Augmented reality can preserve our commons

Posted on: September 5, 2009


We move faster and faster in our cyber age, all knowing, ever-connected, always-on. Augmented reality beckons: the devices in our pockets become more powerful and our ability to connect digitally everywhere excites and exhilarates whilst pushing the odd few over the edge into internet rehab. Yet something else is happening scarily fast, something only the most obstinate dare deny. We are consuming the world’s resources at an unsustainable rate, the carbon we are producing as a result is doing extreme damage to our planet, and in the coming years we will all have to deal with the consequences.

Mark van Vugt writes hopefully in relation to climate change, that a destructive global free-for-all is not inevitable, that actually human beings may co-exist with one another and the earth. He uses the ‘tragedy of the commons’ as a frame for his position and his argument indicates we can rely neither on Corporate Social Responsibility or global law alone, rather behaving desirably (in terms of overall impact) depends on four elements existing and interacting with one another:

Putting all this together, I have identified four key conditions for the successful management of shared environmental resources: information, identity, institutions and incentives.

These conditions for harmonious administration of the environmental commons can be closely compared to Lawrence Lessig’s extensive work on what governs behaviour online:


Given these similarities,  to explore this further we can match van Vugt’s four conditions to Lessig’s Code 2.0 paradigm:

information == architecture (This is probably the loosest match in terms of what each author means. Lessig is referring to what we physically have to work with, to the code, in the digital sense).

identity == norms

institutions == law

incentives == market

Perhaps this is an unsurprising correlation; after all intellectual property and environmental assets are elements that may be manipulated, conserved, enhanced, improved or exploited by human beings. While Lessig interrogates the composition of our digital future parallels can be easily drawn with the battle for our ecosystem – the need to achieve a balance of power conducive to a harmonious outcome.

Sitting between the (real-world) environmental paradigm and our expanding digital reality – at the intersection of online and offline – lies augmented reality.  In a recent Telegraph article our uber-connected future loomed larger and nearer:

Reality, only better: Augmented apps overlay rich data from the web onto a view of the real world

Picture this: you’re sightseeing in London and stop at the Houses of Parliament. You want to know more about its history, where you can get a cup of tea and you need to find out how the Tube is running before you continue your tour. 

The Telegraph piece and its related ‘Top 5 augmented reality applications‘ focus on entertainment and lifestyle benefits: describing how we could use stored contacts, online data and mobile devices to enhance our social lives. But could this technology also assist us in developing more sustainable living patterns?

How about a future where we can make on the spot decisions about what we do, knowing what impact this will have on the environment, while keeping constant track of measures such as our personal carbon footprint? 

Mobile applications exist which are trying to help us be greener, but what augmented reality allows is for us to see before our eyes what difference each purchase we make will have. Furthermore, tying into the ‘identity’ or ‘norms’ side of things – we could keep track of ourselves and our social circle – or our local neighbourhood – in real time: using peer pressure in a positive way.  Visualisations of the world around could be overlaid with the environmentally relevant activities of others – so your neighbour can get social kudos for growing vegetables for the street, while taking that fourth short-haul city break this year actually becomes a bit embarassing. And as with every virtual community – groups aiming to work together to live greener could be as geographically dispersed as we want: within schools, villages, countries, continents: the planet’s the limit.

Virtual Reality picture by Raygun Studio on ieee Spectrum

3 Responses to "Augmented reality can preserve our commons"

[…] education and entertainment are obvious. But can AR help us improve the planet as well? [via Mariamz]: We move faster and faster in our cyber age, all knowing, ever-connected, always-on. Augmented […]

[…] education and entertainment are obvious. But can AR help us improve the planet as well? [via Mariamz]: We move faster and faster in our cyber age, all knowing, ever-connected, always-on. Augmented […]

[…] blogged a little while ago on the potential application for augmented reality to enable people to make environmentally aware choic…. So this news caught my eye: Academics at a US university are laying the foundations of a new form […]

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