Promoting digital sobriety: ECOist Club invites us to save the planet by doing ourselves some good
Identifying the potential of an idea
In Hong Kong, where she lived for a number of years, Daria noticed how ubiquitous electronic devices were, and how obsessed people were with owning the latest connected devices. She began thinking about the place digital technology occupies in our daily lives, and learning about screen addiction.
“Over the last decade, screen time has increased dramatically. This is the result of technological innovation and the abundance of applications. But it’s also because of social networks, which have built their platforms to compel their users’ attention and exploit their data. It’s a technique called captology, and GAFAMs are using it to maintain hyperconnectivity.”
The Direction régionale de santé publique de Montréal describes hyperconnectivity as a phenomenon in which information and communication technologies are embedded in the daily lives not only of organisations and groups, but also of individuals. Hyperconnectivity is associated with chronic fatigue, concentration and sleep disorders, lowered self-esteem, and a deterioration of overall mental and physical health.
Photo Credit: Youssef Shoufan
As her research proceeded, Daria discovered a study mentioned in an article linking smartphones and carbon emissions. The study’s authors observed that digital tools, from connected devices to data centres, accounted for about 1.5% of global carbon emissions in 2018. This number could rise to 14% by 2040, the authors suggested – roughly equivalent to the transportation sector’s share today.
This statistic led Dara to a kind of epiphany: The solution to both environmental and mental health issues is digital sobriety! Through an eco-friendly approach to consuming digital resources, she theorised, we can reduce carbon emissions and also improve our well-being – away from the stimulation of screens. She envisioned ECOist Club as a kind of mediator between the digital industry, which promotes connected products, and the scientific community, which warns users about the effects of digital pollution and hyperconnectivity.
“I tell myself that it’s possible to bridge the divide. Digital technology is a wonderful tool. It’s not a question of banning it, but of using it consciously. I had the idea of developing an awareness tool that would allow people to understand the impact of their daily digital consumption in terms of other activities that emit greenhouse gases. For example: What is the equivalent, in miles driven, of one hour of watching a high-definition movie?“
This idea resonated with Daria, as well as with CIRODD, whose support allowed her to hire a PhD student to create a digital-impact calculator for the project. This invaluable funding led to a solution, in the form of… an ECOist Club mobile application!
But how was yet another mobile application going to help reduce our digital consumption? Was there a way to be connected and stay green at the same time? For Daria, a certain logic underlies these contradictions. We must be responsible about our digital consumption. To do this requires that we act at the site of the behaviour we want to change – i.e. on our devices, and using an application designed according to ecological parameters.
Daria’s participation in different incubators allowed her to develop a prototype of the application and to pursue the entrepreneurial side of the project. But she encountered obstacles in the design of its user experience, mainly due to users’ lack of understanding of the problem of digital pollution. It was while she was contemplating all of this that the MIS Civic Incubator put out its call for projects the Fall 2020 cohort. She promptly applied.
Developing the project within the Civic Incubator
After being selected for the Civic Incubator programme and joining the cohort, Daria continued thinking about ways to raise awareness about digital pollution – even as digital, at the height of the pandemic, was making it possible for us to work, entertain ourselves, and maintain our social relationships. What kind of tool would address these issues and conceptualise digital sobriety?
“Thanks to the Civic Incubator’s course and the wise advice of my coach, I was able to take a step back and rethink my strategy.”
‘I had already talked a lot about ECOist Club, but there came a point where I doubted its relevance. I wasn’t sure I wanted to create this application anymore. Thanks to the Civic Incubator’s course and the wise advice of my coach Hugo Steben, I was able to take a step back and rethink my strategy. The workshop on the theory of change was particularly decisive in my approach to the project. It was a very powerful tool that encouraged me to clarify the impact I was seeking and the steps I needed to put in place to achieve it. I enjoyed the dynamic exchange of ideas. What do I need to act on, and what do I need to change in the form of the project now, in order to achieve its objective in both the medium and long term?’
Throughout the course, Daria confronted and highlighted different aspects of the project. If the public is largely unaware of the environmental impact of digital technology, it was because the traffic of data is invisible. It was also because of a lack of transparency about the socio-ecological damage produced by the factories that manufacture our devices. Further, by putting the monetisation of users’ attention at the heart of their business model, the web giants emphasise online retention, which tends to obscure our perception of the extent of our usage of digital technology.
How, then, can an individual develop healthy and ecological relationships with their digital devices? To answer this question, the project’s value proposition was rephrased as follows: ECOist Club offers a non-judgmental, playful, and energising digital sobriety experience through awareness workshops and a digital application.
In essence, ECOist Club aims to inspire users to change their behaviours, unlike existing digital detox applications that only provide limited information and tend to make people feel guilty by singling out their shortcomings. Adopting new habits is a complex process. The application addresses it by challenging users to define their own goals while presenting them with a picture of their own digital consumption over the course of 30 days. In proposing this time constraint, the idea is to be ambitious, in striving for adherence and measurable change, but also reasonable, in giving people the confidence to undertake the project. Users will feel a sense of accomplishment and develop a foundation of new behaviours that will be reinforced throughout the challenge with regular advice and follow-up.
‘In a social innovation project, the mission is twofold. It’s about creating an engaging experience that users are willing to fully participate in, but also about achieving the intended impact. One cannot be done without the other. With ECOist Club’s application, the impact is integrated through the design of the solution. The emphasis was therefore placed on the design of the user experience.’
Hugo Steben, Director of Social Entrepreneurship
A pilot version of the application will be developed for individual use and will serve as a proof of concept. Ultimately, group functionality will be added, enabling families, circles of friends, and companies to take up the challenge of the ECOist Club and exponentially increase its impact.
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