Could an app nudge you towards a sustainable lifestyle?

Artikkelikuva: Could an app nudge you towards a sustainable lifestyle?

Forum Virium Helsinki was searching for ways to build sustainable cities as part of the EU-wide mySMARTLife project. Kuudes teamed up with Lucky Few to tackle this challenge and achieve tangible solutions. How could a digital service help improve people’s carbon footprints? Susanna Ollila from Kuudes shares some ideas on this blog.
We approached the topic by taking an open-ended approach: Before creating a concept for a digital service, we questioned whether there was actually a need for one. A plethora of digital services that calculate your carbon footprint or inform you about climate friendly decisions already exists – do we really need another one?

At Kuudes, we’ve been diving into the motives and consumption values of Finnish people for over a decade through our own extensive research, the Informed Consumer. Thanks to this knowledge, the end-user opinions of and approaches to informed consumption were quite evident to us. Therefore, we started building on top of this data to form an expert and organisational perspective. We started by exploring how we might help everyone make carbon-neutral choices as part of their everyday lives, and what kind of role the use of data should have in all of this. 

We conducted expert interviews to understand the current state of services that aim to reduce one’s carbon footprint. In addition, we held two workshops with public and private sector stakeholders to understand the barriers to accessing and using data, to map the different data sources available, and to identify current challenges that would highlight new opportunities. After concluding that there is a genuine need for such a service, we built an MVP concept and tested it further with possible end-users.

The demand for a sustainable lifestyle is growing

It’s no longer a small minority that changes their habits because of climate change. In fact, 69% of Finns believe that consumption-related choices make a difference when combating climate change (Sitra). 

Our modern-day society is heavily built around consumption. Its structures and our everyday lives are thoroughly infused with buying – purchasing is a significant tool of self-expression. We value experiences, but they are also often connected with material consumption. Thus, for a citizen, the most pressing paradox is that our lives are more consumption-oriented than ever, yet the demand for a sustainable lifestyle is growing. Structural nudges towards more sustainable consumption are required and necessary parts of the equation, but in order to shift people’s habits, we need to create more sustainable ways of consuming-related self-expression.

What prevents people from changing their consumption habits?

For some, sustainability simply isn’t a strong enough motive to change one’s behaviour and habits, so other functional or emotional benefits are also needed. Others may support a sustainable mindset, but too many obstacles block their way to putting new consumption habits into practice. Some of these obstacles are listed below.

We have many unconscious habits that may be building blocks for our personalities, and learning our way out of these tends to be difficult. For many of us, the social pressure to continue our current behaviour is strong, since we are used to expressing ourselves through our current ways of living. In our culture, taking a long-haul flight in the middle of winter to a warm destination is more of a norm than an exception for many.

Difficulties with data

Information on the sustainability of different products and services is often both hard to measure and understand. And in most cases the information is not available to the consumer. There is a lot of fluctuating information on what is perceived as sustainable, much of which also depends on the cultural context. People often end up considering whether their choices really make a difference, and they might even have a sense of fighting against the impossible. One of the main barriers to transparency and increased information related to consumption is the lack of relevant and accurate data. Data on the carbon footprint of food, for example, is often difficult to compare as it comprises multiple factors. What might seem a green and healthy choice, such as avocado, might not actually be a good one from an environmental perspective.

Consumption-related actions that are good for climate change are often interpreted as refraining from doing something. The benefits and consequences of such deeds may appear invisible and intangible in the short term. Buying a new jacket that you wear every day and that you find delightful might bring more joy in the short term (at least) than keeping your old jacket for a bit longer.

How to design services that promote sustainable consumption

We have seen many organisations and local authorities taking steps forward in tackling climate change. There are new and insightful services related to the topic that raise awareness of consumption patterns, compensate for emissions, provide tips for a more sustainable lifestyle or provide more ecological consumption alternatives. But people still lack a service that helps transform information into tangible, daily activities. Such a service should cover the following cornerstones:

  1. The abstract should be made tangible: sustainable choices are not always visible in everyday life, and it’s hard to see what kind of influence they have on the big picture. We should also visualise the positive impact unmade consumption choices have in a more effective way
  2. Good choices need to be the easiest ones: many consumption decisions are guided by routines and habits that are not actively reflected upon. A sustainable lifestyle has to be presented bit by bit and consumers have to be able to define their own ways of living sustainably. This varies according to their circumstances and other personal preferences.
  3. Understand what really motivates the user: people are motivated by different things – carbon neutrality is merely one of them. How can new consumption routines be linked to other motivators, such as staying healthy or cutting expenses?
  4. From guilt to empowerment: since an increase in information around climate change tends to create more anxiety than relief for consumers, we should create services that are empowering and uplifting and that nurture new behaviour. This doesn’t diminish the fact that these services should also be informative and credible.

Carbon Ego – taking care of your footprint

As we saw a clear need for a service that would bridge the gap between user needs and Forum Virium’s project-level goals, we created a digital service concept called Carbon Ego. Carbon Ego motivates and empowers people to embrace a climate-friendly lifestyle.

Nudging towards good decision-making

By visualising data, the app concept gives an understandable overview of how your moving, living, eating and consumption habits produce carbon emissions. Carbon Ego helps to change daily routines in a positive, solution-oriented manner by giving tangible tips and inviting the user to challenge their peers. This is nudging towards good decision-making that is also in the users’ interests. Carbon Ego is about your own footprint that you can improve by taking good care of it! It is playful and always communicates in a positive manner, as even a small change in behaviour is better than none. The user themselves can decide up to what level they want to get to in relation to their CO2 footprint.

To achieve this vision, real-time data and the automation of data is needed in all four areas of consumption (food, mobility, living and other consumption), which unfortunately is not yet the case. However, to make this a reality, the desirability and functionality of the application first needs to be proof-tested. Organisations should be convinced to join such a service by providing inspiration on what could be achieved by opening up relevant data sources for the users themselves. Furthermore, in the future such a concept should ideally be integrated into an existing app or digital service that, for example, a local authority provides, and could be an important way to improve citizen participation in fulfilling authorities’ climate goals.

These are the areas under consideration that the MVP version aims to proof-test and specify. During the autumn of 2019, the app will be piloted with some of the functionalities with a small test group. You can read more about the Carbon Ego concept in this case study.


mySMARTLife is a project funded under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. Under the coordination of CARTIF Technology Centre, 27 partners from 6 countries are collaborating to make sustainable cities with smart people and a smart economy a reality. Activities will take place in the three Lighthouse Cities Nantes, Hamburg and Helsinki. The three Follower Cities Bydgoszcz, Rijeka and Palencia will learn from these experiences.

Photo: Riku Pihlanto, City of Helsinki

Further information


Timo Ruohomäki

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