedback into energy consumption. http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-3-642-56531-1_73

2. Katzev, R. & Mishima, H.R. (1992). The use of posted feedback to promote recycling. Psychological Reports, 71(1), 259-264. http://prx.sagepub.com/content/71/1/259.full.pdf

3. Larson, M. E., Houlihan, D., & Goernert, P. N. (1995). Brief report: Effects of informational feedback on aluminum can recycling. Behavioral Interventions, 10: 111-117.

 4. Harnessing the Power of Feedback Loops, Thomas Goetz, Wired Magazine http://www.wired.com/2011/06/ff_feedbackloop/
5. Feedback loops are changing health behavior, Lori Mehen, https://opensource.com/health/11/8/feedback-loops-are-changing-health-behavior  Teague Design  http://www.teague.com

6. Randomized Trial of a Fitbit-Based Physical Activity Intervention for Women, http://www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797(15)00044-6/abstract

Find this kind of thing interesting? Join our community of world-changers and get access to my free resources that show you how to apply data, behavior change and game design techniques to your cause for the epic win.
Author: Katie Patrick
Katie Patrick is an environmental engineer and a designer. She helps sustainability professionals, entrepreneaurs and civic innovators to apply powerful techniques in data science, game design and behavioral psychology so they can make epic wins in environmental and social change. She lives in San Francisco with her little daughter Anastasia.
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