Social change work is hard and frustrating and wonderful and terrible; it is also, at times, funny, quirky and just plain fascinating. With this blog we hope to capture all that goes into what we do at Capital Good Fund, and we invite you to join the conversation!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

A Beautiful Thermostat: How Beauty Can Better the World

Source: Cooper Hewitt

Last week, we looked at the link between Joy and Justice, and this week we consider beauty, beautiful design and their connection to a beautiful world.

Here's a simple fact that may be surprising to many: beautiful design is essential to a beautiful world.  Smartphones, tablets, the Internet...all are useful for gaming, keeping us in touch with others, and so on, but they can also be essential tools for bettering the world.  One of the points I most often make is that when Exxon Mobile explores for oil, they use the most advanced imaging technologies operated by the most brilliant geologist in the world, yet when a social entrepreneur seeks to solve a social or environmental problem, she is forced to make due with underpaid and overworked employees and subpar technology.

How, when those of us fighting for social justice are already facing an uphill battle, are we to achieve or goals when we are further handicapped by technological and personnel limitations? Fortunately, good design and the continued advancement of technology can make it easier for us to overcome these challenges. For instance, a recent exhibit, called Design for the Other 90%,  focused on how good design can transform the world for the better--projects included low-cost irrigation pumps, easy-to-use water filtration systems and solar powered street lamps for rural areas.

So when I heard abou the Nest Thermostat--a programmable thermostat designed by people that were formerly involved in the design of the iPod--I was intrigued.  Residential energy consumption totals ~20% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. (EPA).  This means that any low-cost approaches to reducing energy usage in the residential sector can a) greatly reduce greenhouse gas pollution, b) save homeowners money and c) create jobs (for more on this, check out our DoubleGreen loan product).  The lowest-hanging fruit for energy savings consists of energy-efficient light bulbs, such as Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs or LED lights, however the next easiest step is the switch to a programmable thermostat.

The idea behind a programmable thermostat is that you can program your heating system to heat the house when you are home, and allow the house to get colder when you are not.  The problem, however, is that most programmable thermostats are unintuitive and, as a result, often improperly set--instead of saving energy, they can actually increase energy bills!  Enter the Nest, a web-enabled thermostat that uses machine learning techniques to 'learn' your habits--when you are home, what temperature you like when you are home, and so on--to save you ~20% on energy.  Because the average family spends about $2,000/year on heating, this can equate to serious savings.

Perhaps just as importantly, the Nest is fun, intuitive and beautiful.  Yes, beautiful.  Why shouldn't the tools we use for doing good be fun, easy and attractive?  Why shouldn't giving to charity, going green and getting politically involved we as joyful as watching a football game, playing with an iPhone or driving a nice car?  Why shouldn't we use advanced data mining and machine learning techniques for social good?  As more designers and entrepreneurs focus their effort on social good, doing good will become easier, more fun and more common!

(note: we were not paid by Nest to provide this review...we are just enthralled with the product!)

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