Inventing the Killer Green App
The current state of the green interactive space is like that of the Internet before Google. New green apps, like websites in those latter days, are emerging all the time—there’s the Green Map mobile phone app for finding local green resources and businesses, not to mention apps like GoodGuide that help you evaluate the eco-cred of a particular product—but I don’t think we’ve found the “killer green app,” certainly not one that’s sparked the collective imagination. Yet there are countless undreamed-of possibilities for a worldchanging app or site, presenting interaction designers with a plum opportunity to leverage their expertise. Treehugger might be the most identifiable brand in the sustainability media space, but no one’s yet created the ultimate aspirational, lower-the-collective-footprint and change-the-world-through-mindful-living-and-activism site—at least not one that’s the go-to brand for the category.
In the same way that “Kickstarter” has provided an engaging forum to generate funding for new projects of all varieties, we need a similar venue for green campaigning. I don’t necessarily mean a way to find funding for green projects—though it could include that, too—but a compelling online site that an ordinary person could use to kickstart some green-dream initiatives and generate interest in them. The site would, of course, be integrated with social networking portals, to make it easier for individuals to notify people in their networks, and simpler for people to sign on to a particular cause.
Such a site could be a forum—far more effective than an online petition—where people could post their green dreams and invite corporations to up the sustainability ante. Users could kickstart a project to push P&G to sell a brand of Dove without any packaging (they seem ripe for such a change these days); ask Walgreen’s to build its next store out of straw bale; or petition a big-box store owner like Home Depot to put green roofs on all of its stores across the U.S. On a local level, I could build a campaign so that the organic food market near my office would make it easier for customers to use their own containers for the lunch buffet. The site could have an app associated with it, which would allow the existing community and new visitors to engage with, support, and track various campaigns and projects throughout their day.
Green Map’s mobile app. Image courtesy Green Map.
Ambitious ideas might generate a lot of buzz, while local projects could have the necessary impact close to home. A branded forum geared specifically to these endeavors would allow eco-conscious dreamers to build an audience and beckon companies, local businesses, municipalities, neighbors, and colleagues forward. Even the more farfetched ideas that people put forward could generate support and interest.
Kickstarter offers some valuable lessons: It’s engaging because it’s well-designed and branded in addition to being a curated forum—not every idea submitted to KS makes it onto the site, and the content on the main page is crafted to meet an editorial standard—it’s not simply an auto-generated list of most recent projects posted, as you see on many petition sites.
OpenIDEO, the new social-innovation crowdsourcing application from Ideo, is a wonderful new project that has the possibility to be a game-changing invention. It’s not the green kickstarter per se, because it’s not devoted to environmental issues and it’s not structured around a specific, finalized call to action. Rather, it’s focused on broad “challenges” posed in the form of questions—“How might we increase the availability of affordable learning tools & services for students in the developing world?” is the current one—that contributors are asked to help resolve by suggesting solutions and then refining them.
OpenIDEO, and the similar Myoo Create, beautifully tap into an aspirational sensibility, asking participants to contribute to making our altruistic dreams come true. OpenIDEO has enormous potential, but it’s also a bit wonky and, for my taste, a little hard to engage with. In addition, to generate meaningful participation and discussion from the online community—at least in the “Inspiration” phase—it requires a reasonably significant investment of time, which might deter some key players from participating in it.
It’s not really fair to assess OpenIDEO yet, since only one of the projects (making OpenIDEO’s logo) has gone through the whole development process, and since the site is only in beta version now. It will no doubt evolve, and probably the later phases of the project challenges will allow finalized projects to be showcased and voted on by a wider audience than merely the OpenIDEO community, who can also help generate buzz about it. What I do like about the site is its incentivizing psychology: It features a clever “cachet generating” system to reward those who participate the most and give meaningful feedback.
The Ushahidi Platform. Image courtesy Ushahidi.
Other tech tools are merely waiting for a savvy interaction designer to take advantage of them: Ushahidi, the company that makes an eponymous software that allows cellphone and computer users to create crowdsourced maps, just launched Crowdmap, a user-friendly version of the original technology. There must be numerous projects that would meaningfully use the software’s capabilities.
My latest “why aren’t more designers doing this?” obsession, inspired by interviews I did for an upcoming Print column, focuses on the way that designers could use so-called “waste” material to make upcycled products and packaging. Terracycle has based its whole business on this idea, and there’s plenty more opportunity out there. Is there a way to create an app or site with Ushahidi or Crowdmap, so that businesses in localized areas can document the sort of waste they’re producing—cardboard boxes, canvas bags, used tarpaulins, etc—while others can put a call out for materials they’d like to gather?
We should dream big. There is a wealth of possibilities, and we just need a combination of imagination, altruism, superlative design, and savvy branding to bring them alive. Designers, start your engines: The killer green app, and the planet, await.
Thumbnail image via Green Map.