It’s hard to get people to do environmental behaviors — but it can be done. I interviewed leading systems ecology and gamification expert, Professor John Petersen, on the twelve secrets behind how to design digital displays for buildings that really influence people — and how they can make big change happen.

Public “ambient” displays of environmental data.

How do we know our environmental impact when the numbers describing it are invisible? Think about how many liters of water flowed from your shower this morning, the carbon emissions released by your neighborhood last week, or the air pollution lingering outside your street right now. Do you know those numbers? No. There is no mechanism that shows you this data — and this invisibleness — let’s face it — is not motivating us to change.

A few years ago I started to wonder, “What if our environmental impact was displayed to us on an iPad or a “Fitbit for…

Los Angeles surface temperature, Glynn Hulley, ECOSTRESS, NAPA JPL, August 14th 2020

Heatwaves are getting more extreme every year, having dramatic consequences for human health, the environment, and the economy. Here’s what you can do to avoid getting cooked next summer.

Recent heatwaves have been the most extreme they’ve ever been. Searing temperatures in California reached up to 120F and took such a toll on the grid that there wasn’t enough electricity because all the power had been used up by millions of air conditioners. Stage 3 critical alerts for potential power grid failure were issued by the California ISO for the first time in eleven years and electricity utilities issued rolling blackouts across the state across multiple days.

When the grid needs that much electricity, it takes all 74 of California’s gas power stations to be ramped up to max…

Image by Uran

You’d be amazed at how many change-makers assume this one thing — that educating people about a cause, leads to people taking action on a cause. It doesn’t work. Here’s why.

You’ve probably heard this one before.

“If people just knew about it, then things would change.”

“If people only cared more, things would change.”

Then comes the next bit — “Let’s create a project-startup-campaign-book-documentary-app-NGO-conference-festival to EDUCATE people on this very important issue and get them to CARE more!”

I see it happen over, and over, and over again.

If you are trying to change the world, then it’s likely that you have fallen prey to one of the most prevalent, yet little-known mistakes that thousands of nonprofits, governments, and activists have made before you.

I call it “The Biggest Mistake”…

Much of the environmental and social change movement is working without understanding the most important thing of all: the psychology of influence. How you add color to your data can help.

Photo by Joyce McCown on Unsplash

There’s a problem with my movement. Most of us in the profession of trying to change the world have little skills or training in the actual craft of influencing human beings to do stuff — especially stuff that is new to them such as composting, putting in LED lights, or cycling to work.

Us Earth-professionals know about scientific things like the chemistry of air pollution, the engineering of solar power, or the data of climate change, but few people know about other fields, like behavioral psychology, branding, UI design, story-telling, gamification, copywriting, and the craft of just getting someone's attention…

Photo by Austin Chan on Unsplash

At the core of the human spirit is a need for meaning and purpose. These less-common practices will help guide you to the center of yours.

It's easy to get caught up in the pursuit of goals or of successes: a better body, a financial goal, a holiday, a new car, an award to win, or the new modern craving — more Instagram followers. (You know you want them.)

There’s a deeper craving at the human soul that is stronger our drive for success. It’s the craving for meaning. No matter what achievements we win or material wealth we have, none of it necessarily fills in the need we have for meaning and purpose. In this way, meaning and purpose is our important need of all.

When we talk about the future of planet Earth, we hear stories of devastation and doom. While it’s necessary to understand the science of environmental damage, we’ve been painfully missing a vision for the world we *do* want.

My recent TEDx talk “Why Optimism and Creativity (Not Doom) Will Save the Planet” based on my book “How to Save the World.”

When we talk about the future, there is a lot of talk about doom. Not the 1993 video game—but doom for planet Earth.

Photo by Kaboompics .com from Pexels

Everybody wants to change the world, yet why is it so hard for people to keep up the behaviors that make change happen? Just ask people to write down a promise — no fancy app needed.

Most people working on social change startups and projects make a terrible mistake. They simply “hope” their project will influence people enough to change the world.

When it comes to environmental issues, getting people to do the behaviors we need to save the planet is in a crisis. Studies show that upwards of 90 percent of people say they care about the planet — and more importantly, claim to do pro-environmental actions. …

I figured out a simple process to have an abundance of great ideas. Not just any ideas though — meaningful ideas that can powerfully and measurably change the world in a positive direction.

Everyone is hunting for their next “big idea.” Or maybe clinging to one, worried someone else will “steal their idea.”

But ideas are abundant. Ideas are free. As Jesse Schell, author of The Art of Game Design says,

“Ideas are not like fine china, ideas are like paper cups — they are cheap to manufacture, and when one has holes in it, go get another one.”

Seven years ago I had a crisis. I hated the startup that I had spent the last five grueling years building. I couldn’t do it anymore. I had to dig deeper within myself to…

Numbers won’t affect people all on their own. They have to be designed in a way that taps into the motivational core of the human mind and influences people to act.

From individual activists to major government programs, it’s all too common for people who work on work on trying to change the world to make mistakes in the art of influencing people — especially when it comes to using numbers. Here are four principles from my book, How to Save the World you should be applying to the data on the issue you are trying to change.

1. Action

How much electricity does your work building use? How does it compare with other buildings on your street? These Spectrum Energy Display Screens are designed to tastefully harness the power of public disclosure and social comparison to drive change.

Forty percent of the energy consumed in American buildings is wasted. That’s as much carbon pollution as the nation’s cars — and $68 billion dollars (more or less) literally burned up in power stations for nothing.

Engineers and architects have come a long way in designing low-energy buildings — but they are mostly new buildings — and that’s a problem. Green building professionals don’t commonly work on the other 98 percent of buildings: existing buildings that are chugging down carbon-heavy kilowatts.

For those of us trying to make serious progress on sustainability and climate change, how do we motivate people…

Katie Patrick

Environmental Engineer | “Fitbit for the Planet” Designer | Author of How to Save the World | Join the movement at and

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