Emily Pacey asks how new online networks can speed the race for behaviour change, after the "greenest Games of modern times" has run its final lap.
"The green Olympics are pointless" and "Green Olympics really got me thinking on how much I could change the world", tweeted @KrisMueller4 and @MasonSMOB respectively on 24 April. Trusting that they are in earnest, these statements represent the opposing reactions to London 2012's attempts to stage "the greenest Games of modern times".
Olympic organisers are also dubbing this the "One Planet Olympics", and for good reason: four billion people are predicted to watch the 2012 Games on a wider array of platforms and channels than ever before, from TV to laptops, netbooks, tablets and smartphones. And despite what the official media partners might want, at least a few will, inevitably, be watching amateur footage on sharing sites like YouTube.
"Clearly, this Olympic Games is the first of the social media age", says London 2012 Head of Sustainability David Stubbs. "I cannot quite imagine the ways in which people are going to use social media to communicate around the Games, but it will create a dimension that has not been seen before at an Olympics, as people create their own stories. What we must do is provide a canvas on which they will be inspired."
As communications services partner to the Games, BT is supplying the raw material for that canvas. It recently finished installing a network to support 80,000 connections across 94 Olympic venues. BT is working with the Olympic Delivery Authority and the London Legacy Development Corporation to ensure that most of the communications infrastructure lives on after the Games. It is also involved in the official London 2012 education programme, Get Set, promoting sustainable lifestyles to school children aged 3-19 through a wide variety of activities – from cooking to gardening to team-building competitions. Niall Dunne, Chief Sustainability Officer at BT, has high hopes that it will leave a lasting legacy, "inspiring and supporting people to change the way they build, live, learn, work and travel, to create a more sustainable society."
Others, too, are looking to use the net to shift behaviour. With the support of resource specialists WRAP, Coca-Cola has set up zerowasteevents.org, an "online waste management community". That may not sound very exciting, but its simple five-step approach to 'designing out' waste helps make what often seems an offputtingly complex subject relatively simple to understand.
Athletes are an incredibly powerful network encouraging global citizenship
Coca-Cola's signature talent, however, is talking to youngsters. It plans to put this to work during the Games through the London 2012 "athlete engagement centre", encouraging athletes to use social media to talk to their peers about sustainability. "These athletes are coated in stardust", says Coca-Cola's Head of Sustainable Games, Katherine Symonds. "We see them as an incredibly powerful network encouraging global citizenship." It's a view echoed by Matt Sowrey of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), which provided initial funding. "They are hugely influential; you will never forget the time you met a gold medal-winning athlete. Using that inspirational power is potentially a huge win for us."
But that message has to be pitched right. Renewable energy entrepreneur Dale Vince, who teamed up with footballer Gary Neville to launch Sustainability in Sport, warns that athletes and fans alike have been "virtually untouched by the eco-message". So any form of preaching is out of the question. "The worst thing you can do is go in and try to have a worthy conversation", says Symonds. Sowrey agrees. "This is a project in partnership with London 2012 that DEFRA initially funded, but now Coke is on board making it fun!" As an example of a non-boring activity, Symonds describes how athletes will be encouraged to use their camera phones to publish pictures of themselves doing a sustainable treasure hunt around the Olympic village, and being rewarded for that.
EDF Energy has already recruited the gold medal-winning cyclist Ed Clancy to promote its Team Green Britain Heroes initiative. Eleven "Heroes" are competing for a £10,000 grant to fund their sustainable initiatives. These include David Green of EcoIsland's awe-inspiring plan to take the Isle of Wight off-grid, and run it entirely on renewable energy. Savvy use of social media is an essential part of the Heroes project. "The more channels you use, the more you can spread the message", says Green. "It is a very small team at EDF working on this but they are working flat out".
Social media is a double-edged sword, of course, and not everyone wielding it is a fan of the way London 2012 is being funded. Three activist groups – the London Mining Network, Bhopal Medical Appeal and the UK Tar Sands Network – have set up Greenwash Gold 2012, using Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to target sponsors BP, Dow and Rio Tinto.
But while dissent is fuelling some Olympic-inspired actions, other NGOs are opting to run with London 2012, warts and all. Global Action Plan's Chief Executive Officer Trewin Restorick believes that it's too good an opportunity to miss. "There is always debate about the 'ethicalness' of the companies involved," he says, "but the potential impact of harnessing the Games outweighs that concern. It's a great opportunity to engage our audience and we are making every effort to capitalise on it." GAP has launched a raft of projects including one that encourages teenagers to get involved with community environmental regeneration in the Olympic 'host' boroughs. The key role for social media here, says Restorick, is "getting people face-to-face. We find that unless people actually meet up, projects tend to fade away."
Stubbs admits it's a "great unknown" whether the Olympics will provide a springboard for greater public engagement in sustainability after the Games. But between the dissenters, LOCOG, the London 2012 partners and the NGOs, this Games is generating a multitude of conversations and projects, some of which will live beyond the event. Ultimately, it matters little whether people are up in arms about greenwashing or delighted that Coca-Cola is sponsoring recycling bins: what matters is that they are talking to each other about sustainability.
Emily Pacey is a freelance writer specialising in futures.
Photos: Ben Birchall / The Coca-Cola Company