Apps revolutionise sustainable living

Sensemaking / Apps revolutionise sustainable living

07 Jul 2011

Smart software makes ‘doing the right thing’ simple and fun

The rise of mobile applications, or ‘apps’, means technology could transform the basic things we do day to day: heating our homes, going to work, walking the dog, getting the groceries...

Environmentalists and social entrepreneurs have been quick to figure out the potential for smart software on the move.

You may not have found sharing public transport with some ‘early adopters’ – all headphones and greasy fingers swiping silently at their touchscreens – inspiring. But what if your fellow commuters were busy helping to preserve the fragile ecosystems we depend upon, monitoring their energy consumption and picking up useful skills?

Far from being just a distraction, apps are already helping people live more responsibly. So what’s out there, and what difference will they make to prospects for sustainability?


Confused consumers hover by the fruit and veg stalls, counting the food miles and trying to remember what’s regional and ripe – but there’s help at hand. The GPS-enabled app ‘Seasons’ will suggest regional produce ripe for the picking, and point out the nearest farmers’ markets. For the foragers among us, ‘Boskoi’, from Urban Edibles, maps out local fruit and herbs, complete with guidance on how to help yourself and what not to take. Users share their secrets, from fennel and blackberries in Toronto, to plums and elderberries near a Watford rugby club. For the less adventurous, Barcoo lets you scan barcodes in the supermarket for fresh insights into the supply chain: who picked and pressed the olives for that pesto?

Seasons: Apple only; serves United Kingdom, Central and Western Europe, US, Canada and Australia; £1.19
Boskoi: Android; data concentrated in Central and Western Europe and US; free
Barcoo: Apple, Android, and a range of smartphones including Nokia, Samsung and Blackberry; UK and mainland Europe; free


FreewheelerIt’s the hitchhiker’s dream. ‘Avego’ is a real-time ridesharing app, matching drivers and riders as their paths cross. The app’s not only free, but lucrative for the driver, with payment transferred automatically from the rider’s account as they leave the car. For low emissions, Apple’s ‘greenMeter’ weighs up your rate of acceleration and cruising speed against factors such as your fuel of choice, the vehicle’s aerodynamic drag and the weather, to give you real-time feedback on your performance. A clearer nudge comes from Toyota’s ‘A Glass of Water’, which sploshes about on your dashboard threatening to spill on your lap if you brake too hard [see 'Winning the persuasion game']. Of course, the greenest option is to leave the car behind. ‘Walk It!’ turns your smartphone into a pedometer, estimating your pace and keeping a record of how far you’ve gone.

Avego: Apple only; UK, US; free
greenMeter: Apple only; UK, US; £3.71/$5.99
A Glass of Water: Apple only; UK, Sweden; free
Walk It!: Android and Apple (in the US only); $0.99


With ‘TreeID’ the most determined towny could call a dendrologist’s bluff. Simple questions about the bark, leaves, fruit and location help you match a tree with its name. But soon, an augmented reality app from the US National Science Foundation (NSF) will identify plants in an instant based on their leaf structure. All you’ll need to do is point your phone and click. For the NSF, it’s a foolproof way to crowdsource valuable data on biodiversity. Tree planters, meanwhile, can use Apple’s ‘Tree Spacing Calculator’ to decide how best to lay out their orchard, based on irrigation, soil quality, tree number and height. And if you’d like to plant a tree but lack the get-up-and-go, buying ‘A Real Tree’ contributes to reforestation and forestry education projects around the world, in partnership with Sustainable Harvest International, Trees For The Future and the UNEP Billion Tree Campaign.

TreeID: Apple only; UK (an Android imitation is available in the US); £2.39
Tree Spacing Calculator: Apple and online; US; free
A Real Tree: Apple only; US; $0.99


No more clumsy dials on your boiler. Hook your home up to the ‘PassivEnergy’ App to monitor and control its temperature wherever you are. Tell it when you’re just a few minutes away and the heating will kick in to welcome you back. ‘Control4’ lets you do the same for your water, lighting, music, locks and alarms. You can programme your taps to source water according to local availability, or your thermostat to respond to the temperature outside.

PassivEnergy: Apple only; free for PassivEnergy customers
Control4: Apple only; free


Alex Johnson and Anna Simpson

Green Futures is launching its own app. Get a daily hit of the brightest and best innovations with GF Inspire.
Watch this space.

Image credits: farbenrausch/istock; MadCircles/istock; Ulrich Mueller/shutterstock

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